Yoram Kraus: From the CEO Chair to the Top of the Most Dangerous Mountain

Yoram Kraus, a real estate and hi-tech entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of SMS Project Management, talks about the challenge of climbing Mount Matterhorn, which is considered the most dangerous in mountain Europe and which has claimed the lives of hundreds of mountain climbers over the years. Kraus, who almost died on the mountain, intends to return to it for the fourth time this year. An interview about dealing with death and the meaning of the value of life, and the connection between mountaineering and the business world.

Mount Matterhorn in the Alps is located on the Italian-Swiss border and is considered one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. However, it is also known as one of the most dangerous in the climbing world. The mountain is built like a steep pyramid at 4,478 meters, climbing it is extremely dangerous, and over 500 mountain climbers have found their death on their way to the summit. Thus, the Matterhorn has gained a reputation as one of the deadliest in mountains in the mountaineering community. Mountaineer Yoram Kraus (52), founder and CEO of SMS Project Management and various start-up companies, father of three, tells the secret of the magic of the beautiful and deadly mountain that has been nicknamed the “Mountain of Mountains”. 

What is so appealing about climbing a mountain that is known for such a high level of danger?

“The main motive in mountaineering is the ability to face the challenge, you climb a mountain because you can. Climbing brings you to deal with your character, with your fears, it allows you to discover a new world that has not yet been explored, mountaineering is based on the desire to conquer peak after peak, to challenge yourself again and again and put yourself in a space to cope with extreme situations that evoke in you the desire to live.”

“I have climbed most of the peaks in the Alps, and the Matterhorn is unique in terms of the challenge it offers, it is difficult and overly complex to climb and is only reached by advanced and experienced climbers because it is built like a steep cliff. Its climb is at an exceedingly high level of danger and that is why it is considered one of the deadliest in the field and ranked fifth in the world in the number of deaths over the years. The Matterhorn is a real challenge that stretches the boundaries to the limit.”

“The values ​​that motivate me are the desire to live, discover, explore and conquer goals. These guiding principles are common to both the field of mountaineering and the business world which is inherently related to the world of climbing, climbing and the business world for me are one in the same.”

“As a manager, I face daily challenges and the desire to create value and meaning for life for me and my clients and those around me and so it is in the climbing world, it is a binary way of dealing with challenges, with nature and the mountain, which for me means wholeness, and we all want to merge into wholeness.”

What brought you to climb the Matterhorn three times?

“On each journey you start the climb from a different place, once from the Italian side, another time from the Swiss side and on different upward traffic routes. Each climb offers a completely new challenge, the first time I was unable to reach the summit because a storm developed, and I decided to give up reaching the summit and descend. In mountaineering you set truly clear rules for reaching the summit, and if you do not follow these rules you will probably get injured or die. The full understanding of determining a set of processes, I take with me to the world of business. You must establish for yourself a noticeably clear set of processes on the way to the destination, because the road upwards is winding and you must undertake in-depth planning in advance and prepare for every possible scenario. With regards to the Matterhorn, the climbing route is extremely dangerous, consisting of boulders (huge rocks), each time you have to find a different “climbing axis” because the snow and ice change the climbing route every excursion. This is what is beautiful about a mountain, it is not inanimate, it is a living and changing body, on each climb you find a completely different mountain and every time you have to get to know and re-learn it and connect to it. It is a fascinating connection between you and the mountain and nature. This is one of the magical things about the Matterhorn, so I climbed it 3 times, and if possible, I will climb it again this year.” 

“Standing at the edge of the universe and peering into the infinite distance above the clouds.”

Yoram Kraus, as mentioned, is a real estate and hi-tech entrepreneur and founder and CEO of SMS Project Management. He has lived the real estate and construction world for nearly 20 years and as part of SMS Project Management has built thousands of office units, development centers, data centers and complex engineering projects for leading companies. According to him, there is a direct value connection between the world of mountaineering and the business world: the challenge, the need to conquer peaks and the processes that bring you to the summit and success in business, are all the same and that is why Kraus makes sure to integrate into the company he manages processes and principles that he learned in the mountains, on the way to the summit.

What do you feel when climbing a steep ledge when at any moment there is a possibility to fall off?

“Mountaineering symbolizes for me the desire to live, climbing is a burning passion in you, it is dealing with death by choice and it makes you want to live and use every minute of your life to discover new things, to act, and to achieve the goals you set for yourself and not live in your comfort zone.”

“When you climb and face the danger of death at any moment, you discover the meaning of life, you discover the meaning of nature, values ​​you grew up with and nurtured are expressed – it is a fusion between you and nature. Some people call it divinity, I call it wholeness, and wholeness Is expressed in a passion for life.”

