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Into Thin Air: What Went Wrong in 1996?

We are still waiting for words on when the team will depart Base Camp for the summit push. There is a tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that could push some moisture into the Himalaya, and fresh snow could cause a delay of a day or two. Meanwhile, in our ongoing effort to highlight the importance of risk management, we’d like to return to a touchy subject: just how risky is it to climb Everest?

For a lot of people, awareness of climbing on Mount Everest traces back to the 1996 climbing season, when 12 climbers died on the mountain. That disaster, which was so well chronicled by author/climber Jon Krakauer in his best-selling book “Into Thin Air” seared into the minds of many the idea that climbing at such high altitudes was a crapshoot at best. It’s worth looking back at those deaths, as well as last season’s death toll of 10 climbers, to see what lessons we should learn. (Keep in mind that Risk Management is a continuous, cyclical process.)

Everest’s surge in popularity over the past two decades has introduced new elements of risk that none of the early Everest climbers of 50 or 60 years ago could possibly have foreseen: overcrowding, and novice climbers on the highest mountain in the world.

The USAF 7 Summits team is certainly not a bunch of novices. Every member of the team has done serious climbing before. Rob Marshall and Colin Merrin have both climbed 22,840’ Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, Marshall Klitzke and Kyle Martin have both climbed 22,000’ Ama Dablan in Nepal, and Drew Ackles has summited 20,320’ Denali in Alaska, often considered the toughest climb of the seven summits. Nick Gibson is the only one of our six climbers who hadn’t previously climbed above 18,000’, but Nick has extensive experience with vertical rescue work in Alaska, and proved himself on the shakedown climb of 20,161’ Lobuche. More importantly, all of the team members have the maturity and judgment that comes from formal training in risk management, coupled with years of experience applying those skills both in their Air Force careers and in their outdoor adventures.

As Krakauer vividly portrayed in his book, Everest can be an obsession, even for climbers whose fitness or lack of experience should have prevented them from even attempting the climb. That obsession can indeed be fatal, as a grim statistic makes clear: the majority of deaths on Everest occur during descent from the summit. Climbers can expend every bit of energy in reaching their goal, only to run out of steam (and eventually, oxygen) during the descent.

Everest is no place for novice climbers, but even for experienced mountaineers, overcrowding on the mountain can elevate the risk for everyone. For an excellent explanation of how this has evolved, see the excellent article over at OutsideOnline (http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/climbing/mountaineering/everest-2012/Take-a-Number.html). In a nutshell, much like in 1996, in 2012 the increasing numbers of climbers on the same route (and thanks to much more accurate weather forecasting, on the same day) created traffic jams on the mountain, causing climbers to slip dangerously behind schedule. It also means that each climber today must contend with the possibility that the actions of others could put them at risk. In a way, it’s not unlike getting into your car on any given evening…you can do everything right and still be killed by a drunk driver. But an awareness of that risk at least gives you a better chance.

One key risk management decision climbers can make is what time to depart the South Col for the summit. The time is takes to reach the summit and return to the tents at Camp 4 varies greatly depending on the climber. A late departure can make it difficult for slower climbers to summit and return safely before dark, and even faster climbers can find themselves limited by slower climbers on sections of the route where overtaking a slower person is dangerous or impossible. An early departure means getting ahead of the crowds, but more of the ascent takes place in darkness and colder temperatures. Still, darkness is much more manageable on the ascent when climbers are fresh than on the descent when most climbers are near exhaustion. Climbers have about 18 hours of oxygen (three bottles) for the summit push, and they must closely manage their schedule to prevent running out of oxygen during descent, which causes impaired mental functioning and increased risk of frostbite.

One factor that caused significant delays in 1996 was that the fixed ropes on the summit ridge were not fixed until the day the first climbers attempted to summit, and confusion over responsibilities among the Sherpas left some climbers waiting for an hour or more. Fortunately, the fixed ropes for this season have already been fixed for the entire route, thanks to much improved cooperation among teams on the mountain…an excellent example of good deliberate risk management, based on applying the lessons of previous seasons.

One well-known bottleneck for Everest climbers is the famous Hillary Step, just 300 feet below the summit. Climbers ascend the 40 foot vertical rock outcropping on fixed ropes, which can only accommodate one person at a time. This year, the Step has been fixed with a second set of ropes, which will permit climbers to descend while others are ascending. Again, a great example of RM based on a cyclical process, applying the lessons of previous seasons.

Hillary Step Alternate Route.  Photo by IMG guide Michael Hamill.

In both 1996 and 2012, the most basic mistake that climbers made was not turning around when it became obvious they were well behind schedule. After months or years of training, and a huge financial commitment, it is very difficult to turn around short of the summit. But a climber must keep sight of the fact that reaching the summit is only the halfway point…getting down safely is just as difficult, if not more so. This is the ultimate RM decision: knowing when it’s time to turn back and try another year.

For the USAF 7 Summits climbers, their primary goal has already been met: to enhance morale in the Air Force, and honor the memory of their fallen comrades. Thanks to all of you and your efforts to spread this story, reaching the summit is just the icing on the cake. We are immensely grateful for all your thoughts and prayers in the days ahead!