Interviewed by Steve Morrissey
We welcome Huw Rothwell, Partner at Perpetual: for a raw conversation on the turning points in his life that got him to where he is now and what drives him to keep going.
In a world where success is often measured by business achievements and corporate ladder climbs, some individuals break away from conventional norms and embark on extraordinary journeys of personal growth and achievement. Huw Rothwell, a Partner at Perpetual, is one such individual who has recently completed an awe-inspiring adventure – a 22-year quest to climb the highest mountain in each of the 50 states of the USA. This feat not only demonstrated his passion for mountaineering but also showcased the qualities of a true leader. In this podcast, we delve into Huw Rothwell’s remarkable journey and explore the transferable leadership lessons that can be learned from his adventure.
We hope you enjoy our raw conversation with Huw. A full transcript of the conversation is here below:
Editing and sound mixing of this episode was done by Clara Ernoult.
Steve: Hello and welcome to Pep Talk: by Perpetual. Perpetual is a talent advisory firm based out of New York City and Paris, and this podcast is all about raw conversations with real people. In this inspiring episode of Navigating Success and Peaks we’re going to explore the extraordinary journey of individuals who have scaled the heights of both literal and metaphorical mountains. I’m your host today, Steve Morrissey, the CEO and founder of Perpetual, a transatlantic talent advisory firm dedicated to building and cultivating human-centric high-performance cultures.
Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by a remarkable individual and genuine friend and one of our esteemed partners here at Perpetual, Huw Rothwell. Huw’s not only been a driving force behind our mission, but has recently achieved a lifelong ambition that resonates deeply with our focus on leadership, business execution, and achieving the peak of one’s potential. He’s conquered the highest summits across all 50 states in the US, proving that determination, strategy and resilience are essential components of both climbing and leadership. I hope you enjoy this conversation today as we explore the synergies between summiting mountains and achieving professional peaks. Huw’s experience is undoubtedly a very fresh perspective on leadership, execution, and embracing failures as opportunities for growth. So tighten your laces and tune in to navigating success and peaks as we climb the path of success to an exhilarating ascent. So Huw, tell us a bit more about yourself.
Huw: Certainly, well, thank you, Steve. It’s good to be on the podcast with you and what an introduction. Where do I go from there? A little bit about myself, I’m a partner at Perpetual and my focus is on executive search and performing a range of talent development work, focused primarily on the consumer products out of our New York and Connecticut offices. From a sort of early career perspective, I began my career in the military. I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK, and after which I spent about eight years as an infantry officer in the British Army, before then pivoting into the world of executive search in the UK. And then after a couple of years of doing that, I was given the opportunity to relocate with my employer to the US for a, well, what was supposed to be a two-year secondment. And 10-plus years later, I’ve found the US to be a great place to build both my life and career and enjoy everything there is to offer over here.
Outside of the workplace, I would describe myself as a lifelong mountaineer, from wet and windy hiking and camping trips in the Brecon Beacons with my dad to, as a teenager, doing independent climbing trips in the French Alps and the Himalayas before joining the army. And then while I was in the army, the British army, when you’re not sort of operationally deployed or doing useful things, they’re quite keen and actively encourage you to take teams off on adventurous training, expeditions. And I was very fortunate during my time in the army to, you know, go to Mount Kenya and to spend time in the Arctic, Norway and the Rockies in Canada and, you know, down in sort of down near Antarctica in South Georgia. So I took every advantage of those opportunities when I could. And then, you know, made the decision to leave the army and after leaving, I sort of bizarrely retained a bit of a passion for being wet, cold, tired, scared, carrying big backpacks and you know just generally surrounded by good people. I guess I sort of enjoy the what’s now known as type 2 fun and so I decided to keep going with the mountain climbing.
Steve: I guess a quick question from there, it all sounds extremely challenging, is there any reason why you selected to join the army rather than the British Marines?
Huw: It’s a very good question and you know, basically I did do the Royal Marines potential officer course as a chubby 16-year-old, and found myself surrounded by college graduates that were 22 years old and, you know, and had spent a lot of time in the gym and I failed miserably. So, that ended my Royal Marines career before it began. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared that with you before.
Steve: No, that’s a beautiful story. In fact, I joined the Marines as a skinny 19-year-old and then left as a rather chubby adult, so the other way around. All right. Well, onto our journey. So, um, can you explain then to our listeners, what is this 50-state summit project that you either set yourself or is it something that other people have done?
Huw: Yeah a small but sort of exclusive group of people have done it. There is a club known as the High Pointers club and since it was set up in the 80s, I think it was, well, about 370 people have successfully completed the project. And so just to explain really what the project entails, the goal is to climb, and when I say climb, I use that term very carefully. The highest peak in every state.
