What climbing Mount Everest can teach you about managing your pension in retirement

I have long had a passion for climbing mountains and I have been very lucky to have ticked a few off my bucket list over recent years. Mount Everest at 8,849 metres has always appealed to me, however, the preparation and training is at least 12 to 24 months, and you need to allocate a 3-month period in and around Everest Base Camp to pre-acclimatise and prepare for the ascent, waiting for the appropriate weather window. In order to gain more knowledge and experience, I took a trek up to Everest Base Camp earlier this year with my son Chris and we had an amazing adventure reaching EBC, which is 5,364 metres, on the 6th of January 2023 at 15.44 local time. We met some very interesting people along the way who were continuing to the summit. Along the way I read a very interesting book by Alexandra Stewart called “Everest: The Remarkable Story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay”. What they managed to achieve based on the knowledge and equipment that they had makes their success story (detailed below) even more incredible.

If you woke up on the morning of 2 June 1953, you’d have likely been greeted by two pieces of news. While the major story on the day was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, news of a successful expedition 4,600 miles away was also making headlines that morning.

Four days earlier, British explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepali-Indian Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, had become the first adventurers confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

The ascent marked a great milestone in human achievement, with Time magazine naming both men in their “top 100 most influential people of the 20th century”.

May 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of this landmark event, with Hillary and Norgay inspiring more than 6,000 climbers in the intervening decades to emulate their ascent.

So, what does all his have to do with your retirement?

If you’ve been saving during your entire working life, you may think that the point at which you decide to move into the next chapter of your life is the moment of least risk. However, the descent – sometimes known as the “decumulation” stage of wealth – is often the most perilous.

More people perish coming down Everest than on the ascent

Whilst climbing the world’s highest mountain is one of the pinnacles of mankind’s achievements, it’s not without risk.

Death on the mountain can be caused by a wide range of factors from avalanches and falls to exposure and frostbite. Combine this with treacherous terrain and the impact on the human body, and it’s no surprise that more than 310 climbers are known to have died on Everest.

Reuters reports that, between 2006 and 2019, the risk of dying on the mountain stood at 0.5% for women and 1.1% for men.

Above 26,000 feet, mountaineers enter what has become known as the “death zone” where the oxygen levels are insufficient to sustain life for an extended period.
What you may not realise is that the descent from the summit of a mountain is often more dangerous than the climb.

Scientific American reports that, of the 192 deaths that occurred between 1921 and 2006 above base camp, 56% succumbed on their descent and another 17% died after turning back. Just 15% died on the way up or before leaving their final camp.

R. Douglas Fields, chief of nervous system development and plasticity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told ScientificAmerican that the findings aren’t surprising.

“That’s actually a common rule in climbing that more people die coming down than going up. You’re spent getting to the top. You get tired, you’re exhausted.”

Be wary of the risks during your wealth “descent”

Through decades of work, you’ve likely amassed significant wealth. You will have built up your workplace pensions, investments, property, savings, private pensions, and other assets through your “ascent”.

Of course, there are times when this climb will have been difficult. You will no doubt have encountered some tricky terrain or bad weather on the way, but having a plan and sticking to your end goal will have brought you to your summit – the point where you achieve the freedom to move on to the next phase of your life.
Many people think the risks are over at this point. However, this is just the halfway stage. As American mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who has climbed Mount Everest seven times, says: “Getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory.”

Any Sherpa worth their salt will tell you that the skills needed to reach the summit are quite different to those for getting back down. Getting down requires discipline, planning, and a careful strategy.

If you apply this to your financial plan, the “summit” may well be the point where your wealth is at its peak. As you descend, you’ll start to deplete this wealth as you use it for income or start the legacy planning process to mitigate any potential Inheritance Tax (IHT) bill.

If you don’t take care, you may suffer from “summit fever” – a psychological trait that means you ignore important signs that blind you from making crucial decisions. You’re so relieved to have made it to the summit that your decision-making could then suffer.

Similarly, you need to ensure that your amassed wealth is sufficient to sustain your lifestyle for the rest of your life – which could be 20, 30, or even 40 years or more. There’s no benefit in making it half-way down the Himalayan Mountain – you need enough resources to get you all the way home.

The know-how and skill of a guide is crucial

When the British party arrived in Nepal in 1953, they knew they needed the assistance of an expert if their mission was to be successful.

In early March, the Himalayan Club sent 20 Sherpas to help carry equipment, led by their Sirdar, Tenzing Norgay, who was attempting Everest for the sixth time. George Band, the youngest climber on the 1953 expedition, said Norgay was: “The best-known Sherpa climber and a mountaineer of world standing”.

Working alongside an expert can be the route to success in many areas of life – not least when it comes to your retirement.

Indeed, a recent study by Standard Life revealed that people who work with a financial planner retire, on average, three years earlier than those who don’t, and are able to fund their retirement lifestyle for six more years.

Having a trusted partner who understands the terrain and what you have to do to navigate it can lead to success – just as Sir Edmund Hillary discovered on that May morning back in 1953.

If we can help you manage your ascent or descent, please give us a call on 020 7400 4700.

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