Graduate climbs tallest mountain of every continent, founds clean water initiative
Many people don’t accomplish any of their dreams during their lifetimes. James Wilde, a 1996 International Master of Business Administration graduate of USC’s Darla Moore School of Business, has already achieved three.
Wilde, 40, has had a successful career, has summited the highest peak on each of the seven continents and is now providing clean water to thousands of people in destitute nations.
“I went through the whole career thing for 10 years, and along the way I started to realize I needed to find a new dream,” Wilde said at a speech Wednesday evening in the Moore School. “I parked for a while and did the things that everybody who goes to MBA school does — new titles and money and all those kind of things — but it wasn’t until I was laid off from my job at Telefonica that I rediscovered my dream.”
With extra cash and a paid-off MBA loan, Wilde headed to Africa years ago for a safari. Wilde said his original dream had been journalism, and he wanted to see how Ernest Hemingway, himself a journalist, had been inspired by the snows of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the continent.
“I looked at the mountain and I said, ‘You know, what about just climbing the thing?’” Wilde said nonchalantly. “And all of a sudden I found myself standing on top of this giant volcano in the middle of Africa.”
Shortly after Wilde arrived at the summit, an English mountaineer reached the top to find him swept with emotion and excitement.
“Maybe this is the first of seven?” asked the Englishman.
“Seven what?” Wilde replied.
The man was referring to the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. By most accounts, these are Kilimanjaro, McKinley, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kosciuszko, Vinson Massif and, of course, Everest. Wilde started to contemplate it, and soon, just as spontaneously as he had found himself atop Kilimanjaro, he was atop a bar in Munich swearing to climb them all.
“It sort of started as a drunken bet,” Wilde said.
He admitted he has an intense fear of heights and starts cursing every time he gets onto a rock wall.
Wilde thus began a journey to climb all remaining six summits, during which he would spend $145,000, travel 221,452 kilometers and climb 33,400 meters. With early successes came early failures. In 2003, he failed his first attempt on Aconcagua, South America’s tallest peak, but he returned and conquered. Then came Everest.
“When I was a child I remember watching the (Reinhold) Messner attempt on Everest, the first person to do it without oxygen,” Wilde said. “In my head I was fascinated by this guy, who I had no idea really existed, and I had no idea where Everest was.”
In 2005, Wilde was climbing Everest for the first time when his group was attacked by Maoist terrorists. One of his teammates lost his foot to a grenade, and the leader was sent down the mountain with shrapnel in his leg. The others kept climbing, but hardship did not escape them. Wilde said he watched one of his teammates die at 8,000 meters because the teammate didn’t follow the guides’ instructions. Wilde had to turn around.
“It took a toll on me emotionally,” Wilde said. “I was pretty obsessed with Everest for the five years that ensued, and it was part of my everyday thinking.”
Wilde, who emphasized facing fears and taking risks, quit his job at Russia’s largest mobile operator to begin training for a second attempt. He emulated Messner by training in the Himalayas, and while climbing Cho Oyu he came down with dysentery.
“I knew I needed a charity to help with the sponsorship of Everest, and at that point in time it was not evident to me how serious the water crisis was,” Wilde said. “I realized there were people in these clinics dying from bad water. I came back from Nepal and started to do research on my next project.”
That project became Global H2O, a nongovernmental organization Wilde founded to combat the water crisis. Wilde said there are one billion people worldwide without access to clean water, and 3.6 million die annually from water-borne illnesses. On the bright side, Wilde said it takes $20 or less to provide one person water for life.
“You go out and have a couple of beers down at Pavlov’s and you spend $20 easily, and that’s water for life for one person,” Wilde said.
Wilde diverted $10,000 of sponsorship money from Sage Business Solutions for his Everest climb to Global H2O’s first project in Uganda. He hired a company to drill a hand-pump well that would provide clean water for 2,000 people. The organization also taught locals hygiene and how to manage the well.
Wilde finished the project just before his second Everest attempt, during which he garnered more attention for Global H2O. After summiting Everest in 2010 and finishing the seven summits atop Kosciuszko in Australia, Wilde had raised another $20,000.
“That was sort of the beginning of my new dream, which was to help people gain access to water,” Wilde said.
Global H2O went back to the same region and completed two more projects that provided more water for less money. Currently, Global H2O is planning more projects in other countries and is looking for help. The organization is accepting volunteers and interns with experience in marketing, public relations, management, grant-writing and Internet technology. Students can visit www.globalh2o.org for more information.
In all, Wilde says he’s learned two major things from pursuing his dreams. One, is that “every person can affect the world in a positive way if he or she has the will.” The other is that there are “no f---ing excuses.”