Can the five rules for climbing Mt. Everest help you plan for retirement?

Key Points

  • The lessons mountaineer Pete Athans learned about preparation and patience when scaling Mt. Everest also apply to sound retirement planning.
  • Getting to the peak and getting home safely require different approaches, much like saving for retirement versus managing income in retirement.
  • Mountaineers rely on guides for successful climbs, just as you can rely on your financial advisor to help you plan for a confident retirement.

Experienced climbers know that the way down is more perilous than the climb to the top. Legendary mountaineer Pete Athans says, "As climbers, we know instinctively that we really are only half way when we are at the summit. We need to know that we're in it for the round trip."


In retirement, the decisions you make are much different than the decisions made preparing for retirement. For example, the choices about how to use your cash can have a bigger impact because you no longer have the luxury of time to rebuild your portfolio.

Athans' five rules for mountain climbing success can also help you reach your retirement aspirations:

Rule #1: Rely on the experience of a guide

In extreme conditions and the thin air of high altitudes, climbers can be slow to heed signs of poor health, imminent danger or weakening performance. That's why they need Sherpas with expertise on local terrain to guide them through to safety.


Just as an Everest Sherpa plots the course and sets the ropes, a financial advisor can help clients navigate the big and small decisions of retirement. An advisor can provide insights into sound choices and recommend financial solutions that help people balance today's needs with tomorrow's goals as they work their way toward a confident retirement.

Rule #2: Follow the checklist

Athans follows a "pre-flight type of checklist," which addresses physical training, acclimatization, altitude, personal health and assembling the right team. "Every climber can spend weeks preparing for the big climbs — and that doesn't include the physical training, which can take years."


Similarly, a retirement strategy requires a checklist.

  • Take care of your essential expenses with guaranteed or stable income
  • Set aside that three-year cash reserve, and discuss diversification and asset allocation with your advisor so you have potential for portfolio growth during retirement
  • Review your protection plan to ensure that you have appropriate health, life and liability insurance to cover any catastrophes
  • Create a plan to leave a legacy that honors how you'd like to be remembered

Rule #3: Preparation is key

"One of the biggest problems people face when climbing Everest is 'summit fever' — they focus almost exclusively on getting to the peak," says Athans. "The truth is that climbing to the top is only the halfway point."

The same is true for retirement. You need a plan to save enough to reach the 'mountain top' of retirement. And, like preserving your oxygen on Everest, you also need a defined plan to protect and conserve your income for the rest of the journey.

Rule #4: Expect a course correction

On the mountain, unpredictable conditions can arise quickly, including wind gusts that reach 175 miles an hour, avalanches, blizzards and falling ice. Contingency plans are essential. "Some people don't understand that an Everest expedition doesn't run like a Swiss train," Athans says.

Complications that impact finances can develop without warning — from medical bills to divorce to having a grown child move back home. Building a flexible financial plan in advance can help people prevent these obstacles from jeopardizing decades of careful retirement savings.

Rule #5: Beware of danger zones

Towers of ice in the Khumbu Icefall, hidden crevasses in the Valley of Silence and the sheer black rock of the Geneva Spur all count among the dangers zones of an Everest climb.

In retirement, people typically encounter two danger zones. The first, just before retirement, is making key decisions about enrolling in Medicare and choosing when to take Social Security, which can affect your entire financial picture.

The second, just after the summit, is when people tend to start to deplete their savings too quickly. You need to set clear milestones for your income strategy in this phase and be ready to change your approach if those milestones aren't reached.

Pete Athans

About Pete Athans

There's a reason climbing legend Pete Athans is often called "Mr. Everest." He has reached the summit of the world's tallest peak seven times in 16 expeditions over 18 years.

His experience on difficult climbs, knowledge of the mountain and reputation for bringing climbers back home safely all make Athans a trusted expedition leader.

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