Into Thin Air – the tragic cost of late game plan changes

(Author’s note:  thanks go to my good friend Steve Broadway who gave me the inspiration for this post)

George Mallory, the British climber who died trying to summit Mt. Everest in 1924, gave his famous response – “because it is there” – when asked why he wanted to climb the world’s tallest mountain.  Since Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay successfully summited Everest in May 1953, hundreds have accomplished the feat.  The allure of Everest hasn’t diminished, drawing adventure seekers to it flanks each climbing season.  Many make it, but people still die trying.

It is late April 1996, and Jon Krakauer is on assignment with Outside magazine to report on the commercialization of Everest expeditions.  By the mid-1990s, it seemed that climbing Everest was an option open to almost anyone who had the money to pay a guide to haul them to the summit.  Of course summiting Everest is a colossal achievement and only the very fit can make it.  But it appeared that climbing and mountaineering skills were becoming less necessary on Everest than a checkbook.  Krakauer documented his story in “Into Thin Air”.

Krakauer signed on with Adventure Consultants, led by experienced guide Rob Hall.  Climbing season on Everest occurs during a short window, starting in April and ending it May when the Monsoon season begins, bringing vicious storms to the Himalayas.  Everest expeditions begin in Base Camp at an altitude of almost 18,000 feet.  I spend a week each summer at 10,000 feet, huffing and puffing after the mildest exertion.  I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to acclimatize to 18,000 feet, which is the lowest altitude camp on an Everest summit bid.  Acclimatization is a critical success factor for the climbers who progress towards a series of camps at increasing altitudes.  Stops at each camp are designed to give the climbers a chance to acclimatize before proceeding to the next level.  It is at Camp Four, elevation 26,000 feet, that climbing teams launch their summit bids.

Climbers are racing the clock from the time they first set foot on the mountain.  They must acclimatize quickly so they’re in readiness for the brief durations of favorable weather to reach the summit.  But short cutting this process has potentially fatal consequences like high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema.  At the extreme altitudes on Everest, hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, leads to impaired judgment, which is a deadly climbing companion.  Then of course there is the fatigue and frostbite.  All but the most experienced climbers use bottled oxygen to help overcome these barriers.  Even with oxygen, climbers can’t remain long at these extreme altitudes because bodily functions, like digesting food, dramatically slow or even stop.

Time pressure and safety procedures are incompatible.  The Adventure Consultants team was optimized for safety.  It was clear to all that safety was paramount and in fact, the expedition would sacrifice the summit for safety’s sake.  This safety philosophy was reflected in the 2:00 pm turnaround time established for summit bid day.  Any member of the group not already at the summit by 2:00 pm, even if within 100 meters of it, was to return to Camp Four to beat the storms that often slam Everest in the late afternoon.

Around midnight on May 10, 1996, Krakauer started his summit bid, one of 33 climbers from assorted expeditions all attempting to summit that day.  There is no traffic cop on Everest, and the number of climbers attempting to summit created delays.  One of the bottlenecks was Hilary’s Step, a 40-foot rock wall where climbers waited their turn to ascend or descend this more technically demanding section of the summit-day climb.  Krakauer was one of the first in line that day and reached the summit by the 2:00 pm deadline.  But many did not, and the predetermined turnaround time came and went.  Climbers were still straining toward the summit at 4:00 pm.  Compromising the turnaround time rule would prove deadly.

As Krakauer was making it back to his tent at Camp Four, the storm struck with ferocity at the exposed, vulnerable climbers.  It sapped Rob Hall of his remaining energy and will to live.  He sat down and ignored radio pleas from fellow climbers to get up and keep moving.  Base Camp patched his pregnant wife through from New Zealand who pleaded with him to get up, but he never did.  By the time the storm ended, eight lives had been lost on one of the deadliest days in Everest mountaineering history.

It is legalistic to infer that any organization whose mission is optimized around a particular outcome is doomed if they allow a radical departure from it very late in the game.  Yet it is reckless to assume there aren’t consequences either.

  • The Everest tragedy was complex, but one conclusion is unavoidable.  Everything up to summit day was optimized for safety, but at the last and most crucial moment, safety was jettisoned in favor of reaching the top.  No one can say that eight deaths were avoidable if everyone adhered to the turnaround time, but it seems likely.  If your organization is similarly optimized to achieve a certain outcome, what do you risk by abandoning that track late in the game?  In the business world, lives aren’t usually at stake, but livelihoods are.
  • Some will argue that agility is sacrificed through rigid adherence to guidelines.  What if an unexpected opportunity with great reward suddenly appears?  Do we ignore it because it wasn’t in the Business Plan?  Of course not; that is simply a different form of recklessness.  We should jump at opportunities to reach new heights as long as the decision to do so is the product of capable leadership and good judgment.

Having an experienced guide is imperative when we’re taking our organization to new heights.  So is the accountability of a Base Camp to help leadership recognize the symptoms of organizational hypoxia and the impaired judgment it brings.


About Jerry Rackley

An avid reader, mostly non-fiction, I read great books and think how the lessons of history have contemporary application. Most of these thoughts are work related, but sometimes about faith or family. This blog is my first attempt to allow some of these thoughts to escape the rather thick skull in which they were born.
This entry was posted in Risk taking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Into Thin Air – the tragic cost of late game plan changes

  1. Erica says:

    Your post reminds me of Yvon Chouinard’s words in the documentary 180 Degrees South, which can be found on this blog.

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