To a simple question as ‘Why do people climb Everest?’, each person may have a different answer or purpose behind it. For some it might be a challenge, a passion, or a symbol of status/fame while for some it might be a way to escape and for some a proving point like Doug Hansen had in this case.
For some it is a livelihood, like the Sherpas while for others like Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness a way to cash in money on another’s dream and ambition to climb Everest. Thus, it brings into focus what’s important to a person. There maybe a thousand reasons to turn around but that one reason that’s important and unique to a person keeps them going.
Quoting from ‘Into the Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer, “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.” People falling into the one or the other of these categories had gathered at the foothills of Everest, aiming for the zenith and had paid a hefty amount for the task.
But not all could make it back. “When you get at the top a big mountain, you’re only half there.” Five climbers did not survive the descent. Two of these, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, were extremely skilled team leaders with much experience on Everest. Several explanations compete: human error, weather, missing rope lines, old-fashioned radiophones (only 2) and all the dangers inherent in human beings pitting themselves against the world’s most forbidding peak.
A root cause can’t be found out because all these are complex interactions which have multiple causes and collectively affect the decision-making ability. It was a tightly coupled system which was time dependent and followed a rigid sequence which had one dominant path to goal. Adding to that was too much rush at the top, lack of control and not sticking to time schedule.
The climb could have been a success but it was plagued by lack of proper planning, cognitive biases and being heedless about uncertainty of many other factors. The leaders of both troops had an overconfidence bias of reaching the top and returning back due to their expertise. Hansen had put too much of himself to pull back out without achieving the goal, thus was experiencing a sunk cost effect.
The recency effect bias led Hall and Fischer’s to make an incorrect assumption that the weather would be calm and agreeable. They both led expeditions on Everest for several previous seasons that experienced only agreeable weather, however, this was the outlier, not the norm. For many seasons prior to Hall and Fischer’s expeditions, storms were the norm. The choices we make, play a crucial role in determining the course of our lives.
Everybody had one or another choice to make, whether to go up or turn around, to help others or only worry about oneself and many more and what they chose influenced their fate more or less ahead. Rob Hall due to an emotional contract with Doug couldn’t leave him up alone. Even he had a choice to go down but he made a choice to stay up.
The major takeaways for leaders from this case is proper planning and decision-making, not suppressing constructive dissent, learning from failures and not making individual contributors as team leaders. We have a natural tendency to blame other people for failures while sometimes attribute to the poor performance of external and contextual factors. Rare are the days, where we individually or collectively as a team take ownership of the mistakes.
The Everest case suggests that this leads to erroneous conclusions and reduce our capability to learn from experience. Fostering constructive dissent poses another challenge for managers. As we saw in the Everest case, insufficient debate among team members can diminish the extent to which plans and proposals undergo critical evaluation. Flawed ideas remain unchallenged, and creative alternatives are not generated.
On the other hand, when leaders arrive at a final decision, they need everyone to accept the outcome and support its implementation. They cannot allow continued dissension to disrupt the effort to turn that decision into action. Hence, a right mix of leadership, team dynamics and decision making can save the day.