Storm Over Everest

Leadership and Responsibility on the Mountain

Image on left: Climbers on the South Summit (photo courtesy: Jimmy Chin), Image on right: Climbers in the Western Cwm (photo courtesy: Jimmy Chin)

Guy Cotter
A climbing partner of Rob Hall's, Cotter was guiding an Adventure Consultants team on neighboring Pumori, from where on the night of May 10 he was in radio contact with Hall who was still high up on Everest. The next day Cotter moved to Everest Base Camp.

photo of Guy Cotter

We, as guides, set things up on the mountain from the Base Camp through to the summit. We train people on all the skills that are required on the mountain; we teach them everything about the oxygen systems. We try and prepare people for everything that's going to be happening. And I think people are very well prepared when it's time to go through for the summit. They've been on the mountain for a long time. They're ready to go, and they're driven.

It's the client's responsibility to look after themselves. I mean, it's their life, they have to help us to help them. And that's something that we really reinforce with our clients. ... A guide is somebody who is making the expedition happen for you and paving the path to the summit, if you like, but not carrying you up there, not dragging you up there. And if you're making mistakes, then that surely cannot in most situations be held as the guide's responsibility.

A lot of these are driven people. They've got to go to the summit. If they're asked by a guide whether they've got the energy to carry on, naturally they may try to mask the fact that they're exhausted. However, as a guide you're often very aware of where people are at. You've known them for a long time; you've come to understand their motivations, their drives and how honest they're going to be with you. And that's one of the skills of being a good guide, is being able to read through the bullshit and know exactly whether somebody is telling you the truth. You often can pick it just by looking at them, what they're moving like. That's one of the things that you really have to be on top of as a guide. And you have to be prepared to turn people around, even though they may not be giving that many indications that they want to.

Close to the summit of Everest, that is a very difficult thing to do. To be a guide in that situation, you have to be very confident of your decision making. You have to be prepared to expect the repercussions afterwards of them saying, "You've made a wrong decision," of them wanting you to have taken them on to the summit, even though it might have been close to the edge for them. Those people might believe that that's where they wanted to be and that your role as a guide is to actually get them there.

Neal Beidleman
A guide for the Mountain Madness team, the '96 expedition was Beidleman's first Everest summit attempt. Two years before he had summited Makalu, just a few miles from Everest.

photo of Neal Beidleman

It becomes much more dangerous for the guide because at best, they can take care of themselves. Maybe in a rare situation or occurrence, somebody might be able to help a guide out, but generally you're on your own. So you have double responsibility for yourself and for them. That's what's very hard, and that's hard to say, because basically it sounds condescending to those people, but that's how I looked at it when I was there. I never for a second put myself in the position or let myself believe that if something happened to me, one of our clients would step up. Not to say that they couldn't, but that was something I didn't expect of them. And I think that's different if the roles are reversed.

Michael Groom
An experienced climber who had summited Everest in 1993 without oxygen, Groom was brought on as a guide for the 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition.

photo of Michael Groom

It comes down to where this sort of relationship between a paying client and a guide begins and ends. Should [I] have stayed with Beck and Yasuko until I died, too? Does a bodyguard take a bullet for his client? Does the captain go down with the sinking ship?

These are questions that are very hard to answer. And if you think you know the answer down here, you might find you act differently up there. And I think every guide on Mount Everest should be asking themselves the question, "What am I going to do if I find myself in a situation with an incapacitated client or climber?" You know, there comes a time as an experienced mountaineer when you realize the situation is they're going to die anyway. Do you need to die with them? Or do you try and save one life -- and that's yours -- and do the best you can? I never had to answer that question. But it was getting close. I do remember a conversation at Base Camp just before we went up, it was just between Rob and myself. And Rob said to me, you know, if you did lose a client on Mount Everest, you might as well be dead. ...

Beck Weathers
A pathologist from Dallas, Weathers had been a serious climber for close to 10 years; prior to the 1996 Everest expedition, he had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks.

photo of Beck Weathers

When you're in a guided situation, one of the things that you give up is your degree of autonomy to act as you think, to go where you want to go, to set the timing. You have to accept the fact that you're going to move as the leadership structure dictates. And this is important, because in most instances, if you stay together you're safer than if you start wandering off in different directions.