And, in reality, it’s a very broad spectrum of challenges, sort of ranging from Denali, which is the highest mountain, not just in the US, but in all of North America, and is one of the seven summits. You know, Denali is a 20,000-foot mountain, not far off the Antarctic Circle. And that entails a three-week expedition. And, then sort of if you’re dropping down the scale, you’ve got probably around five quite challenging, multi-day technical sort of snow and rock climbs. Coming further down, you’ve got probably about 10 quite long and challenging, one-day, multi-day scrambles and backpacking trips. And then there’s, you know, the next level is probably around sort of 10 of the peaks are, you know, quite short, you know, one day, half a day heights. And even about 15 of them, you’re able to actually drive to the very top. You know, there was one in particular that you could almost touch the summit, you know, without having to get out of the car.
So there’s a really sort of broad spectrum of mountains on the project. And that’s why I use the term climb in parentheses. You know, but that said, you know, I’ve spent over sort of 40 nights in a tent to complete the project. The 18th of July 2023, I finally finished my 50th summit, which was Gannett Peak in Wyoming. It took me three attempts to do that, some 22 years after my very first one. So, that’s kind of hopefully gives you an insight to what the project is.
Steve: Well, look, massive, massive congratulations on completing the project. Just to clarify for our listeners, you didn’t do any of these in a car. You were merely pointing out that you are able to. I assume you hiked up most of them.
Huw: No comment. No comment, all right. And then with regards to sort of planning, you know, you talked about the sort of varying degrees from Denali at one end of the spectrum to smaller peaks at the other end. Where do the sort of classic 14ers from Colorado fit into that spectrum? Are they sort of in the middle? Yeah, so there are really only sort of two peaks higher than 14,000 feet in the whole 50 Summit project. So, Mount Elbert, which is the highest mountain in Colorado, is one of those. I think that’s the highest peak in the lower 48 states. And then you’ve got Denali at the other end of the spectrum. And the smallest mountain, if you can call it a mountain, is Britten Hill in Florida, which is a whopping 345 feet above sea level. So pretty breathless at the top of that one.
Steve: And what made you decide to do this? Was this a sort of life’s goal, or did somebody sort of prompt you to do this challenge?
Huw: Well, I think the why. I mean, I like climbing mountains. I like the sort of physical and mental challenge of being in the mountains, you know, together with the, you know, the joy and the simplicity of life, you know, outdoors. You know, to me, I also quite like a bit of adventure and risk, you know, I think life without that, you know, could be a little bit dull, and it keeps things interesting. So that’s the why, the when, I guess, probably subconsciously I started in 2001, literally just after moving to the US. I climbed Mount Washington with a friend, full winter conditions, and that was a really great introduction to the project. And then over the next few years with my family, I managed to tick off most of the New England high points. As a family, going for a hike was what we did. But I think really the first conscious moment for me was on a family holiday in Arcadia National Park, yeah, I think it was 2011, decided to get up at two o’clock in the morning, drive for three hours up to Katahdin, which is the highest peak in Maine, spend a few hours climbing that and then three hours back. So I guess that’s when it changed from a subconscious to a conscious act. But that said, I mean, it took me 16 years to get 10 of the 50 summits done. But then over the next three years, I did 38. So I guess maybe 2018 was when it really, you know, I sort of learned that climbing the highest points in each state was a bit of a thing. And that’s when my obsession really started. Very cool. Well, they do say the one with the most stories wins.
Steve: I’m sure you’ve gleaned many a memorable moment along the way. What would you say has been perhaps one or two of the most memorable moments through your various journeys?
Huw: Yeah, I mean gosh, it’s hard to know where to start really. I mean there have been so many amazing experiences from being on top of iconic mountains that are known around the world, whether it’s southeastern states where you’re sort of driving up to the summit on like a four-day, I think it was like a 2,400-2,500-mile road trip. So there’s a real sort of cross-spectrum of memorable moments, but I think probably a couple of them would be, you know, Denali without question is probably the most memorable. I spent 19 days camping on snow on the mountain. I experienced the 6.1 earthquake at 11,000 feet, which was quite a first for me and quite an experience. My buddy that I was sharing the tent with didn’t even wake up but it was quite punchy.
Steve: What would you say are some of the lessons that could be applicable to leadership or indeed the world of business and execution nowadays?
Huw: Yeah, I mean there’s quite a lot of things that come to mind Steve. I think probably first and foremost, having a vision. Alternatively, I like to call it the BHAG, which is a term that’s gaining popularity, the big, hairy, audacious goal. I love that term. My vision was pretty clear. It took me a few years to actually focus on that vision, but once I did, I was laser-focused on it.
Then, once you’ve got that big, hairy, audacious goal, the next thing for me is really developing a concept of operations. It’s doing the research and planning to break down the vision into a series of actionable annual objectives. And like you said, there are various times of year when you can and can’t do certain mountains. There are logistical challenges. You’re also trying to fit things around your professional life and your family life. So then you get into what I would call the detailed annual planning where, you know, if your goal for this year is to climb Mount Rainier, for example, you know, you’ve got to do a lot of research and planning to make sure that you’re optimizing the right time of year to do it, the right route, you know, you’ve got to get your logistics in peace, you know, also not in peace, in place. You know, from an equipment point of view, you know, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the right tools for the job. You know, nutrition is massively important. You know, I’ve seen many people, you know, many really strong climbers fail on mountains because they haven’t got the nutrition or fluids right. And then probably once you’ve done that, you know, it’s down to training.