“Our lives are rhythmic, from the day we are born to the day we die – we live, and the question is what we as humans want to do in this life, most people seek the comfort zone and spend their entire life without initiating genuine action. For me, mountaineering is a way of life, our role in the world is to explore, to develop, to create value for ourselves, for those around us and for the whole world and if we succeed in doing so, then there has been a purpose to our existence.”

“No mountain climber climbs in order to die, no entrepreneur sets up a venture in order to fail, the knowledge that it can happen always exists, but the drive to do is what motivates me. Think of the feeling of satisfaction in reaching the summit, you have conquered the summit of the world, you stand on the edge of the universe and look to the infinite distance above the clouds, above everything you have achieved so far – it is a genuine desire for genuine action.”

“I have been asked if I am afraid to die, there is always fear, the fear is not completely gone but I call on myself every day to look at my life again and ask myself what did accomplish? what did I create? what have I changed? what are the challenges I have overcome and how have I faced them? and the more I do and the more I tackle, the more I enjoy and that’s mountain climbing. You conquer the mountain because it is there, you climb it because you can, while dealing with the physical difficulties and the emotional and mental charges that shape you and everything happens there, on the way to the summit, in dealing with the knowledge that you may not return and that you have chosen this. You stand on a narrow surface at an altitude of 4,000 meters and realize that if you fall you are going to die and that you may even drag your partner with you on a climb, directly connected to you, to their death. This situation requires from you tremendous physical and mental strength and great responsibility.”

How do you deal with the fear?

“Fear always exists, you need to know how to contain and manage it because it is a healthy part of your survival mechanism. The more you invest energy in a comprehensive and in-depth planning of the process, including anchor point planning and forecasting of anything that might go wrong along the way, the more you lower the level of fear and allow yourself to look at the challenge as clearly, correctly, and free of distractions as possible. As you develop as a climber and gain experience, you face the fear over and over again, so the level of fear decreases.”

“Mountaineering is not a nature hike, mountaineering is a journey, it is a challenge conquest, mountaineering is a purpose, so dealing with the fears and with yourself should be controlled by you as a climber. You learn to control your emotions, your being, you work in a cold and calculated manner and you have to make decisions all the time and know that you may need to change them and adapt to a new reality over and over again, all while from 3,500 meters the air becomes thinner and affects the body and changes your decision making processes. You are required to teach the brain to think clearly even when the oxygen concentration in the blood is low, you learn to breathe again, you understand the meaning of the careful planning you did before the climb, because up at altitude when the brain works differently, only planning, experience and professionalism are reflected in every step. As you continue to climb to greater heights, you feel the loads of this kind only increase.”

“Mountaineering reflects real life, it measures your ability to make decisions, deal with constantly changing and extreme situations, and the ability to make cold and calculated decisions. And if you are a professional and optimistic type, you will reach the top, but if you are a pessimistic person, it just will not happen.”

“In just one moment, the world turns upside down.”

Besides the Matterhorn, Kraus summited many peaks around the world including Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Europe, McKinley in Alaska, and others, while the mission was to complete the “7 Summit Challenge” which is considered to be a matriculation path to go through within the mountaineer’s community around the world. Despite the risks the Matterhorn brings along, Kraus intend to climb it even this year once again if possible.

Tell us about that time the Matterhorn almost brought you to your death.

“We started the climb at the Ski town of Zermatt in Switzerland, a wonderful scenic town, where we met an extreme sports atmosphere, Ski, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Skydiving, Paragliding, Glacier Skiing, and lots of fascinating people. After 2 days of acclimatization, we took the cable car up to 2,500 meters and started a 4-hour hike to the first mountain hut at 3,100 meters. You meet many people at different range of ages – from their 20’s and even up to their 70’s. A crowd of people and languages, all have a common passion for adrenalin and extremes.”

“We started summiting at 4 AM, total darkness, and the climb starts as some kind of a running contest, because no matter which path you choose, climbers’ traffic will always wait for you on the way to the top, that’s the reason you should be the first one to go out. After about 1 hour of climbing, sunrise starts and is astonishing at these altitudes, mesmerizing, but concentration mustn’t be lost. On our way up, my partner and I are tied together, and we switch turns on the leading while climbing together up the steep slope. It takes us around 4 long and exhausting hours before we reach to the summit. The Matterhorn’s peak is worth the great effort, as we look at the Alps chains spread beneath us, a masterpiece showing nature at its glory. The feeling of victory fills your body, as you are standing on the top of the world. So, you smile, take a picture, but the whole stay doesn’t take more than 10 minutes because of the very low temperatures and harsh winds. Adrenalin and concentration must be kept at a high level and start descending.  At this point of the journey, it is especially important to maintain your awareness, as a 1,000 meters of sharp rock cliff is to be crossed, especially knowing that this part took many lives. I’ve seen some victims before, and these sights are not easy.”

