Mar 14, 2023

When Impossible is Really Nothing – adidas Leaders Climb Cerro El Plomo (5,434m)

What attitude and values do you need to have when a team takes on an enormous challenge that pushes you to your limit?
by Jerome Levequestaff

At adidas, understandably, we like to be competitive. That athlete spirit is strong throughout all areas of our business. None more so than the leadership team of our Latin America (LAM) market. While we are constantly challenging ourselves to deliver growth for our business, we also like to undergo the same sorts of challenges that our consumers take on. Our aim is to get closer to our consumer. To really understand what they want and need from us as a brand.

Last year, we came together from all corners of LAM – from Mexico City to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile to Panama City – for one of our quarterly leadership team meetings. And it was during this meeting that we talked about how to best live our attitude of ‘Impossible is Nothing’ and create that special connection with our consumer.

Three ideas made the short list: the Río de Janeiro half marathon to support our Running category, or one of two Outdoor challenges: the Inca Trail in Peru or climbing Cerro El Plomo, the largest peak visible from the adidas in Santiago de Chile (standing at 5,434m!). We put it to a ballot and the Chilean suggestion won!

Our Impossible is Nothing challenge – amazing view from El PlomoOur Impossible is Nothing challenge – amazing view from El Plomo

The time to climb arrives

We had 10 months to prepare and what first seemed very far away, soon crept up on us. Some of the group had kept up their usual sport routines, others had started to get fitter and lose weight.

Of course, tackling any big task requires preparation, both physical and mental, but it also needs communication and teamwork. So, we looked to the experts, our Terrex athletes Pangal Andrade and Sofia Saphier who know how to conquer the difficult terrain of the Andes.

“When Jerome told me about the plan to climb El Plomo I gave everyone a training plan designed to build up cardio and strength in a bid to reduce the risk of injury. I also explained the importance of food and the need to acclimatize to the altitude in the days ahead of the climb,” explained Sofia while Pangal focused on the importance of building mental strength,

"Above five thousand meters the mind takes control of the body. Making it to the top becomes more mental than physical."

Sofia SaphierTerrex athlete

Cerro El Plomo is not for the fainthearted.  It’s got volcanic ash, glaciers and snow, and this mountain must be respected. At the start of the climb in the Throne Valley, we held a small ceremony where we each took a rock, and asked the mountain for permission to climb, for safety and for other personal reasons. Coming together as a team at that moment set a calm and collaborative tone – something that would remain for the rest of the climb. 

The hike to basecamp

The weather gods were looking down on us as we started our adventure. It was such a lovely day – no wind and plenty of sunshine. We walked slowly in short sleeves for five hours until we reached base camp at 4,100m. The goal was not waste energy so we took our time and settled in for what we knew would be a short night.

The alarm went off at 3am and it was time to check on each member of the team. How were they feeling? Any worries? Any pain? Altitude sickness had started to affect some people and three of us decided to stay at base camp.. For those who did want to continue, we took our oxygen level readings and headed outside into the calm night air, headlamps lighting our way.

With our headlights guiding us we set off into the darkness.With our headlights guiding us we set off into the darkness.

"This was the first moment where we really had to draw on our values and respect the decision some of our teammates had made not to continue the climb. And it wouldn’t be the last."

Jerome LevequeGM Chile

Our guides explained the climb to the summit would take seven to nine hours depending on our rhythm, the wind, and the amount of snow at the top. We made the first refuge at sunrise. It was like nothing we had ever seen. The clouds parted and for the first time we caught a glimpse of our goal. 

The summit awaits and some tough decisions

The going was getting very tough, and more teammates were pulling out. Our next challenge was the snow, so we got a quick lesson from our Terrex athletes on how to use crampons. Our progress was labored. At 5,200m it was time to make some tough decisions. At the pace we were going, we were told we would not make the summit, but we still had the chance and the time to descend safely.

Our guides made it clear that they could see some of us reaching the top, but others would not and if they stayed, they would end up compromising the challenge.

They asked us to raise our hands if we felt we couldn’t continue. Without hesitation, five hands went up. There and then I really saw the integrity of our team. These people knew they had reached their limit. They accepted it and made way so as not to hold back the other seven.

That magical moment at the top

The last 200m took us two hours to cover! It was so steep and we had to take big long steps like astronauts on the moon. At the summit what hit us was the wind and the emotion. Tears flowed and hugs were given and received. We had just minutes to take in our achievement, capture some photos, plant Terrex and Chile flags (although upside down) and then start the descent. Time was again of the essence.

With the pressure off, we could each take the descent at our own pace and reflect on our achievement. While on the mountain I noticed all the mundane worries and tasks had dropped out of my mind completely. Conversations were more reflective and more personal and our sense of team unity grew even stronger.

The teammates we had left behind – either at the final climb or base camp – were so happy to see us return safely. There was no jealousy or disappointment, instead they were just thrilled to have been part of a team that had lived the adidas attitude of Impossible is Nothing. 

And no, don’t worry, we didn’t forget our consumer, who was at the heart of this challenge. Outdoor is a growing market for all of us across Latin America and getting to test – and I mean really test – our products in the tough conditions they are made for was fantastic. From a polar fleece and windbreaker to the Terrex Freehiker boots, not one piece of clothing or footwear let us down. Hats off to all those teams working to produce these amazing high-performance products!

Living our adidas Values

We have six values and behaviors at adidas, Courage, Ownership, Innovation, Teamplay, Integrity and Respect and we needed to draw on all six to complete our Cerro El Plomo challenge. I’d like to thank our guides, athletes and climb organizers for making this dream a reality. Most importantly, I extend my gratitude to my fellow LAM leaders for living each one of our values to max: Flavia Bittencourt, Raul Marcenaro, Pablo Lamo, Olivier Gianina, Jorge Dionne, Julien Vassalini, Markus Morent, Danilo Casarin, Bas Van Dorp, Michael Slofstra, Kadine Hurtado, Marlene Muhlbacher, Javier Vela, Ricardo Niles, Javier Landa, Salvador Mothe and Luis Curti.

"Without any doubt, our team, which we love to call a high-performance team, went out of its comfort zone, and is now even more united, confident and determined to tackle our next business challenges."

Jerome LevequeGM Chile

And I’ll leave the last words and reflections to them:

“It was never just about making it to the summit. It was a journey to complete together; different ages, capabilities, preparation. It was a story of growth for my leadership team and I’m very proud of what we achieved together.” – Flavia Bittencourt, Managing Director, LAM

“I knew I needed to change my lifestyle and lose weight and this challenge gave me the kick start I needed to build healthy habits. I lost 9kg and will always be grateful to Cerro El Plomo.” – Javier Vela, VP SCM, Global Operations

“Mentally, this climb was very tough. To stop me over thinking things and allowing my mind top play tricks on me I kept repeating the joke slogan on my T-shirt, ‘fresh as a lettuce’. And each time my mind wandered, the lettuce brought me back down to earth!” – Pablo Lamo, General Manager, Argentina