And again, to apply it to the business world, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the right both the technical skills and the fitness levels to achieve the objective that you’re trying to achieve. And then it really, as the expedition sort of starts to close in, it’s really down to meticulous preparation. It’s testing your equipment, it’s making sure everything works. It’s doing trial runs, it’s weighing out bags of food to see if you can shave a few ounces here. It’s really doing everything in your power to ensure that you’re giving yourself the best chance of success. And to me, I would always find that simply getting to the start line on a mountain, meeting my friend on the other side of the country at the trailhead is a real achievement in itself. place, the right time, you’ve got the right people, the right kit, you know, and you’re fully trained, you’re ready to go, everything’s dialed in, you know, that to me is a real achievement. And then, of course, you know, it’s down to the execution, you know, whether it’s in the mountains or in business, it’s all about the execution, you know, and this is where you can’t focus on the vision too much.
You know, the execution, it’s about delivering step by step, ensuring that you’re safe, ensuring that you’re not going to put yourself or your buddy at risk. It’s a hard slog, you know, this is the churn of what people do. It’s being focused hour by hour rather than being focused on the summit. Hour by hour, day by day, just take it one step at a time. And then I think also part of the planning process, it’s, you know, what do I do if this happens? What do I do if this happens at this point? Or what happens if this happens tomorrow? And so, you know, by thinking through potential challenging situations that you could get yourself in, you’re essentially trying to remove some of the decision-making process when the crap hits the fan basically. And so I think doing that gives you a lot of confidence that you and your team know what you’re going to do if this happens.
Steve: You know that famous Mike Tyson quote, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. I presume a lot can go wrong on the mountain. I vaguely remember you anecdotally giving me a story of a friend or a colleague you were with who took a fall or a tumble and dislocated a shoulder. Presumably, you don’t foreplan that, but you need actions on.
Huw: Yeah, no, absolutely. And in that case, we knew what to do. We did a little bit of first aid initially, you know, to make sure that he was OK. We then made an assessment of what our options were, and, you know, very quickly, you know, it became clear that, you know, we needed to call for help. And so, you know, as part of our detailed planning, you know, we’re carrying satellite devices that enable us to call for help when help is needed. So yeah, I mean it’s not all plain sailing and when plans hit the real world, they tend to do different things.
Steve: And as you sort of spin and bring into your own professional and personal performance at Perpetual?
Huw: I think back to the 50 summits project, I mean, eight of them took more than one attempt to get to the top. And Gannett Peak took three attempts to successfully summit. So I think that the resilience is being able to fail, learn the lessons from why you fail and rebound from that. But it’s also having the determination to keep going. I, you know, I remember when we failed on Gannett one time. You know, the day after, I was like, I’m giving up on the mountains, I’m never doing this again. And then, you know, a week later, we’re like, right, let’s get a date in the calendar. So, you know, I think it’s just, it’s being determined, it’s being a bit stubborn, it’s being a bit resilient. But I think when you’ve come so far, whether in business or work, even if you fail in the moment, stay focused on the vision and plan to overcome the obstacles.
Steve: And here at Perpetual, we obviously do a fair amount of work with clients around leadership development programs and taking organizations on high-performing team journeys. One of the aspects that come up a lot that differentiates exceptional teams to others is the trust amongst one another within the teams. Again, any sort of reference to what you experience, presumably the trust levels with your climbing partner when you’re on a rope must be beyond belief in comparison to the trust you have to do within a business. Give us a story around the trust piece.
Huw: Yeah. I mean it’s called the brotherhood or sisterhood of the rope. The people you’re on a rope with, your life depends on them, their life depends on yours without question. And so you implicitly trust people, but then I think in order to trust them, you have to have confidence that you’ve got the right team around you. So I think getting the right people, whether it’s into your business or on the rope with you, is pivotal. And I think probably the other thing I would say, Steve, is it’s about getting the right external experts when needed. And what I mean by that in a mountaineering context, a guide. If you’re attempting a project that is somewhat out of your scope or knowledge, hire the right people to facilitate your success in that project. And so, you know, this is potentially why people come to us, Steve, and utilize our expertise in, you know, building and cultivating high-performing teams.
Steve: Well, look, as we bring this invigorating episode of navigating success and peaks to a close, I genuinely Hugh want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to you. Your dedication in both scaling the highest peaks across the US is admirable, but also how you bring some of those learnings to Perpetual and to our clients has truly inspired us all. Until next time, remember that every peak climbed, whether it’s in the mountains or the boardroom, it does bring us closer to our version of greatness or our greatest potential. So, for all of us, let’s stay curious, stay adventurous, keep chasing the dreams, and thank you very much Hugh and to all of our listeners. and thank you very much Hugh and to all of our listeners.
Huw: Brilliant, thank you Steve, and thanks for listening.