Scott Kress and Sergeant Chris Drewes climbed to the summit of Island Peak in the Himalayas this past October with the True Patriot Love Foundation's March to the Top expedition. Although coming from different backgrounds and different points in their lives, these two men shared a Lakehead connection, a sense of adventure, and the desire to help wounded Canadian soldiers.
But it wasn't Kress's first time in the Himalayas. In 2008 he stood on top of Mount Everest, taking in vistas of snow-capped mountains for hundreds of miles in every direction. "It was stunning," he says, "but I didn't have much time for deep thoughts. I was beyond tired and I still had to make it back down."
Kress and his fellow expedition members hiked 10 days to get to base camp before beginning the ascent to the summit of the 8,848 m (29,000 ft.) mountain with ropes, harnesses, and ice axes. "You have to perform when you are sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and can't breathe," he explains. The fact that he embarked on the trek to Everest in the wake of his father's death from cancer only heightened Kress's awareness of the precariousness of life.
His path to scaling the world's tallest mountain was full of unexpected twists and turns including excursions scrambling up the 20-foot bluffs of Thunder Bay's Centennial Park as a Lakehead Outdoor Recreation student. Ultimately, Kress's mountaineering experiences made him realize that teamwork is essential to success. This insight has allowed him to establish two thriving companies as well as a career as a leadership and team performance coach and an international keynote speaker.
Becoming an entrepreneur and an educator was the farthest thing from Kress's mind growing up in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. Most of his time was spent outdoors biking, exploring, skiing, and windsurfing. "I wasn't a great student and I dropped out of Seneca College and George Brown College." But when he was managing a ski shop in Collingwood, he ran into a friend who was taking Outdoor Recreation at Lakehead and, suddenly, his future shifted.
"I thought it sounded amazing and enrolled in a double honours degree in Outdoor Recreation and Natural Science in 1989." It was the right program and the right style of learning for Kress. "All my grades shot up and I started leading canoe trips and teaching rock climbing to students. Everything else that I've done in my life has launched from that point."
After graduation he was hired by Outward Bound as an instructor and then became involved in their corporate development programs. "I started to think about my expeditions differently. You have to work as a team to get to the top or people could get injured or die." This prompted him to form Summit Training and Frontier Team Building.
"Both companies work towards helping individuals, teams, and leaders achieve high performance but come at it from different angles," Kress explains. "Frontier focuses on play with a purpose that fosters teams bonding while Summit focuses on intensive leadership and team development training." His methods have won fans among Fortune 500 companies and this past fall he distilled his learning experiences about team building and mountaineering in his book, Learning in Thin Air.
He's also refined his knowledge of high performance teams through a Master of Arts in Leadership and Training from Royal Roads University. And, ironically, for a kid who wasn't interested in school, Kress has now been recognized as a teacher. He has won several awards from the University of Windsor and the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management for Executive MBA classes he has taught. Looking from this vantage, Kress believes that the biggest mistake companies make is, "throwing a bunch of people together and assuming that because they are knowledgeable and have the desire, they will be high performance."
He experienced the consequences of this haphazard approach when climbing Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, the sixth highest mountain in the world. "I hooked up with a group of people that I didn't know and not a single person summited. I was devastated because I thought it meant that I didn't deserve to go to Everest. But, in the end, it helped me understand what to do and what not to do."
Learning equally from his successes and his failures enabled Kress to reach another milestone. In November 2011 he ascended Antarctica's Mount Vinson and became the 18th Canadian to climb the seven summits – the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. When asked what motivates him to undertake such gruelling tests of endurance, Kress replies, "I'm drawn to the challenge of setting a goal and doing whatever it takes to accomplish it. I also love the simplicity of climbing. When you're on a mountain, it's just you and your team – you climb, you eat, and you sleep."
Most recently, Kress was part of the True Patriot Love Foundation's March to the Top expedition that raised money for wounded Canadian veterans to help them recover from injuries received in the service of Canada. Together, a soldier team and a civilian business leaders team climbed Island Peak near Mount Everest. Kress, who was the civilian team captain, appreciated the opportunity to get to know the soldiers. "For me as a Canadian citizen, I didn't really have a full understanding of what our troops do in Afghanistan. It goes far beyond peacekeeping – their limits are tested in ways that I can't fathom."
Scott Kress continues to coach organizations large and small and teach at the Rotman School of Management. He is also planning his next expedition: a kite ski crossing of Greenland in preparation for a kite ski attempt to the South Pole.