Cathy O'Dowd keynote speaker

Cathy O'Dowd

Born explorer and two-time conqueror of Mount Everest

South African mountaineer Cathy O’Dowd is the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest from both sides. Her many high Himalayan expeditions provided extensive experience with individuals and teams facing stress, risk and overwhelming challenge. She shares these insights with her corporate audiences through story-driven expedition case-studies. She is an internationally acclaimed motivational speaker who has spoken in over 40 countries.

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Cathy O’Dowd's videos

What Cathy O’Dowd's clients say

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Languages: 

  • English
  • French
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Cathy O'Dowd's 2022 biography

About Cathy O’Dowd

Cathy O’Dowd is the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, from both its north and south sides. Her first ascent of Everest happened in the midst of the chaotic events that form of the basis of the ‘true story’ behind the Hollywood movie Everest.

Cathy, who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, has climbed ever since leaving school. She was completing her Masters degree in Journalism, while working as university lecturer, when she saw a newspaper advert for a place on the 1st South African Everest Expedition. Six months later she was the first South African to summit Everest. Three years later she became the first woman in the world to climb the mountain from both sides. Finally she made one last expedition to Everest to try a new route on the Kangshung face. She has written a book about her Everest experiences, Just For The Love Of It.

The years she spent in the Himalaya were for her a degree ‘in living’. The insights she discovered about herself, and about individuals and teams under intense stress in the face of overwhelming challenge, are ones she has been sharing with her corporate audiences ever since. Her stories touch on themes of importance to anyone trying to run successful projects and get the best out of people.

Cathy’s most challenging Himalayan epic was as part of team forging a new route on an 8000 metre peak. Although Cathy herself did not reach the summit, two of her teammates did, doing the first ascent of Nanga Parbat via the Mazeno ridge, and winning the prestigious Piolet d’Or for their achievement. She has turned this experience into a fascinating interactive case-study of successful project execution of truly innovative goals.

Cathy has been a professional speaker for over 20 years and has presented her message to companies in 44 countries on six continents. She is a Fellow of the Professional Speaking Association of UK/Ireland, who have given her their highest award, the Professional Speaking Award of Excellence. Her spring 2019 expedition is a ski ascent of Mt Steele, a 5000 metre peak in the Canadian Yukon.

Cathy is actively involved with charities focused on female empowerment, notably the Rwenzori Women for Health project in Uganda, and the Astraia Female Leadership Foundation in Germany. She lives in Andorra, in the Pyrenees mountains, from where she pursues her speaking career, and explores the mountains of Europe. In her free time she does technical rock-climbing and ski-mountaineering.

 

 

Cathy O'Dowd's 2022 talks & topics

Everest: in Search of Peak Performance

Personal Achievement

Everest: the Teamwork Cycle

A dramatic story from an award-winning new route in the high Himalaya

One of the last great mountaineering challenges – the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat. International climbing teams had tried 10 times over three decades – and all failed. How would Cathy’s team be different? And how did they adapt when their plan came up against the complicated, unexpected reality?

Cathy has turned this extraordinary experience into a case-study of the challenges of trying to do what has never been done before. She examines the pitfalls of operating in unpredictable, high-risk environments and identifies the key problems in executing ambitious plans in uncertain environments. Her analysis and solutions will help any strategic planner implement innovative objectives more effectively.

Overcoming the Greatest Challenge in Life

Dealing with Adversity

Move beyond Everest to true innovation

With Everest, the world’s highest mountain, reduced to a queue of commercial clients clipped into a fixed handrail laid out by Sherpas, it’s time for real climbers to step out of the line and once more tackle the unknown.

The Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat was one of the last great problems in the Himalaya, the longest unclimbed ridge on any 8000 metre peak. With a small group climbing alpine-style (fast, light and unsupported), the team of six came within inches of disaster before finally getting two members to the top – who then, with neither food nor water left, had to get down again. The summit pair would win a Piolet d’Or (the mountaineering equivalent of an Oscar) for their performance.

Cathy’s analysis of how the team planned for the challenge, what went wrong in the execution and how they adapted, regrouped and eventually triumphed makes for a rollercoaster ride. She looks at the challenges and rewards of bringing together a diverse team, and digs deep into decisions and consequences, looking at how to be flexible in the planning while still focused on the goal.

The Power of Enjoying your Journey as a Tool

Understanding the Growth Cycle of your Team

To the summit of Everest – and beyond

Mount Everest: the highest point on Earth, guarded by vast flanks of rock, ice and snow. Of the climbers who tackle this challenge, 75% will fail, one in a hundred will die.What makes the mountain so difficult? The obvious answers are crevasses, avalanches, blizzards. However, the real danger is commonly overlooked. It is people: yourself, your team-mates.

Reaching New Heights draws on the lessons Cathy O’Dowd learnt from her first Everest expedition. With the focus on finances and logistics, the dynamic of the team was ignored. The team collapsed into in-fighting and power-play from the first day, and three members walked out before reaching base camp.

The key obstacles that Cathy and her team-mates discovered on the mountain turned out to all come from within the team. However, they also discovered hidden tools that finally got them to the top – tools that are not about ropes and ice-axes but rather ways to manage people as effectively as possible in pursuit of your common goal.

A real-world illustration of the reasons for failure and the keys to success for peak performance

The place where the worlds of mountains and business meet is with people: ambitious people tackling overwhelming challenges in high-risk, high-stress environments. These are people whose natural ability can push them towards competition rather than collaboration, yet who need to function effectively in tight-knit teams.

In mountains, as in business, there is much about the external environment that cannot be controlled. The place where we can most easily and quickly improve our effectiveness is in the attitude of our people – how focused, motivated and efficient our teams are.
Conversely, the most common problems that lead to teams falling apart are also of our own making. Most success speakers don’t talk about how wrong it can go, but Cathy shares the ways in which people create their own disasters and shows how to overcome them, refocusing teams to climb to summit success.

Her stories of failure are told with humour and refreshing honesty. Her stories of success are dramatic and memorable, and the tools she highlights are as important in normal life as they are on the mountain.

Cathy O'Dowd's 2022 speaking fees

Cathy travels from:
  • United Kingdom

Specific fees fall within the ranges shown. These are presented as a guide only and are subject to change without notice.

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