For the most part, that is the appropriate thing to do. There certainly are times when, in retrospect, the best thing to have done would be to move off on your own, but I would only know that after it all played out. You could just as easily -- if you did that -- turn into people lost all over the mountain and then putting people at risk. So you have to accept the fact that you're not captain of your own ship.

Sandy Hill
During the 1996 expedition, Hill filed reports for NBC. Her successful Everest summit on May 10 made her the second American woman to summit the seven continents' highest peaks.

When I signed on to go to Mount Everest, the responsibility was mine, all mine. I expected for the money that I would have a good permit, a sound permit, that there wouldn't be any difficulty with the Nepali authorities, that there would be a certain amount of equipment and a certain amount of goods and services that were provided. But I never expected anybody to put their own life on the line for me.

Lene Gammelgaard
Lene Gammelgaard first began climbing in 1985. Her successful 1996 summit of Everest marked the first time this had been done by a Danish woman.

photo of Lene Gamalgaard

A leader in the mountains is, for me, not the same as a leader of a company or the idealized picture of a leader of a country. Because being a leader in the mountain, for any people with normal intelligence and common sense, involves an acceptance of some madness, some lack of common sense. Otherwise, you won't be there.

Climbing an 8,000-meter peak, if anybody gets on a team expecting a leader to truly be a leader, I don't think these people belong on the team, because then they are still so naïve they don't have a freaking clue about what it's like in the death zone. And therefore, they have expectations that does not go together with the environment that they are about to venture into. ... And I truly, fundamentally mean that, because that's the most risky thing you can do. ... If you go on an expedition and you still have that kind of very childish, very naïve expectation of somebody really being strong enough to be an idealized leader figure, then you're getting yourself into a hell of a lot of trouble, because it's never going to be like that.

On Scott's expedition, it wasn't my expedition, so it was not my role to sort of question everything as long as I could sort of utilize my resources and do what I needed to do to be as strong as possible for attempting the summit. And I knew that that would be possible with Scott because that was the kind of guy that he was also when he was a leader. But he was very rarely a leader in the expected sense of the word.

And the interesting thing is also who died. He died. None of us died because we were all mature enough to know exactly that we don't expect him to be a leader. None of us looked to our guides as leaders. I think none of us on our team looked for Anatoli for leadership, for Neal for leadership, or for Scott for leadership, none of us.

And on Everest, Scott kind of behaved differently at the end, and I think one of the reasons why he did that was that he was absolutely exhausted and he was coming to the end of his resources to sort of maintain the kind of "no problem" attitude, because some of the displays of what was transpiring there I've never experienced with Scott before, and I think he was absolutely pressured.

Lou Kasischke
He had summited six of the seven continents' highest peaks. But on the 1996 Everest expedition, Kasischke (along with John Taske and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of Lou Kasischke

One of the things that happened on Everest in '96 was that there was a bit of a chill in the relationship there in terms of people being candid. We had a journalist in the expedition who was reporting your performance for the whole world to read about, and it did create a chill. I'm not criticizing Jon Krakauer -- he's a great guy and I like Jon, and he was there doing his job -- but it did create a chill. I, in myself, found myself not wanting to admit publicly how much struggle I was undergoing physically because of my intestinal problems and weaknesses that I felt. So there was a bit of a chill there in terms of candor.

And you need candor between the leader and the followers. We do expect the leader to know all these things and to figure them out, but he also needs us to give him the feedback that he needs in order to figure those same things out. Rob didn't foster that relationship where he expected us to say these things. But I also didn't feel like I was [sub]servient to his command. In fact, on the 9th [of May] we argued about whether it was a good idea to go to the summit. I disagreed and argued vigorously, "We should not do this." And when Rob finally said, "We're going," I said to myself, "Now or never, but I can always turn back." And I wasn't thinking of turning around or anything there, but I always felt like I had an option at that point in time. ... To me, a good follower is not passive. We weren't sheep; at least, I didn't feel like a sheep.

