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!