1996 Mount Everest Disaster: The Courage to Speak Up

The 10th of May, 1996 is arguably the most infamous day in the history of the world’s tallest mountain. Eight of the 34 climbers on Mount Everest that day died after being caught in a blizzard while attempting to descend from the summit. There have been countless recollections from survivors, and the events of that day was even made into a Hollywood film in 2015, starring Keira Knightley and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Although it is almost impossible to know exactly what happened on Everest on that fateful day, there is some indication that the strict dominance hierarchies stopped the flow of information that could have preserved the safety of the mountaineering group.

The dominance dynamics of the Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness teams that were summitting that day were steep. Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were the leaders of their respective teams and were world-class mountaineers who had summitted Everest in the past. The teams were also composed of subordinate guides, and then the clients themselves who were paying tens of thousands of dollars to be there. Subordinate guides found it difficult to speak up to the leader, and the relatively unskilled clients were even more fearful of sharing their own ideas to the team.

On the day of the final ascent Rob Hall even delivered a speech demanding that the group listen to him and forbade any dissension. Any disagreements would discussed after they got off the hill.

By 2.30pm that day, Neil Beidleman, a junior guide in the Mountain Madness team, felt a growing anxiety as he stood on the summit. The turnaround time of 2pm laid out by the team leaders had come and gone, and most of the group were still yet to reach the summit. Because Beidleman’s high altitude experience was relatively limited, he didn’t say anything to his superiors, mistakenly trusting that they had everything under control. To this day, this is a decision he regrets.

Meanwhile, Martin Adams, a client from the Mountain Madness team, noticed something rather peculiar. From his point of view, he saw dark wispy clouds below, creeping closer to where he was. As a commercial pilot, he knew they were thunderheads, and knew a storm was imminent. He knew they needed to “get the fuck out of there”. But he didn’t say anything. It’s hardly surprising, as the guides had indoctrinated the clients to just follow their orders for the whole expedition up to that point. It was another chance missed.

A few moments later, Jon Krakauer – an author and adventurer who was tasked with writing up the expedition for Outside magazine – stopped at the South Summit on his descent to replenish his supplementary oxygen from bottles that were deliberately stashed there. Andy Harris was stationed there as a guide, sorting through some of the bottles. Harris was adamant that the bottles were empty. But Krakauer knew he was wrong, took a fresh bottle and carried on descending the mountain to safety. It was likely that Harris’ regulator had become clogged with ice, meaning the bottles had tested empty, even though they were full. But Krakauer didn’t tell Harris that he knew the bottles were full, leaving Harris oblivious to the reality of the situation, and still thinking that the bottles were empty. Even though the level of mountaineering skill between the two of them was similar, on this expedition Krakauer was categorized as a lowly client, and Harris an invincible guide.

At 4.41 pm, Hall radioed base to say that he and Doug Hansen were in trouble on the Hillary Step shortly after summitting, and desperately needed oxygen. Hansen, 46, felt that 1996 was his last chance. He had failed to summit Everest the year before with Hall, and likely pleaded his guide to allow him to summit even though he was struggling and it was already much after the designated turnaround time.

Harris radioed back to Hall saying there wasn’t any oxygen at the South Summit. If Krakauer had corrected Harris just moments before, Hall could have descended to the South Summit, grabbed some oxygen bottles and headed back up to help Doug Hansen. Instead, Hall and Hansen were stuck in the Death Zone in the middle of a blizzard. Harris eventually ended up attempting to climb back up to the Hillary Step to help. All three of them died.

The 1996 Mount Everest disaster was a fatal lesson in how dominance hierarchies can severely limit the flow of information within teams. Although the stakes might not be as high, where can you see that a too-steep dominance hierarchy is limiting the quality of ideas and communication from subordinates?

Side story: Just a few years after the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, I was an eight-year-old boy playing with my siblings and cousins outside my home. My parents were inside with my aunt and uncle. We were having a rare family gathering, and a big dinner was cooking in the kitchen. At one point, I looked up from where I was and saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen window. My house was on fire! But I didn’t say anything. I was a shy child, that was even shier when I had family visiting. Gladly, my aunt noticed when she came outside to see how we were doing, and ran back inside alert my parents to put the fire out.

