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The DOMINANCE downfall

“I will tolerate no dissension up there. My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal. If you don’t like a particular decision I make, I’d be happy to discuss it afterward, but not while we’re on the hill.”

That was said by Rob Hall on May 9th, 1996 and the hill in question was 29,032 feet of Mount Everest. He was lecturing his Adventure Consultants team the day before their ascent to the summit from the South Col at 26,000 feet. Above there, it’s known as the Death Zone.

At 4.43 am on May 11th, after a day of triumph and tragedy, Rob Hall said these words to his pregnant wife, Jan, in New Zealand from the South-East Ridge at 27,700 feet:

“I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.”

Along with three members of his team and four others, he never made it down the hill.

So what went wrong?

If you want the full story, read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Or watch the 2015 film, Everest. Or read Chapter 3 of Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed, which was my main source for this.

But you won’t find any consensus.

Was the problem caused by the presence of other teams, including Mountain Madness led by Scott Fischer, who also lost his life that day?

Was it that ropes hadn’t been pre-installed above 27,400 feet, which ate up valuable time in the ascent?

Was it the increasing tiredness of some of the Adventure Consultants team which slowed them down even more?

Was it that Rob Hall didn’t make the summit until 2.20 pm on May 10th, later than the latest turnaround time he’d calculated to give them enough oxygen to get back down?

Was it the guides-to-client ratio? The lead guide in the Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev, decided to descend in advance of his team in the face of the approaching blizzard. He did, however, return up the mountain three times that night to lead stranded climbers back to safety.

Was the problem one of team cohesion? Hall had climbed Everest four times previously, so he understood the importance of everyone pulling for each other. That’s why he stayed with his team throughout, even when it came down to him alone trying to save Doug Hansen, moving him a few feet at a time above the Hillary Step.

Or did it all go back to that speech he made before the final ascent? It’s true he had the most experience of Everest. He was also in the best position to make key decisions. And he knew every team needs a leader.

But the consequence was when others sensed problems they kept quiet.

Like Martin Adams in the Mountain Madness team. He was a commercial pilot, so when he looked down from near the summit at the wispy clouds below, he recognised them as thunderheads, a sure sign of a storm. But he said nothing.

And when Jon Krakauer reached the supplementary oxygen supplies at the South Summit, he was told by his guide, Andy Harris, that all the bottles were empty. They weren’t and Krakauer knew they weren’t because when he tried one, he sucked in fresh oxygen. But he continued his descent without passing on the message.

Harris then told Rob Hall above him there was no more oxygen, which meant Hall decided to stay with Doug Hansen above the Hillary Step. Had he known there were full tanks, he could have climbed down to get them before re-ascending to rescue Hansen.

The irony was Rob Hall wasn’t a naturally dominant man. He was open, inclusive and loved by all.

But like the other team leaders that day, he believed in having a clear hierarchy, with one ultimate decision-maker. That was his positioning.

The problem was, as the danger grew and anxiety levels rose, people with different perspectives didn’t speak up. They put their faith in him.

What he needed was the collective intelligence of the group. As Matthew Syed puts it: ‘One person has a single pair of eyeballs. A team has many.”

But his drive for dominance was his downfall. He was in the wrong place on the Need Map. He should have been over towards Affiliation.

If he’d had that insight, he might have resolved the tension.


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