Josef Rakoncaj: Life above the clouds
Written by: René Jakl
Photo: René Jakl
Josef Rakoncaj was the first man in
the world to climb the 8,000-meter Himalayan K2 peak, twice. To
create a successful business, he had to adapt the "free"
approach he used on his expeditions.
How much is the Himalayan expedition about the climbing itself
and to what degree are the organizational abilities important?
The good mountain climber is not good only because he can stand
beneath a rock and climb it. Putting together the money, the logistics,
building the base camps - these are the important things only a
few people can do. One has to be able to organize an expedition,
execute the first demanding climb and get others to face new challenges.
What are these new challenges for you?
Certainly not the overcrowded Himalayans anymore. I now go to places
like Baffin Island where we once met only three people in an entire
month. Areas of the Canadian Northwest Territories and the Yukon
discovered solely through flight research also offers a lot of possibilities
for climbing. Novaya Zemlya in Russia attracts me too,but unfortunately
a large part of it is contaminated by radioactive waste.
When you put a team together, who do you pick?
Friends who are not tied to any sponsors, and on whom I can rely.
What kind of leader are you? More democratic or more dictatorial?
I give people a lot of room. I have never wanted to be a boss. These
people are well experienced and don't need any advice. When somebody
doesn't do what he's supposed to do, he'll be ashamed of himself
and do twice as much the next day.
Does this also apply to your business?
Here I have big problems with my attitude. The people who work are
not friends but employees. And sometimes I feel like I'm running
a kindergarten. You put your money, the assets of your family, into
the business, but the employees don't risk a thing. They just want
social security. After eight hours, they are already standing at
the clock to punch out. When you hire the first employee, you become
his slave as well as the slave of the state.
||first large alpine climb
on the north face of the Matterhorn, began domestic production
of climbing equipment
man to succeed at climbing the vertical, one kilometer-high
Trolls Wall in Norway during winter
||climbed K2 (8,611 m)
on the north face
K2 for the second time, on the east face (became the first
person to climb the mountain twice in)
||climbed Cho Oyu (8,200
Mt. McKinley through Messner's Lobby
|| climbed Mt. Asgard,
How much is psychological resistance important in the mountains?
The psychological aspect is decisive. There are many high-performance
climbers but only a few of them are able to prepare themselves psychologically
for a solo ascent up a 1,700-meter cliff where you sleep in a hanging
bed and stay there for maybe 45 days. I agree with Messner, that
the psychological resistance of alpinists culminated in the nineties
and then sharply declined.
What role does fear play?
It can be limiting. But 90% of the people who were not afraid enough
are no longer alive. It is difficult to turn back when you are close
to the peak, but it can save your life. I think that everybody has
his own sack of luck and that I've already taken a lot out of mine.
Therefore, I don't take risks anymore.
In extreme situations, a person's character comes out. What experience
do you have with this in mountain climbing?
There are only a few activities in which such situations occur so
quickly. For example, there's not enough food, the weather is bad
and you notice that somebody wants to come out of situation better
than you. He eats more food than you do, or pretends that he forgot
his camera because it means one half kilo less to carry. Then he
wants you to take pictures of him with your camera.
You said that you go on expeditions with friends who gather
the money for it without the help of sponsors. Doesn't that contradict
what you said before - that the good mountain climber doesn't work
because he doesn't have the time for it?
That was a long time ago, when it was possible under the
Bolshevik regime. Today people who are active in sport are active
in different ways, too. Still, even back then I would make the money
for an expedition myself. I would sew and sell sleeping bags and
down jackets. So, for example, one expedition would cost me ten
sleeping bags and fifteen jackets.
Is it possible to transfer relationships made in the mountains
Partially. You know what the person is like and you can trust him.
However, help in extreme situations, when it is a matter of life
and death, is different than in business, when it is a matter of
money. The first case, is a matter of course and automatic. In the
second case, nobody will help you.
How do you use your experience as a mountain climber in business?
We produce equipment for extreme conditions, so I benefit from it
greatly. For example, you know twenty years in advance how the ideal
material should look for certain uses and that such a material,
with the exact features, will be produced sooner or later.
What attracts you to flying, to which you devote your time now?
Do you miss the bird's eye view of the world?
It is different. Airplanes were first, and then the climbing. I
started with radio-controlled airplanes. Then I built my own large
plane. It is relaxing for me, both the construction of planes and
What are your plans for the future?
I want to build a chalet on Glacier Lake in the McKenzie Mountains.
The permit proceedings are on course and we have already brought
a toilet bowl there. This is certainly the most important part of
the house. It provides me with a beautiful 360-degree view of the
surrounding peaks, so that I can plan new ascents.