Have you ever failed to speak up? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear any stories!

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

In the last few weeks I have been reading books more than I ever have. So I decided last night that I would write some summaries and thoughts on some of my latest reading material.

I recently read through Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life for a second time. Not only did I find it extremely applicable to everyday life, it also discusses the subject of humanity in the most intelligent and fascinating way. I hope to summarize some of his chapters while adding in my own reflections upon reading.

Jordan’s first rule is “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back”. My response to this title was that although this was a handy piece of advice, this surely could not be so fundamental that it would be in the top 12 rules? For life! I mean, after all there are 10 commandments in the Bible and they tell “Thou shalt not kill”, not “Thou shalt not hunch over once in a while”. So is it really that important?

The chapter starts off describing the behavior of lobsters. Lobsters are primitive creatures that live on the seabed, and often they come across one another as they vie for territory. When they do, the lobsters undergo a series of dominance behaviors until one of the lobsters concedes victory to the other. What’s fascinating about this phenomenon is that afterwards there is a change in the physiology of the lobsters. The winning lobster stands more upright, defiant and triumphant. The losing lobster does not only leave the territory in shame, it hunches over and makes itself smaller. What’s more, the next time the lobsters get in a fight, the one that is on a winning streak becomes more likely to win again, partly due to its new, more exuberant posture. The one that loses keeps losing more, and goes on to live a lonely lobster life. The winning lobster acquires mates, has abundant food in his territory and lives happily ever after.

This captivating story of what goes on in Lobsterland can be translated onto the human experience. In the world of fighting, fighters who lose for the first time are likely to lose again. They’re more likely to give up the sport. The ones who win seem to keep winning, knocking out and submitting opponent after opponent. That’s why a boxer’s manager might keep on accepting fights from weaker opponents, and stalling on negotiating fights for stronger opponents in an attempt to stay off the slippery slope that a loss can introduce.

One of the Bible’s most harrowing lines is “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.” [Matthew 25:29] This is the exact description of what a positive feedback loop is. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The lucky get luckier and the unlucky get unluckier. The happy get happier and the sad get sadder. Although I am not sure how universal or pervasive this biblical wisdom is, it is food for thought.

It has also been said that “when aristocracy catches a cold, the working class dies of pneumonia.” This is all too relevant in today’s issues of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve also heard before something along the lines that “you know things are bad if the rich start dying from it”.

The fact that lobsters are such ancient beings, and that the neurochemicals related to dominance are built so deep into our brainstems shows that dominance hierarchies are older than mankind. They are older than trees in fact. Dominance hierarchies are an unavoidable part of life. There will be dominance hierarchies in the workplace, at social gatherings and at the local sports club. So how can we not fall prey to the system of dominance in society?

Maybe we could stand up straight with our shoulders back. Humans are counter to most of the animal kingdom in that we have evolved to stand upright. This naturally makes our most vulnerable angle of attack (our soft belly and all our organs underneath) open to the outside world. Contrast this to a quadruped that has their soft underbelly facing the ground.

I work in the door-to-door sales industry, and I have noticed time and again that the rejection that comes with almost every sales call can change the physiology of the salespeople. With each “no thank you” the salesperson’s posture gets a little more hunched, until eventually they are just a shadow of their formerly confident selves and barely able to keep eye contact with a prospect. The hunching action is a physiological mechanism that longs to curl up and be warm, comfortable and sheltered. But it also displays to the world that you are scared, that you have suffered, that you have been defeated many times before. People treat others how they think they’re usually treated. If it looks like every person has slammed a door in their face all day, it’s safer just to do the same thing. I mean, there must be a reason they’ve done that, right? Conversely, the successful people in my field maintain a confident posture in spite of all the rejection that may come their way.

If you find one day that you have been surrounded by rude and horrible people, then it’s more likely that it’s something to do with you. Maybe it’s posture. Maybe it’s lack of healthy boundaries getting chipped away by a positive feedback loop, stemming from a incapability of fighting back and standing up for your own values and principles.

Standing up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the responsibility of life, how difficult it can be, and how vulnerable it can feel. It is staring into the face of defeat without flinching. It is the zebra standing up to the lion saying “I’m not scared of you”.

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.”

Stand up straight with your shoulders back.