There really wasn't any co-leadership there among the other professionals, Andy [Harris] and Mike [Groom]. They were under Rob's direction. And I think it's one of the shortcomings of leadership if you don't put everybody in a position where they can contribute and be supportive, yes, but also the dynamic of feedback, because so many other people know things that you don't know. But Rob didn't do that. Rob did control things, and that was his style. I think Mike had it right at the South Summit when he expressed his concerns about going to the summit. But Rob didn't want to hear it.

I believe nobody would have died if we had turned around when we had agreed to. And for that matter, I feel that if we had an effective plan for fixing the route and a reasonable pace set, all or many or most would have reached the summit and lived, and there would be no story today. But that didn't happen, and at the end of the day, it's a failure of leadership. It's a story of failure, bad decisions and pressures of the moment, pressures to succeed.

I think what happened, Rob was overwhelmed at that moment by the pressures. I think Rob knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he was going to figure out a way to get through it. And I think that there's so many of those forces [that] were at work -- the competitive pressures of the Fischer expedition, his own ambitions, the publicity, the numbers of getting people to the top. I even think the fact that some people turned around were forces that were working against Rob at that point, because he needed people to get on top. And all those things combined together with ego and pride suffocating his good judgment.

I think an important part of being a good leader and making good decisions is to have felt failure. I think Rob probably never felt failure in his mind. And it didn't matter whether Andy could handle the altitude or not, because Rob was just going to take care of things. But I think humility is such an important quality in making decisions. It wasn't just unfair to Andy; it was unfair to everybody because we were all dependent upon the leadership here to make the right decisions on that day. And then when Andy got into trouble, there wasn't anybody to help him. ...

I think at those moments on the Hillary Step holding Doug, Rob's thinking he's still going to figure out a way to get down. He isn't thinking of failure at that point. If he was thinking of failure, he would have asked his Sherpa who were still there with him to help him down. He still figured out he had a way of getting out of a tight spot. He had a history of getting out of tight spots. Rob was perhaps in a way cursed with the lack of failure. Failure is such a good teacher in life. It brings humility, and that humility wouldn't let you stand there at the Hillary Step with another climber on your arm after 4:00. Humility would never allow that.

Rob was a leader who became a follower. He became a follower of Doug, and he should have been leading Doug. And if he had lead early enough, I think nobody would have died.

John Taske
A 56 year-old doctor and former Australian army officer, he had begun climbing a few years earlier. On the 1996 Everest ascent, Taske (along with Lou Kasischke and Stuart Hutchison) decided to turn back after realizing it would be impossible to get to the summit by the set turnaround time.

photo of John Taske

Rob was a very charismatic leader, and he dearly loved Doug and wanted him to succeed in getting to the top of Everest, because Doug had failed with Rob the year before. So on the way to the summit, I can just imagine Rob being torn between the hour, the summit, Doug there and past where he got to before, and basically relying on Rob or willing Rob to get him to the top, and Rob willing Doug to make it as well.

The decision for Rob must have been fierce, to keep going, get Doug to the top even though he was fairly wasted at the time. And Rob felt it was a responsibility of his to get Doug to the top on his second attempt. But there was another responsibility, and that was a responsibility to Doug to get him off the mountain.

But what Rob did went well beyond that. It was heroism in its true sense in that he stayed with a man who he knew was in desperate situation. And it would have been safer for him to leave him, as many people would have, and justify it very reasonably by saying that Doug would not have survived anyway. But Rob did not leave him.

To my mind, a hero is somebody who does something extraordinary, puts his life on the line in order to save someone or something else. A hero is not someone who survives, and in the context of this disaster on Everest, I really think there are only two people who could claim to be heroes. And that doesn't mean they aren't human. Neal Beidleman, I think, did extremely well on the mountain. And Rob, looking after Doug, from that point of view was a hero. Everyone else, they were just a survivor. [Mountain Madness guide] Anatoli [Boukreev] is another kettle of fish. I mean, he did a good job in bringing people back to the [South] Col, but that was the easy job. The hard job was getting them all the way down the mountain onto the South Col, which is what Neal Beidleman did. Everyone else was just a survivor.

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posted may 13, 2008

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