Other than the Munku-Sardyk - the highest peak of the Sayan mountains (3491m), TRASTRA's founder and CEO, Roman Potemkin, has never had any alpinist achievements worth bragging about, and that was in 2008. That is until now when after thirteen years of his climbing debut, he signed on to summit Elbrus - one of the highest and most prominent peaks in Europe. "It's one of the hardest things I ever did," says Roman after the descent, "I had to push myself physically and mentally like I never had before. But it was like a highly spiritual experience, and it's fair to say that a mountain inspires in a way that is virtually incomparable with anything else in life"
This realization came to Roman somewhat late in life: he was in his early 30s when he scaled his first mountain, which until May 6th 2021, was his last. It’s not expected of a family man, a father, and a successful tech entrepreneur to exude that boyish ardour we are associating with younger men whose only burden in life is their virtually unspendable energy. But the opportunity offered physical and mental challenges in addition to the chance to climb with a bunch of friends, and Roman went for it gladly.
Elbrus is believed to be a tough mountain, but Roman was convinced that climbing it is attainable even for the relative novice. “When I first started this, I didn’t have any climbing experience, and what I had I’ve long forgotten,” he tells me, “so I went out and tried attacking the mountain, you know? After all, we’ve received enough safety training in the base camp to go up on Everest itself, so making it to the top of Elbrus at first appeared to still be a life-changing experience but also an easy and fun project. Boy, were we wrong! It sure was gobs of fun, but easy? Hardly.”
Training for a climb is no small feat for anyone, least of all a full-time CEO in his early 40s. A typical summit day involves a midnight wake-up followed by an eight-hour ascent and another four hours back to camp. “It is without a doubt a very physically demanding sport,” says Potemkin. “You’re busting calories for ten hours straight, and there’s no way to replenish your energy: rations are small due to scarcity of space and weight limitations. And without the oxygen, you’re both hungry and tired all the time.”
But the relentless TRASTRA CEO prepared himself for this massive endurance event by upping his already fairly rigorous fitness routine. He’s partial to bicycling, yoga, and hiking as well as simulated climbs (“I’d strap on a 30kg backpack and go trekking”), but anything that keeps him active does the trick. As the climb drew closer, he began to pay special attention to strengthening his legs, back, and core – all of which came under massive strain on the mountain.
“It was brutal,” Roman doesn’t mince words. “First, we’ve done acclimatization, which means several days of trekking, light mountaineering, and training with a rope. Then we moved to the ascent camp and began the preparations for the final assault on the mountain. About halfway to the top, the weather went bad, and the majority of our teammates turned back. Our photographer was among them hence not many photos. In fact, not much of any visuals of any kind: when you’re up there in the freezing cold without oxygen, hungry, and tired, taking off your glove and reaching into your pack for the smartphone is the least of your priorities.”
Because of the bad weather, the group didn’t summit. “But the views were absolutely stunning all the way up,” Roman recalls. “And just the fact that you’re out here where nothing lives, in a place nature reserved for its own unbridled grandeur puts you on the plane of existence unreachable from the ground.”
So what does climbing mountains have to do with running a company? “There are more parallels between running a fintech startup and climbing a mountain than you can imagine,” says Potemkin. Whether on the trail or behind the desk, “…it all starts with taking a leadership position, instilling confidence in the rest of the team, and having people understand that you’re dedicated to reaching an objective.”
Both trekking to the summit and back in the office, Potemkin is constantly assessing his team. “It’s critical because the safety and abilities of the entire team can rely on one person,” he says. Once roped in together, climbers share each other’s fates: they’ll either submit or head back to camp without having done so, depending on how they function as a group and how each member handles the climb. In this sense, mountain climbing is “both the ultimate team sport and the ultimate individual sport.” It’s also a great metaphor for a company’s success.