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Lofty Goal of 3 Executives

February 04, 1992|DANIEL AKST

Oddly, Kaiser Steel Resources Inc. had no trouble getting a $5-million "key man" life insurance policy on Daniel N. Larson when he took over as president in 1988.

Larson dutifully explained on the application why he'd been in Tibet, and when the insurer sent an investigator to make sure everything was kosher, Larson entertained him in an office covered with photos of mountains--and mountaineering.

Despite all this, the investigator never asked the most important question of all. Yes, Dan Larson would have answered, I plan to climb Mt. Everest again.

At last, the time is at hand. On March 14, the 37-year-old Larson and his team will leave Los Angeles for Katmandu, where they will begin a 10-week journey they hope will culminate at the summit of the world's tallest mountain. It's also hoped that no one will die in the effort.

The group will be well-equipped, but it's worth noting that George Mallory, who gave the most famous reason for climbing Everest--"Because it's there"--perished in an attempt to scale the peak via its North Ridge, the same route Larson's group is taking. Mallory's body was never found.

The world of business is suffused with the metaphor of sport. Competitiveness, teamwork and motivation are shibboleths heard so often that they seem almost cant. But in California, true to its legend, there are people in business for whom sport is more than mere metaphor.

Larson is one, and the expedition he will lead includes two others: Jeff Clapp, consumer marketing director at Presto Food Products Inc. in City of Industry, which makes Mocha Mix, the non-dairy coffee creamer, and L. Scott Sommers, assistant vice president at Union Bank of Switzerland in downtown Los Angeles, which makes loans.

"Everest is the ultimate experience of being pushed to your physical and mental limits," Larson says. Mountain climbing, he says, is "the greatest challenge I've ever had. I'm addicted."

All the climbers have met tough challenges before. Larson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Drake University and Yale Law School who has helped guide Kaiser Steel, based in Rancho Cucamonga, out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But that's nothing next to his climbing exploits. In 1985, Larson's previous group came within 800 feet of the summit of Mt. Everest, and when he took the job at Kaiser Steel, it was with the understanding that he was going to try again.

Clapp, 35, and Sommers, 34, are experienced climbers and old friends who've climbed a variety of intimidating peaks, including Aconcaugua (22,836 feet) in Argentina and Popocatepetl (17,460 feet) in Mexico.

Everest is special, of course. Rising 29,028 feet amid the Himalayas, on the Nepal-Tibet border, it is the highest point on Earth. Bottled oxygen is indispensable, and the human body, exerting itself at 5.5 miles above sea level, sheds pounds even on 6,500 calories a day.

Everest was first conquered in 1953. Today, so many people want to climb it that the Chinese government charges $3,000 for a permit, which must be obtained years in advance, and $47,000 more in various fees, Larson says.

Organizing an expedition of this kind is a full-time job, one assumed by Deb Larson, Daniel's wife, who used to design the interior of Walt Disney Co. retail stores. Besides logistics, there is also fund raising: She says the expedition will cost $200,000 for everything from air fare to yak parking.

Despite contributions from individuals and businesses--including Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, and Silver Oak Wine Cellars of Oakville, Calif.--the group is still short $50,000 to $75,000.

Analogies to business are, of course, overwhelming--there is personal risk, intense commitment, goal setting, finance and, yes, teamwork. Not surprisingly, since these are California executives, this is billed as an environmentally correct expedition.

Years of assault by climbers have left Everest littered with debris. The air is so cold and dry that even human wastes don't break down. So Larson, Clapp, Sommers et al. have vowed to bring back or properly dispose of everything they use in their trek.

(It's worth noting that Kaiser Steel is out of the steel business and has leased its former California iron-ore mine for development as a landfill.)

The participants have been preparing for Everest for years. Cardiovascular conditioning is a daily ritual; Larson even works out twice a day. Says Sommers: "We try and climb a mountain a week."

The 10-man team includes two other Californians--Indio meteorologist Carl Garczynski and Tahoe City climber Paul Teare. Several others are virtually professional climbers as well.

As preparations come down to the wire--if they miss this chance, the mountain is booked up through the late 1990s--Larson, Clapp and Sommers are forced to juggle jobs, family life, workouts and logistics faster and faster. How do they do it? "One word," says Clapp. "Delegation."

No one seems too concerned about getting killed, although deaths on Everest do occur. Larson did not turn back lightly the last time, when he was so close to the summit. But in the face of bad weather and low oxygen supplies, his expedition did indeed turn back.

So if you're thinking of calling your broker because Kaiser Steel might collect that $5 million (four times its 1990 earnings), put down the phone. Larson's worth more alive than dead anyway.

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