Sunrise on the way to summit Photo credt: Yoram Kraus

“And this time, it almost struck me as well – while making the slow and dangerous descendent, I put my foot on a small rock, and the crampons got a tight grip on it. As I took my next step the rock was broken, and I started to free fall downwards. I know I’m secured to the rope, but sometimes a strong sudden fall can disconnect the carabiners from the mountain or my partner and even pull him with me. In just one moment, the world turns upside down, that same adrenalin of joy that bursts while summiting is converted to adrenalin caused by an emergency, and understanding I’m rushing into crashing on rocks and probably death. I tried to maintain grip with everything I could reach – using my crampons and trying to hold a rope or a rock corner using the axe I was holding with one hand. Just hold on to something, whatever you can, but without success, and for a second I thought that this is how I end. Fortunately, I managed to stop this risky whirl at once while my right foot was caught in a crevice and I stuck my axe in it. I felt like my right hand is torn off but the falling ended before I reached to the bottom. Everything suddenly stopped, my breathe slowed down again, and secured myself to the mountain and everything got back to normal. I heard someone shouting from above ‘Are you alright?!’, I answered ‘I am’, and felt my heart rate got steady and I can go back to descending. There’s no time to think or digest, this will be done down at the mountain hut. I found myself going back really fast to an organized and controlled descent from the mountain, as if nothing just happened. Up there, you do not have a spare moment for existential thoughts, you can’t lose focus until you reach a safe ground.”

“In these moments you understand how fragile life is, and that the imaginary control on our lives is unreal. Therefore, my main insight, is to seize each spare moment for meaningful making as it expresses the passion for life.”

How do you manage a constant state of sudden death risk?

“You just keep it cool, there’s no other way, and you learn and teach yourself at all times to control your emotions, cognitive processes, and dealing with varying situations. Pressure will surely lead you to your death, and coolness can save you from the situation you’re caught in. Beyond that, all you need to do is keep dealing and never give up, same in business life, as long as you keep on fighting, be determined and keep up – you will succeed.”

“You experience a huge burst of energy resulted by a fault that happened, and you try to find solutions, react and build all the mechanisms you’ve learned along the years in order to get out of this process and keep risks away. There’s nothing mystic about being in this situation, I just keep it cool. That’s how I do in business as well – when I’m having difficulties, I try to map the situation, understand the size of the event, where is the bottom and start climbing up again.”

“It is a similar process in mountain climbing and in the business world, because if you panic and stress about it, then you might just die. You understand that you have no control on each and every process happening, but only on some of them, and the parts you do control you must perform perfectly. It’s a simple, almost binary, process because your stress rate and the ability to deal with the extremes are the ones that will lead you to a safe zone. You must keep your positivity as well as your partner’s as you are responsible to him and knowing that as a team, we have to pull ourselves together from dangerous situations. It is important to regulate your breathing and react, gather yourself, secure yourself and make process continue with determination and tolerance. Mountaineering is not a death wish – you climb in order to come back. The death is out there as it is in a true or metaphoric matter in many actions and risks, we take in life, and you need to know how to deal with it and not to fear.” 

On top of Mt. Matterhorn    Photo credit: Yoram KrausOn top of Mt. Matterhorn Photo credit: Yoram Kraus

Which part is the most delightful, at summit or down when understanding that the mission was accomplished?

“While reaching the summit, the feeling of satisfaction is awesome. It feels you’ve won. But since you’re still very alert and knows that the complex and dangerous descending process is still ahead of you, only when you reach the ground, you feel the true feeling of victory. It is a feeling of wholeness, of merger between you and nature, and only then do you really grasp and contain the experience. Eight hours of climbing and descending with struggles, facing death, with fears, faults, and lack of oxygen, with seeing mountaineers getting hurt and killed, and here you are down there, wrapped in a feeling of great satisfaction, knowing that the next challenge is coming.”

Mountaineering is clearly connected with the business life and life in general, every time it retests your ability to face complex management and unpredicted events with coolness, correct thinking, and the knowing that it’s not over until it’s over. You learn to conquer the goals you have set for yourself, without the fear of winning or losing, and that there is no goal you cannot conquer with you own will. As a mountaineer and as a manager I embed these capabilities in the people around me, and we reach the top together.”

“Mountaineering is a tough and dangerous extreme sport, it makes you face great physical and mental difficulties, which is why there are very few mountaineers around the world, and I am glad I’m one of them. To me, it is the embodiment of life itself, a perfect merge between nature and you, that provides you a chance to explore, study, and discover, and that is the true passion in life, in my view.”