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Tragedy on Everest

In 1996, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer each led a commercial expedition team, attempting to climb Mount Everest. Each group consisted of the leader, several guides, and eight paying clients. Although many team members reached the summit on May 10, they encountered grave dangers during their descent. Five individuals, including the two highly talented leaders, perished as they tried to climb down the mountain during a stormy night.40

Many survivors and mountaineering experts have pointed out that the two leaders made a number of poor decisions during this tragedy. Perhaps most importantly, the groups ignored a critical decision rule created to protect against the dangers of descending after nightfall. Climbers typically begin their final push to the summit from a camp located at an altitude of about 26,000 feet. They climb through the night, hoping to reach the summit by midday. Then they scramble back down to camp, striving to reach the safety of their tents before sunset. This tight 18-hour schedule leaves little room for error. If climbers fall behind during the ascent, they face an extremely perilous nighttime descent. Hall and Fischer recognized these dangers. Moreover, they understood that individuals would find it difficult to abandon their summit attempt after coming so tantalizingly close to achieving their goal. They knew that climbers, as they near the summit, are particularly susceptible to the “sunk-cost bias.” Thus, they advocated strict adherence to a predetermined decision rule. Fischer described it as the “two o’clock rule”—that is, when it became clear that a climber could not reach the top by two o’clock in the afternoon, that individual should abandon his summit bid and head back to the safety of the camp. If he failed to do so, the leaders and/or the guides should order the climbers to turn around. One team member recalled, “Rob had lectured us repeatedly about the importance of having a predetermined turnaround time on summit day...and abiding by it no matter how close we were to the top.”41

Unfortunately, the leaders, guides, and most clients ignored the turnaround rule during the ascent. Nearly all the team members, including the two leaders, arrived at the summit after two o’clock. As a result, many climbers found themselves descending in darkness, well past midnight, as a ferocious blizzard enveloped the mountain. Not only did five people die, many others barely escaped with their lives.

Why did the climbers ignore the two o’clock rule? Many team members recognized quite explicitly the perils associated with violating the turnaround rule, but they chose not to question the leaders’ judgment. The groups never engaged in an open and candid dialogue regarding the choice to push ahead. Neil Beidleman, a guide on Fischer’s team, had serious reservations about climbing well past midday. However, he did not feel comfortable telling Fischer that the group should turn around. Perceptions of his relative status within the group affected Beidleman’s behavior. He was “quite conscious of his place in the expedition pecking order,” and consequently, he chose not to voice his concerns.42 He reflected back, “I was definitely considered the third guide...so I tried not to be too pushy. As a consequence, I didn’t always speak up when maybe I should have, and now I kick myself for it.”43 Similarly, Jon Krakauer, a journalist climbing as a member of Hall’s team, began to sense the emergence of a “guide–client protocol” that shaped the climbers’ behavior. Krakauer remarked, “On this expedition, he [Andy Harris—one of Rob Hall’s guides] had been cast in the role of invincible guide, there to look after me and the other clients; we had been specifically indoctrinated not to question our guides’ judgment.”44

The climbers on these expedition teams also did not know one another very well. Many of them had not met their colleagues prior to arriving in Nepal. They found it difficult to develop mutual respect and trust during their short time together. Not knowing how others might react to their questions or comments, many climbers remained hesitant when doubts surfaced in their minds. Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev, who did not have a strong command of the English language, found it especially difficult to build relationships with his teammates. Consequently, he did not express his concerns about key aspects of the leaders’ plans, for fear of how others might react to his opinions. Regretfully, he later wrote, “I tried not to be too argumentative, choosing instead to downplay my intuitions.”45

Hall also made it clear to his team during the early days of the expedition that he would not welcome disagreement and debate during the ascent. He believed that others should defer to him because of his vast mountain-climbing expertise and remarkable track record of guiding clients to the summit of Everest. After all, Hall had guided a total of 39 clients to the top during 4 prior expeditions. He offered a stern pronouncement during the early days of the climb: “I will tolerate no dissension up there. My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal.”46 Hall made the statement because he wanted to preempt pushback from clients who might resist turning around if he instructed them to do so. Ironically, Hall fell behind schedule on summit day and should have turned back, but the clients did not challenge his decision to push ahead. Because of Hall’s early declaration of authority, Krakauer concluded, “Passivity on the part of the clients had thus been encouraged throughout our expedition.”47

Before long, deference to the “experts” became a routine behavior for the team members. When the experts began to violate their own procedures or make other crucial mistakes, that pattern of deference persisted. Less-experienced team members remained hesitant to raise questions or concerns. Fischer’s situation proved especially tragic. His physical condition deteriorated badly during the final summit push, and his difficulties became apparent to everyone, including the relative novices. He struggled to put one foot in front of the other, yet “nobody discussed Fischer’s exhausted appearance” or suggested that he should retreat down the slopes.48

Unfortunately, the experience of these teams on the slopes of Everest mirrors the group dynamic within many executive suites and corporate boardrooms in businesses around the world. The factors suppressing debate and dissent within these expedition teams also affect managers as they make business decisions. People often find themselves standing in Neil Beidleman’s shoes—lower in status than other decision makers and unsure of the consequences of challenging those positioned on a higher rung in the organizational pecking order. Like Rob Hall, many leaders boast of remarkable track records and employ an autocratic leadership style. Inexperienced individuals find themselves demonstrating excessive deference to those with apparent expertise in the subject at hand. Plenty of teams lack the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect that facilitates and encourages candid dialogue. Fortunately, most business decisions are not a matter of life or death.49

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