This report is based on the disaster that took place in May 1996 when two teams attempted to climb Mount Everest. Rob Hall who had already guided 39 clients to the summit of Everest, was the leader of the first team named Adventure Consultants. The other team Mountain Madness was led by Scott Fischer who reached the peak of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1994. After completing the hard voyage, 23 people reached the summit on 10 May 1996, whereas both leaders and three more climbers died while encountering extreme storm during their descent. The other team members survived the long struggle in the cold weather. There were a lot of factors that were responsible for these deaths including the harsh weather which was calm for the past five years but extremely changed during this expedition. The inaccurate decisions made by team leaders, their overconfidence and the use of directive leadership (coercive) style were also responsible for loss of human lives. The lack of communication between leaders, guides and clients was also a key problem. An unclear decision over turnaround time also pushed the teams towards this tragic outcome. Also, the people in these groups were not working like teams as there was a lack of trust and mutual accountability between the members.
The members of Hall’s team arrived at base camp with health issues due to polluted air and unsanitary conditions during their stay in Himalayan villages. Whereas Fischer faced several logistical problems like the delayed supply of oxygen canisters and high-altitude tents. At base camp, most of the team members were unable to create a bond of trust on each other for example guides thought that it would be difficult for them to assist inexperienced clients and clients had doubts about one another’s ability to complete the task. During the acclimatization phase which is the process in which an individual adjusts to a change in its environment allowing it to maintain performance across a range of environmental conditions, Hansen and Schoening and Ngawang Topche (a Sherpa) suffered from serious illnesses. Fischer sent Topche back, but he died in the hospital in Nepal. All these things made Fischer more tired. Both the leaders had announced strict rules including a rule on turnaround time that was 1 pm or 2 pm and if any climber could not be able to reach the summit by this time then he/she should have to turn back to base camp. But they never clearly articulated the exact time to follow. Leaders had provided a few numbers of radios to teams that will be carried by only the leader and the guides. This approach resulted in a lack of communication between team members.
After Camp Ⅱ, both teams faced high winds and unstable weather that made Boukreev worried, but he never tried to share his intuitions with Fischer due to his coercive leadership. Although most of the members had crossed their turnaround time limits to reach the summit, nobody turned back. During the descent, snowfall and high-speed winds made the weather worse. Hall who remained with Hansen at summit died due to wrong decision to not leave his client. Fischer was also dead whereas Harris disappeared due to his miscommunication with team members. These problems could be avoided by choosing alternative solutions.
Firstly, the leadership styles of the two leaders should not be coercive. As this style undermines one of the leader’s prime tools — motivating people by showing them how their job fits into a shared mission, leaves people alienated from their own jobs. These deaths could be avoided if guides had shared their ideas of exiting the expeditions with leaders. Also, inaccurate decision making could be avoided if leaders had evaluated alternative conditions of weathers rather than sticking to their past experiences of calm weather.
One of the solutions is the establishment of trust between team members by giving them more time together before the expedition as most of the climbers were from different backgrounds. Trust and commitment cannot be coerced. The process of agreeing upon appropriate goals serves as the crucible in which members forge their accountability to each other — not just to the leader. Every team members were focusing on his/her own goal to reach on summit regardless of common goal. Real teamwork happens when a group of individuals comes together to focus on a common goal. There should be a sufficient number of radios available to climbers for effective communication. Also, they could have used technical support staff to assist them with weather information. Further, the turnaround time should be clarified by the team leaders and that time should be strictly followed by all the team members including the leaders themselves. In addition to this, there should be some level of required experience made for the climbers to participate in the expedition.
The lives that were lost in 1996 disaster could be saved by an effective leadership with a combination of good decision-making skills during high stake conditions. An effective leader can switch flexibly among the leadership styles as needed. If Hall and Fisher were not directive leaders (coercive), then guides could have shared their views and opinions on various situations. For example, Boukreev had thought about turning back from Camp Ⅲ but he did not share his views with Fischer because he thought the team leader will not follow his advice. Effective leaders should closely look into each detail and consider all different circumstances for the task. Their decision should not only be based on their past experiences as happened in this case. Leaders must pay close attention to how they balance competing pressures in their organizations, and how their words and actions shape the perceptions and beliefs of organization members.
If Hall and Fischer would have considered the alternate weather conditions despite sticking to their experience of calm weather, then results could be different. As due to high-speed winds their teams faced obstacles in the path and were unable to reach the summit at the accurate time of 1 pm or 2 pm. This delay became one of the main causes of this tragedy. Also, the decision of not sending Sherpas to fix ropes after departing from camp Ⅳ due to some misconception was the wrong one. This decision had also shown that leaders had not collected the information correctly. Similarly, Krakauer realized that both the leaders were emphasizing to follow the turnaround time, but no one made a clear declaration about the exact time. So here the team leaders should have given the clear and accurate decision for the exact time to turn back. In addition to this, both the leaders should have taken an appropriate decision under difficult circumstances. For example, Hall should have left Hansen as his condition was totally out of control and should have tried to reach the base camp. Similarly, Fischer should have sent another climber to escort Kruse down to the mountain because his team had started their summit bid and he should present with his team to lead it in the next steps.
The whole team especially the guides should have communicated with leaders regarding the leadership style and the flawed decisions that they had made during the expedition. They should have recommended Hall and Fischer to change their way of supervising as this was preventing the guides to give useful advice for the benefit of the whole team. The guides and other team members should have interrupted team leaders when they had not clarified the exact turnaround time. They should have asked them to clarify their decisions. They should have scheduled proper meetings with team leaders and with the whole team to make them aware of the inaccurate decisions that they were taking during the expedition.
As the team leaders made crucial errors while taking the decisions at high stake conditions so the whole team members should have assisted the team leaders during these conditions. If the climbers were not satisfied with the decisions of team leaders, they should have provided their disagreement to team leader. That would have resulted in a change or revaluation of decisions by the team leaders. The guides should have approached team leaders early and make them realized the importance of accurate decisions during the summit. When every climber felt they were not working as a team then they should have taken a decision to work as a team. The climbers should have taken decisions to fix the problems during the absence of leaders and guides. For example, if Krakauer and Dorje had fixed the rope without waiting for guides to arrive then the delay of one hour could be prevented which was very important at that time. Also, most of the team members decided to continue the expedition despite their deteriorating health conditions which were one of the most flawed decision in this case. They should have decided to turn back that could have saved their lives. Similarly, if leaders had taken hard decisions to command their weak clients to turn back, then that could have saved their time and effort during the expedition.