The Rainier factor

RainierFoster MBAs climb Seattle’s iconic volcano for challenge, charity and camaraderie

You’ve seen the posters. Taut bands of rugged mountaineers, clad in Gore-tex armor, inch their way up frozen alpine landscapes as beautiful as they are forbidding—captioned with inspirational sentiments on such corporate virtues as leadership, collaboration, passion or persistence.

Some MBAs at the University of Washington Foster School of Business are learning that mountain climbing is more than a metaphor.

The past two summers, Scott Heinz (MBA 2012) has guided classmates of varying climbing experience on revealing expeditions to the thickly glaciated summit of Mount Rainier, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

“One of the highlights of the program for me,” says Heinz. “And not only the climb itself, but the collaborative nature of people across the program. Everyone got really excited about helping each other achieve this goal, all the while raising money for charities that everyone is passionate about.”

Base camp

An avid climber and skier, Heinz quickly found in the Foster MBA Program a large cohort of fellow outdoor enthusiasts. He also became involved in the MBA Challenge 4 Charity—the year-long competition among west coast business schools to provide the most financial and volunteer support to local non-profits. It occurred to him that a Rainier climb could make a potent fundraiser for the Foster School’s C4C beneficiaries.

Somewhat to his surprise, this idea was met with enormous interest.

Working around the rigors of the MBA curriculum, Heinz designed an ambitious but manageable training regimen to prepare the mostly novice climbers for a technical, high-altitude glacier climb. They began in January. Casual group runs led to thigh-busting slogs up nearby peaks. Mountaineering workshops led to advanced expeditions on the lower flanks of Rainier and neighboring Cascade peaks, including Adams and Sahale.

Climb on

For ascendant MBA types, it was a chance of a lifetime.

“I am an outdoor-loving person,” says Amy Widner, a second-year MBA who joined last year’s summit team. “But I’d never done anything like this before. The technique and equipment was a lot to get my head around. But Scott was great at leading the charge.”

That charge—both years—was a great success. Eleven Foster MBAs safely reached Rainier’s summit in July of 2011 and eight in August of 2012, with many others participating in various legs of the preparation. The climbers raised a two-year total of $13,000 to support Boys & Girls Clubs of King County and Special Olympics of Washington.

And, true to their generation, they chronicled the experience in a blog, a photographic storyboard, and even a music video (soundtrack provided by the 2011 Foster house band, Death Spiral).

The Foster fabric

A passion for the natural world—and its challenges—is etched in the Foster DNA. “When we ask students during admissions week what they want to do for fun, it’s incredible,” says Dan Poston, assistant dean for masters programs. “Hiking. Kayaking. Mountain climbing. Almost every response has a common theme. Something about coming to the Northwest. When we have a break, we get on our gear and go outside.”

These high-altitude expeditions took the “Rainier Factor” literally. But pushing individual limits was not the only positive outcome. Poston sees much of the program’s core curriculum put to practice in the process, including planning, preparation, financing, promotion, collaboration and leadership.

He also sees a defining trait of the Foster MBA Program: initiative.

“We’re one of the few schools that ask people, before they come, how they plan to get involved,” Poston says. “If they don’t find an organization or activity they’re interested in, we expect that they form it. We’re looking for people who have that kind of motivation.”

That DIY element is a point of pride for Heinz, who graduated in June to a position creating marketing analytic processes with Ecova, the Portland-based energy and sustainability management firm.

“A lot of MBA programs offer outdoor leadership courses,” he says. “But most of them are professionally guided where you tie into a rope and they carry you up. What do you learn from that? Ours is a much richer experience. Everybody has to develop the skills, take ownership of the process, and rely on each other—take what we learn in the classroom and put it to work in an environment that really puts it to the test.”

View more pictures from the Rainier climb
Read an account of the MBAs’ adventures in mountain climbing
Learn more about the Foster School’s involvement in the MBA Challenge for Charity.