Last week I was in California for a conference. As I live in Melbourne, this entailed a 14 hour flight each way to reach LA. My flight time was taken up with watching movies.
One of the movies I watched was Everest; the dramatised account of the disaster that occurred on Mt Everest on 10 May 1996 that led to 8 climbers losing their lives as they descended the mountain into an oncoming storm. The climbers included leaders of two commercial guiding companies and their clients.
I was familiar with the story as I had read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Villard Books, 1997). Krakauer, a journalist, was one of the clients who survived the disaster. He subsequently wrote about the event for Outside magazine; the article providing the foundation for the much longer, Into Thin Air book.
Rob Hall was the owner of Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial guiding companies that guided clients to the summit on the fateful day of the storm.
His instruction to his whole team was ‘2pm is the turnaround time’. This was in order to provide sufficient time to descend before oxygen, supplies and sunlight all ran out.
On 10 May 1996, there were 33 climbers attempting to summit Everest. This caused long bottlenecks at various points of the climb. Due to these delays, and the number of Adventure Consultants clients who were a few hundred metres short of the summit at 2pm, it wasn’t until 3pm that the descent began.
At around 5pm a blizzard hit the mountain. Hall was helping one of his weaker clients, Doug Hansen, at the rear of the descending climbers. Exhausted and disoriented, they attempted to wait out the blizzard but Hansen died during the night. Hall, out of bottled oxygen, and exhausted from helping Hansen, had no shelter or food.
Weather conditions the following day made a rescue attempt too risky. Hall, in radio contact with his base, knew he would die. The base camp radio operator patched Hall through to his pregnant wife in New Zealand.
They had a conversation that both of them knew would be their last. Hall did not respond to subsequent radio communication and his body remains on Mt Everest.
Hall’s made a deadly mistake under the pressure of getting his clients to the summit (they each paid Hall’s company around USD$65,000 as a guiding fee). He broke one of his own non-negotiable rules about how to leave Nepal alive, whether you had summited Mt Everest, or not: by 2 pm you have to be descending.
Why Hall failed to follow his own rule, we will never know. What we do know is that his decision cost him his life, and directly the lives of other people in his professional care. In the face of his clients’ burning desire to reach the summit, Hall changed his mind.
There’s a lesson in this for all skilled and knowledgeable professionals: back your expertise. Know when to enforce ‘the way things should/must be done’. Your expertise is hard won; don’t allow less knowledgeable and less skilled people talk you around, or use inappropriate or unethical emotional leverage.
You won’t lose your life, but your self-respect and credibility are both at stake.
Sir Edmund Hillary – lessons in accomplishment