Safety Publications/Articles

Pointed lessons

Money can't buy you a summit

This is part two 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 led 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 Shutcuts to the Top by renowned climber Ed Viesturs.

It is 6:20 p.m. and Rob Hall is dying on Everest. Despite being trapped above 28,000 feet for more than 36 hours, somehow he is still alive though barely able to talk. He is patched through via radio and satellite phone to his wife in New Zealand. Jan Arnold knows full well that her husband is doomed. She and Rob share a last goodbye.

Twelve climbers died on Everest in May 1996. Despite the inherent dangers of climbing the world's highest mountain, most if not all of these deaths were preventable. Of course it is easy for someone who has never been anywhere near a high mountain to pass judgment on others without first-hand knowledge of the challenges they face. It is not my intention to do so, but rather to rely on the narrative provided by experts who were there, and then make some observations about the common problems faced by both climbers and aviators in managing the risks that arise in both endeavors.

Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air tells the gripping story of the disaster that took the lives of Hall and Scott Fischer, along with several of their clients. Ed Viesturs discusses the same events in his book No Shortcuts to the Top. Viesturs and Krakauer helped organize and execute the rescues that saved several climbers during the aftermath of the storm.

Hall and Fischer were highly experienced guides who had led successful assaults on Everest before. So how did they end up dying alongside their clients in the cold and dark on that fateful trip? The elements of the events that unfolded are many and complex, but the underlying cause is a failure to properly assess and manage the risks involved, along with a large helping of bad luck. Many of the hazardous attitudes that aviators hear about so often were at work on Everest. These led to faulty decisions that combined with terrible weather to form the classic accident chain.

By 1996, the cost of a place on an Everest expedition was in the neighborhood of $65,000. Clients and guides had come to expect that after making such a huge investment, they had a right to expect to reach the summit. Hall and Fischer had routinely led clients to the top. Viesturs believes that Fischer had come to underestimate the challenges. Likewise, Hall had advertised a 100-percent success rate following the 1994 expedition. The pressure to complete the climb was certainly intense.

Because of overcrowding on the upper part of the route, Fischer and Hall arrived at the summit past their personal time limits. Rather than turn around at 2 p.m. as they had decided, both chose to continue. Hall reached the top well after 3 p.m. and decided to wait for one of his clients, Doug Hansen, who had failed to summit the previous year. Hansen reached the summit around 4 p.m., completely exhausted. The two climbers also ran out of oxygen. Meanwhile, Fischer reached the summit at 3:40 p.m., well after his prescribed turn-around time. Ed Viesturs thinks Fischer was likely suffering from cerebral edema, which caused hallucinations and prevented him from realizing the danger.

The final link in the chain was the terrible storm that enveloped the climbers during the afternoon. It is possible that the group might have survived and that rescue might have been possible if the storm had not caught them on the upper reach of the mountain. With high winds and extreme cold, the odds went from slim to none. Unable to return to the lower camp, Fisher died the next morning despite a rescue attempt. Similarly, Hall was unable to guide his exhausted client down the mountain. The two were trapped by the darkness and succumbed to the cold.

You might suspect that past success led them to push past the normal turn-around time, believing that they could get away with a little extra risk. What pilots call get-there-itis is known to climbers as summit fever. Same thing, different name, but it all leads to a bad decision to ignore that little voice warning us that we are making a mistake. What about impulsivity? Was some sort of herd mentality at work? Did the fact that so many were reaching the top cause the rest to push on instead of turning around?

Small decisions that seem to matter little at the time often contribute hugely to the final result. Viesturs discusses the logistics of supplemental oxygen. He states, "Too many climbers put all they've got into getting to the top, leaving no reserves to get down. If you've been breathing oxygen and suddenly you run out, it's like pulling a plug. You simply shut down and stop moving."

Having the determination to establish and then stick to predetermined limits is an essential requirement to survive in unforgiving situations for both pilots and climbers. Viesturs discusses his approach to risk management this way. "In a sense, I plan my climbs backward. The time I want to arrive back in my high camp dictates the hour I need to leave high camp on the way up. I always know that if I am not near a summit by 2 p.m., I need to turn around and go down." This is no different than an aviator deciding in advance what minimum weather and fuel he or she must have to continue. If these are not available, an early divert is mandatory.

Having the resources to purchase a trip to Everest is no guarantee of reaching the top any more than purchasing a high performance aircraft means you have the knowledge, skill, and experience to operate it safely. We've all heard the stories of the new pilot who lets his wealth lead him into the seduction of more airplane than he is able to handle. It is all too easy to think that success in one arena somehow inoculates us against the requirement to pay our dues as aviators. Fancy avionics and lots of horsepower do not cushion the sudden meeting of machine and earth any more than landing on your wallet will save your bottom as you fall into a crevasse.

Decisions about personal minimums are best made well in advance without the pressures of passengers and mission completion to cloud our judgment. Too often, we fail to plan properly and then let our desire to complete the trip lead us to bad choices. Perhaps the tragic expedition in 1996 will help remind us that we are not unique in our battle to manage risk. Whether in flight or in the mountains, the choices we make both before and during the flight often determine our success or failure.

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

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports