Shortly after Midnight on 10 May 1996, Rob Hall and his team entered the Death Zone, they had 3117 vertical feet left to climb to reach the summit of Mount Everest. If everything went to plan they would be standing on the top of the world in twelve hours time.
All of the group were experienced climbers and mountaineers, who had climbed numerous summits around the globe. They strapped masks to their faces so that they could breathe from the oxygen bottles that were essential in the thin air five miles above sea level and patiently climbed from South Col to the Balcony.
The team has passed by dead bodies that litter the landscape along the route to the summit, they were palpably aware of the dangers that surrounded them, but they were being led by a man, Hall, who had summited four times before. He had the experience to lead them to the top and back again safely, they wouldn’t become one of the many that lost their lives.
Hall was one of the finest mountaineers in the world, his appreciation of team cohesion meant that he has made sure that the members of the team got to know each other and that they had shared personal stories about what reaching the summit meant to each other. Helping each other achieve a dream meant that each of them felt part of something great.
The night before the ascent, Rob Hall gave the following speech. “I will tolerate no dissension up there, my word will be absolute law, beyond appeal. If you don’t like a particular decision I make, I’ll be happy to discuss it afterwards, but not while we are on the hill.”
This was not an uncommon approach to team hierarchies when climbing mountains like Everest, Mountain Madness, another team that were approaching the summit also had a steep hierarchy, with a team leader and subordinate guides leading experienced climbing clients. It was one way to ensure that things ran smoothly and everyone was kept safe.
The mountain was crowded that day as Hall’s team and Mountain Madness both arrived at the Hillary Step, a steep smooth and holdless rock step some 40 feet high. There was some delay as ropes that were normally pre-installed we fixed to the face, precious time that ate into the breathing time they had in the oxygen tanks that they carried.
First signs of danger
Every team sets a turnaround time, a moment when the amount of oxygen remaining in the bottles dictates that they should give up the quest for the summit, for Halls team that was 2 pm. At 1 pm Jon Krakauer reached the summit ahead of the rest of his team, he was thrilled to have fulfilled a life time ambition, but he could see that things were not going to plan.
Hall was still a long way below the summit and many of the other team members were becoming very tired, but they all kept moving forwards. Eventually Hall reached the summit at 2:20 pm, a little past the safe turnaround point, he had passed Krakauer as the latter descended. They hugged, and Krakauer thanked Hall for helping him achieve a dream.
The team had helped each other achieve their dreams, they hadn’t given up in the face of adversity, they knew how much each other valued their goal, they were aligned. The elation from being part of something so much bigger than themselves was huge. Building teams this way and improving cohesion requires a huge level of trust and understanding.
That was the last time the Krakauer saw Rob Hall alive. Within hours 8 members of the various teams on the mountain were dead. Being a cohesive team hadn’t been enough to save them.
This is part of the tale of the 1996 Everest tragedy, a story which has been written about and turned into films. Everyone who came down from the mountain that day is scarred by what happened, and all of them tell a slightly different story. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The disaster didn’t happen because of a lack of team cohesion. Everyone on the mountain worked together heroically throughout the disaster to try and save lives. It happened because of something called dominance dynamics.
All of the teams had steep hierarchy gradients, as we saw yesterday, Hall had made it clear that he was in control and there was to be no dissent. The same was true for team Mountain Madness. There was a team leader, a second in command and then a third guide. At the bottom of the pile were the clients, although each of them had lots of high altitude mountaineering experience. The problem is that the guides only have one pair of eyes each, and altitude can play funny tricks on everyone. Instead of relying on all the information that was available to them, the team leaders limited that pool of information to just the guides.
The delays in the ascent at Hillary Step meant that by the time the some of the team had reached the summit the turnaround times had come and gone, mobile oxygen supplies were going to be stretched to the limit on the return. Indeed, one of Mountain Madness’ guides had decided to descend the mountain already, which should have set alarm bells ringing for the rest of them. But no one spoke up.
One of the clients on Mountain Madness was a commercial pilot, he had lots of experience of weather patterns and cloud formations. As they crept closer and closer to the summit, he looked down and what he saw made his heart beat a little faster. Below him he could see tell tale signs that a storm was brewing.
He didn’t speak up. None of the other team members realised what the cloud formation meant because they didn’t have his experience. Because he had been instructed to stay silent, he did. Instead of getting everyone off the mountain to safety, the guides continued to lead the teams ever higher.
Krakauer, on his descent, met the Mountain Madness team at the point where the oxygen bottles were being stored. One of the guides was checking reserves and as Krakauer put a bottle to his face and breathed in the oxygen that his body so desperately craved, told him that the bottles were all empty. The guide’s regulator must have frozen and not registered the oxygen that Krakauer was now breathing in. Krakauer knew his was wrong, but said nothing.
Whether this was due to the affect of altitude, or the hierarchy that separated them is unclear. Although Krakauer does say that the thought that a guide might be in danger never occurred to his crippled brain, the guides were invincible, infallible and there to take care of them, not the other way round.
The fact that this information wasn’t passed on had fatal consequences for Rob Hall and one of his clients Doug Hansen. The storm struck as they were descending and he radioed down to say that they were in trouble and needed oxygen. Had he known that there was oxygen at the South Summit he could have descended to retrieve some and then returned to save Doug Hansen. Instead he struggled alone in the storm to drag him down the mountain.
Snow fell and the wind rose, visibility was reduced to nothing. The following hours saw great acts of heroism and bravery as individuals risked everything to get people off the mountain and down to the relative safety of Camp 4. The guide who had descended early returned three times to carry people down the mountain, another friend of Rob Hall attempted to climb all the way up the mountain to rescue his friend. He was never seen again.
This harrowing tale of bravery and disaster are compelling reading (and viewing) but what it reveals is that team ethic alone isn’t enough without getting the dynamics right. Communication is the oxygen of any group.