By Guy Higgins
I recently read a very disturbing book – Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The book recounts the story of several simultaneous expeditions climbing Mount Everest in 1996. A little bit of background first. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, was first climbed in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide. Since then, the mountain has been climbed numerous times, and starting in the late 1980’s commercial ventures have guided paying customers to the summit.
Krakauer’s story focuses on the expedition, led by Rob Hall, of which he was a part, as well as the expedition led by Scott Fischer. He also discusses the interaction these two expeditions had with other groups climbing Everest at the same time (Taiwanese, Japanese, South African groups and one solo climber).
For the record, there is very little air in the air at 29,028 feet above sea level. In fact, commercial and military aircraft are pressurized above 10,000 feet, military pilots are breathing pure oxygen above about 30,000 feet (even pressurized), and if you lose pressurization above 35,000 feet, the oxygen system in military aircraft will initiate “pressure breathing.” That’s where the system forces oxygen under pressure into your lungs and you must forcibly exhale (the opposite of normal breathing where you exhale when you relax). All that is because we need oxygen – we don’t operate well without it.
Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were leading these two expeditions up Everest. Both Hall and Fischer were experienced Everest guides and both had summited on prior expeditions. They both started out doing all the right things – they arranged for their clients to spend time climbing at elevations above 17,000 feet (there’s darned little air in the air at 17,000 feet). They had guides, they had pressurized oxygen bottles, and they were climbing at the right time of year. Yet, on the day that members of the expeditions made the summit, twelve people, including both Hall and Fischer, died. What happened?
Having read the book, there’s not an easy answer. At least one member of Fischer’s expedition wasn’t really ready to climb Everest – not enough climbing experience. One member of Hall’s expedition had missed summiting it 1995, had been strongly encouraged by Hall to come back (Hall even deeply discounted his fee) and try again.
Since Fischer and Hall both died, we’ll never know exactly why they did what they did, but both men independently made the same decision – to ignore their own “turn-around-no-later-than” time and continued to help their clients struggle on toward the summit. We’re not talking about ignoring the time by ten minutes, but by two to five hours. That’s two to five hours longer at very high altitude – far beyond their planned oxygen supply and in extreme cold. At the same time, a violent storm was brewing at lower elevations and rushing up the glacial valley toward the climbers.
Both Fischer and Hall remained near the summit to help their clients reach the summit and get back. Out of oxygen and caught by a storm with gale-force winds, they both continued to try to help their clients – sounds like the right thing to do, and it was, but it was also incredibly heroic. These men knew they were risking their lives.
Hypothesizing, Fischer and Hall may have fallen victim to over-confidence, to the “sunk cost” fallacy, to confirmatory bias and possibly other cognitive dysfunctions. Remember, they’re at 29,000 feet with low to no supplemental oxygen, working hard and trying to think. All three of those things are hard.
Both guides had been to the summit before. They knew what they were doing. They believed in themselves. They’d never lost a client. They knew they could get everyone up and back. The problem is that the future is not a mirror image of the past. This expedition was different, even before they decided to ignore their no-later-than time. Over confidence is dangerous.
The day was clear, and the wind, as they started their final assault on the summit, was less than normal. The information they seemed to have been considering was good. Staying longer looked like a very low-risk gamble. The problem was that they either didn’t access all the information (the storm below was clearly visible) or they ignored it because it didn’t fit with their decision. The failure to use all the information, whether through oversight or cognitive bias is dangerous.
Both men, but particularly Hall, felt that it was very important to help their clients summit. Remember, Hall urged one client to come back. This client had been compelled to turn around the year before only 300 feet below the summit. Hall may have felt that he could not do that to his client two years in a row. All the climbers had invested not only thousands of dollars, but also weeks of their lives, and more importantly enormous physical discomfort and even pain to get to the “top of the world.” The sunk cost in money, time and pain certainly played some part in the collective decisions (climbers can and often do turn around on their own) to continue to the summit. It’s not the sunk cost, but the cost yet to be paid that counts. In this case, that cost for twelve people was their lives.
Most of us are never going to have to make a decision while suffering from severe oxygen deficit, crushing fatigue and extreme cold. Still, we will all be faced with decisions under stress – decisions where we can be over confident, where we can pick and choose the data that supports what we want to do. We can consider only the sunk cost and not adequately consider the future price. For all decision makers, but particularly for leaders – and particularly in stressful situations (such as decision making during emergencies and crises) – it’s important to understand that our natural human tendency is to be subject to cognitive biases. We need to understand, recognize and mitigate these tendencies.
Into Thin Air disturbed me because good people doing something challenging and fulfilling behaved much the way that I might have – and they died.