Ain’t No Mountain High Enough for Renaissance Man Montes

Rewind to the poster-filled classrooms of first grade. With stubby swinging legs and food-crusted faces, there was one question that you most loved to answer: What do you want to be when you grow up?

A mountain-climber, a teacher, a politician, a CEO, a lawyer, an author. The responses were typically endless and ambitious. For Juan Montes, an assistant professor of the practice, management, and organization department in the Carroll School of Management, however, the answer wasn’t one, but all six.

“I love the aesthetics of challenge,” Montes said. “Challenging yourself, challenging your body and your mind to do something that from the ground you say ‘That’s not possible’ is what really motivates me.”

And that motivation, plus two full years of intensely disciplined training, is what got him to the top of Mount Everest at the age of 24 through South Col via East France, a route that only two other expeditions have accomplished to date. There is a waitlist to climb to the top of Everest through the more typically traversed courses, and Montes wasn’t willing to wait—which is what left him with the more challenging and dangerous options. The route Montes conquered consisted of 3,000 feet of straight rock and ice.

“When we arrived we said, ‘No, this is totally crazy,’ but we were there, ya know,” Montes said with a smile.

Although Montes spent two-straight years of high-intensity training to prepare him for that moment, his preparation began nine years before then. At the age of 15, Montes first discovered mountaineering, and by 17 was a self-proclaimed addict, spending every opportunity he had climbing.  

In addition to Mount Everest, Montes has climbed throughout the mountains of Patagonia, the Himalayas, Andes, Yosemite, and the Alps. Not such a bad addiction to have—aside from maybe the avalanches and 80-plus mile an hour winds, that is.

“It’s not the risk, it’s not the adrenaline,” Montes said. “I have to accept the risks because it’s apart of the game but I’m not going to climb mountains because I love risks.”

Montes’ office on the third floor of Fulton is scattered with traces of his expeditions. The shelves that occupy the left side of the room are lined with books on climbing, some of which he’s written himself. The remaining three walls contain framed photographs of lakes, avalanches, men climbing over 1,000-foot high mountains of ice. In a casual way, Montes notes that the ant-size human hanging off the edge is him. If not adrenaline, it’s clear that there is a love for something, and a strong one at that.

“All my life I have been driven by nature,” Montes said.

Nature is what drove him to become the CEO of Aquachile, the No. 1 salmon-producing company in Chile, and Salmofood, a fish feed producer. It’s what drove him to make reducing the potential for contamination, excess energy usage, and release of harmful gasses into the environment, all common externalities associated with the industry, a top priority. And it’s also what drove him to deny an offer to work for former President of Chile Sebastián Piñera in 2010.

Through his work as a CEO in the salmon industry and as a consultant in the private sector after he finished his Ph.D. in strategy and organizational behavior, Montes had connected with Piñera and maintained good relations. Piñera wanted him to help with the technical side of government, directing one of the state agencies.

But Montes wasn’t interested in being the middleman debating technicalities between congress and the executive power.

“If I’m going to spend years of my life in politics, I want to touch things,” Montes said. “I want to build roads. I want to build schools. I want to solve problems for specific people with names. I want to hug people. That’s the real thing in politics.”

So he said he wanted to be governor. In Chile, governors are appointed, rather than elected, which meant the decision was up to the president. Piñera told Montes that he was completely mad. The average term of a governor in Chile is nine months or fewer, due to the overwhelming amount of social conflict, especially in regard to poverty, education, and access to a reliable justice system. And that average is for professional politicians, not lawyers, professors, consultants, and CEOs, which had been Montes’ professional experience up to that point.

Apparently spending two months suspended above 3,000 feet of ice and rock teaches you something about perseverance, however. Montes remained governor of his region, Las Lagos, “The Lakes,” for three years, the second-longest tenure of a governor in that region to date. Unsurprisingly, the most satisfying part for Montes was his contact with the people and the challenges that arose from it.

“Usually we live in a world where we do only some specific set of things, we are good in just a very narrow setup,” Montes said. “So the possibility of having power and resources from housing and education and emergencies, fisheries, economic development, human development, human rights, everything, you know, it’s like a little country that you manage.”

That little country that Montes managed experienced two volcanic eruptions over his three years as governor. Not only did he evacuate the region without a single casualty, Montes provided the people with a strong sense of confidence and trust, which is what allowed them to quickly and successfully recover from the damage caused by the eruption.

The second volcanic eruption occurred near the border of Argentina, affecting mainly native populations and poor farmers. After the eruption, the farmers knew they needed to leave their shops in the city to go check on their land, but given the frequently unreliable justice system, would not leave due to a realistic fear of being robbed. This posed a problem to not only the specific farmers, but entire communities. People need food.

The stakes were high, to say the least. But that’s never been a problem for Montes. He knows how to focus under pressure.

“When you are climbing, you are so focused on what you are doing that you don’t allow your mind to fly,” he said. “You understand the risk. You try to minimize the risk. But you are not obsessed with that. If your mind is not totally focused, you are not fully prepared.”

So for two months, Montes protected each one of the shops, with police and military force, and provided transportation for each farmer to go out to their land to feed their animals, check their things, and return safely to the city. Creating that kind of trust between the government and the people is not something easily accomplished.

“And you only can do that face to face,” Montes said. He went to the main leaders of the communities like priests and teachers to do just that. And toward the end of his three years, the people of Chile wanted him in congress.

During a visit to Boston to continue with research he had been pursuing with friend Fernando Suarez who was at Boston University at the time, Montes mentioned his potential long-term move to the political life.

“And he said, ‘Are you crazy, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in politics, that’s nonsense,’” Montes recalled from the conversation. “‘Let’s go to ski, let’s go to nature.’”

From there, Montes did a complete 180.

“And I realized at that moment that it was my last chance to return to academia,” Montes said.

He moved to Boston with his family in 2013 where he began teaching at Boston University. He then arrived at Boston College at 2015, where he now teaches Strategic Management and Managing People and Organizations . Although the nature of New England doesn’t quite compare to that of the mountains in Patagonia or Yosemite, Montes believes that that’s not what nature is about.

“I love nature in whatever presentation,” Montes said. Whether it’s kayaking along the Charles River or simply walking around Walden Pond, Montes finds joy. With this sort of low-maintenance attitude toward nature, you’d almost never know that he has climbed through the most beautiful and challenging mountains in the world.    

“He’s the kind of guy that takes you by surprise,” Sean Martin, assistant professor of the management and organization department, said, recalling a time Montes casually slipped in his summit of Mount Everest in conversation. Describing him as well-rounded, a man of high character, and most notably, kind, it’s no surprise that Montes excels in the classroom.

He uses his personal experiences to enhance his material on behavioral strategy in every lecture. Montes believes that every moment, whether it be in the classroom or a mountain thousands of feet high, is an opportunity to push the boundaries. Though he has found a passion that keeps his feet on the ground, he can still pass on the lessons he learned from climbing one of the tallest mountains in the world.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

October 15, 2017