Safety Publications/Articles

No shortcuts

Risk management lessons from mountain climbing

This is part one of a series of articles on risk management. The series explores the common need for, and techniques of, managing risks in two arenas-aviation and mountain climbing. The premise is that both activities, although very different in terms of skills and knowledge required, share similar problems with decision making and hazardous attitudes that often have lead to preventable accidents. Since the problems are common, it is likely that the techniques used in each culture to minimize or eliminate the inherent risks should apply to the other. Author Ken Wittekiend came up with the idea for the series after reading No Shortcuts to the Top by renowned climber Ed Viesturs.

It is August 1992, on K2, a 28,200-foot-high mountain in the Himalayas. A 33-year-old climber pauses to consider the risks waiting ahead. The push to the summit had begun at 1 a.m. as he and two companions dressed in the bitter cold and dark, gathered their gear, and set out to climb the second-highest mountain on the planet. Heavy, wet snow had been falling for a while, piling up on the route they would have to cross upon their return to the tents waiting below at 26,000 feet. Fearing the avalanche danger, he suggests turning around.

His climbing partners are incredulous. "Are you crazy? The top is within reach. We are on time and in relatively good condition. We need to go on," they say. The climber temporizes and decides to push on another 10 minutes. He has a knot in his stomach. He thinks, This could be a big mistake, but once again, he decides to continue a little farther up the slope. Maybe things will get better. Then, he climbs out of the clouds into the startlingly clear air above. He feels a sense of relief as the team struggles up the last pitch to the summit.

Down below, dark clouds foretell the danger of the descent. After only a few minutes of congratulations, they start back down. Soon, whirling snow envelops everyone, and finding the correct line down is nearly impossible. Trying to remember landmarks from the route up, they trudge through deep snow that turns loose under their boots, creating small avalanches below. He knows the whole slope could let go, plunging them over an 8,000-foot drop to certain death. You've just made your last mistake, thinks the mountaineer.

He realizes it is his own fault. He had decided to continue upward instead of turning around. He doesn't try to blame his teammates, but he knows their chances of survival now depend more on luck than skill. As the day grows late, they search desperately for the small tents that make up their encampment. Failure to find them will doom the group as they are suffering hypothermia, frostbite, and dehydration. The group spreads out across the face to try and locate the tents. Somehow, despite the whiteout conditions, climbers waiting in camp hear their calls and guide them into the safety of the camp.

As I read this account from Ed Viesturs in his book, No Shortcuts to the Top, I could not help thinking of the incredible courage and effort it took to accomplish his goal of climbing all of the mountains taller than 8,000 meters. I also quickly realized that many of the lessons Viesturs learned so painfully during his quest are the same ones pilots learn. Viesturs talks about friends who let poor decisions lead them to sudden death. He comes to see that sometimes not deciding is a decision. He learns that it is possible to manage incredible risk with proper equipment, preparation, experience, and judgment. His motto becomes, "Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory."

As I read the story of that adventure on K2, I kept thinking, Listen to your instinct. Don't let the other guys push you into something you know is wrong. Getting to the top is not worth dying. I kept hoping Viesturs would recognize the chain of events that could easily end in disaster.

I also thought about pilots I have known who, facing similar situations, either chose well and lived and learned or chose badly and did not survive. I remembered flights where I let the desire to complete a trip-or the wishes of my passengers-influence my decisions and I chose poorly. Like Viesturs on K2, I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn my lessons.

I remember flying through a dark December night across an active front on my way home to a flu-stricken wife and our small children. I knew the weather would make the trip difficult, but I let the circumstances convince me the risks were necessary. As the airplane plunged through the dark clouds, barely controllable in the turbulence, I shared Viesturs' thought that I might have made a last bad choice. Only later, when I knew how luck more than skill had let me slip through the trap that I had made for myself, did I stop to think about the consequences. I promised never to do such a dumb thing again. Although I have found many other ways to create teaching moments for myself, I have never since repeated that earlier mistake.

Most pilots, if they have been flying for any length of time, will have similar experiences. The lessons seem to be universal. Whether climbing mountains or flying airplanes, learning to properly manage risk is the only way to survive. Time and again, Viesturs faced tough choices that were not clear cut, not simply black or white. He came to accept that often the conditions determine the outcome, that success means having the chance to try again. He learned to be patient, waiting for the time when all the pieces finally came together and great goals were achieved.

Ken Wittekiend, a CFII and FAA FAAST representative, owns Promark Aviation Services in Burnet, Texas. He owns a Beech Bonanza and a Piper Super Cub.

By Ken Wittekiend

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