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.
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 to business?
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 the flying.
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.