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Alum climbs Everest to benefit Navy SEALs

Kobold thumbnail finalThough a B-school education may not seem like the most logical preparation for climbing the world’s highest mountain, Carnegie Mellon undergraduate alumnus in Managerial Economics Michael Kobold has little trouble connecting the dots.

“I was trained by the best at Carnegie Mellon. And when you are trained, you can do these things,” he says.

He recalls the now-retired Jack Roseman, formerly the John R. Thorne Professor of Entrepreneurship, who told him: “There’s always an extra seat on the boat, an extra chair in the classroom, an extra job opportunity at a company — even if everyone tells you no.”

That advice proved helpful when he turned his passion for watchmaking into Kobold Watch Co., a high-end luxury brand favored by celebrities such as actor James Gandolfini and British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

And it was his friendship with Fiennes that indirectly led to his latest endeavor: Climbing Mount Everest to raise funds and awareness for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund, which assists the families of fallen SEALs.

About a year ago, on a week’s notice, Fiennes invited Kobold (BS 2001) to accompany him on an Everest climb — a task so arduous that most people spend months training in preparation for the high altitude and physical toll.

Kobold, a self-described chocoholic couch potato who is afraid of heights, said yes.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to pay a price for his impulsive decision. At base camp one morning — a place he describes as “the most boring place on Earth; you just sit around and wait for weeks until the weather opens up and you can climb” — he cut his hand open while slicing a salami in the mess tent, then passed out at the sight of his own blood.

“When I came to, there were five doctors, one tree surgeon and a fireman, two people from the news, and a cameraman and a photographer,” Kobold recalls.

Months later, Kobold, whose company’s exclusive discount is offered to law enforcement and members of the military, attended a charity dinner to benefit the Warrior Fund. A SEAL commander who was making conversation with him asked how high he’d climbed during his expedition.

Sheepishly, Kobold had to admit he had turned around at 20,000 feet.

“That’s not very far,” the commander said with a smirk.

With a blow to his ego, Kobold decided not only to summit Everest, but to do so while raising money for the Warrior Fund. And the SEALs, in turn, agreed to help him prepare for the expedition.

Kobold’s goal is to raise $250,000. He paid for the expedition through his watch company and has received sponsorships from North Face, Acer Computers, Hyatt Hotels, Shell Oil, Honda, and other heavy hitters, but money for the Warrior Fund is coming from individual contributions.

“We’re at home, and we cry about the economy,” he says. But by contrast, SEALs are doing some of the world’s most dangerous jobs to support the society in which we live, he points out.

This time, Kobold plans to begin his climb better prepared for the task. Along with Fiennes, he is also climbing with experienced guides Will Cross and Kenton Cool, and he spent weeks training on the SEAL base in Coronado, California.

The 2009 Everest trip began with Kobold’s departure from the U.S. on April 1, and he expected to start his adventure in May, climbing from the great mountain’s north side. Apart from the SEAL training, Kobold also met with his employees to form contingency plans for his watch company in case he didn’t return. But prior to leaving, he was remarkably relaxed, despite the horror stories about people who left for Everest and never came back — stories he insists on avoiding.

“It’s all about fear control. That’s what I was taught at Carnegie Mellon; that’s what I was taught in my life,” he says.

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