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Archive for the ‘Risk Management’ Category

The Hillary Step

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

By now the first of our climbers should be approaching the Hillary Step. Although it is only about a 40’ rock outcropping, any type of technical rock climbing at such a high altitude, after an exhausting seven or eight hours of climbing, can be pretty daunting. Because many climbers struggle with ascending the fixed ropes at the Step, it is a notorious bottleneck. The picture below shows exactly what the team was been trying hard to avoid: a gaggle of climbers held up by overcrowding at this crux point.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012.  Photo from OutsideOnline.

Overcrowding on the Hillary Step in 2012. Photo from OutsideOnline.

Because this has been such an issue as more climbers attempt Everest, the guide companies have done some good deliberate risk management, and this year they have invested the resources in setting a second set of fixed routes, to enable climbers to ascend and descend at the same time. This alleviates the risk of climbers being stuck at the top of the step, breathing precious oxygen and getting cold due to it moving, while they wait for a break in the ascending climbers to rappel down.

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

Throughout this climb, our team has emphasized the principles of risk management, and we applaud the excellent RM mindset applied by the International Mountain Guides team, and other teams on the mountain this year, to manage risks appropriately.

Stay tuned…we hope to hear word from the team in the next hour or two!

Update: Phone Call from 24,500′

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Just heard from team leader Rob Marshall. He and Drew Ackles had arrived at Camp 3 (Rob is carrying the GPS tracker) making the ascent up the Lhotse Face in less than four hours. The other team members were not far behind, some arriving as we spoke. The team made better time today than their previous trip up the Lhotse Face, indicating they are well acclimatized and still strong. Weather was perfect; sunny with mild temperatures. Laying over a day at Camp 2 proved an excellent decision, as there are now approximately 100 climbers crossing the Yellow Band, a rock outcropping between Camps 3 and 4. By hanging back, the team will have less crowding to worry about on summit day. Kudos to the IMG guides for a good decision!

The team will remain at Camp 3 for about 24 hours, focusing on downing some calories and hydrating. They’ll be melting lots of snow in their stoves, and sleeping 3 to a tent, so it will be crowded. Tomorrow at about 11pm EST (~9am Sunday in Nepal) they will begin their climb to Camp 4, where they’ll rest until beginning the summit bid. They plan to leave Camp 4 at about 11am EST Sunday (9pm in Nepal). This early start could possibly put them on the summit before sunrise, which will be about 7pm EST Sunday.

We passed the news to the team about the shout-out from the Chief of Staff, “Your entire AF is pulling for you.” Rob was elated and couldn’t wait to pass that on to the others.

Check back tomorrow for more details about the route to the summit!

Into Thin Air: What Went Wrong in 1996?

Monday, May 13th, 2013

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!

7 May: Plans for Summit Push

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Just heard via SATphone from Rob, who was up early at Everest Base Camp before the sun even hit his tent. The team is all safely back at EBC, and resting up for their summit push. Kyle Martin developed a blood blister on his toe during his descent on the Lhotse face, but PJ Nick Gibson was able to lance it and patch it up in short order. Kyle’s toe was simple compared to some of the other great work “Gibby” has been doing lately…he’s quickly earned a reputation as the go-to medic for everybody within earshot, especially at the higher camps where medical support is much harder to come by. In addition to treating cuts and abrasions, Gibby has administered potentially life-saving treatments to climbers suffering symptoms of HAPE and HACE. This no doubt establishes some kind of record for the highest altitude work ever done by a USAF PJ. We are super proud to have him on the team!

A few of our climbers are still battling the Khumbu cough, but nothing that will slow them down too badly. Yesterday the winds over the South Col were sounding like a freight train all the way down at Camp 2, but as soon as the winds die down, other teams will be making summit bids. Our team will be watching closely to learn everything they can from the other climbers. Of special note is the plan to fix extra ropes at the famed Hillary Step, a 40 foot vertical rock outcropping at 28,750′. The planned second set of ropes will help alleviate the bottleneck that often occurs on summit days, when some climbers descending from the summit must wait for other climbers still ascending the Hillary Step, before they can rappel down the ropes.

The long range weather forecast for the moment makes 18 May the most likely summit day for the USAF team, which means heading back up the mountain about 13 May. In the meantime, they’ll be resting up, checking gear, studying the route, and doing everything possible to mitigate the risks high on the mountain. Tomorrow they plan to hike down to the thicker air at Gorak Shep, and make use of the wifi there to post new pictures, so check back here or our Facebook page to see those eagerly awaited views. (Just for a sneak preview, check out the accompanying picture from camp 3 by one of the IMG guides.)

We are closing in on the big event….putting the first US military team on the highest mountain on Earth…and we want to spread the word to everyone we can. Please take a minute to Share this post on your FB page, Twitter account, or whatever. Tell your coworkers about the team, too. The USAF can use some good news, and this is it. Spread the word about USAF 7 Summits!

The view from Camp 3, looking back toward Camp 2 and the Khumbu Icefall.  (Photo by Justin Merle, IMG)

The view from Camp 3, looking back toward Camp 2 and the Khumbu Icefall. (Photo by Justin Merle, IMG)

6 May: Real-time Risk Management

Monday, May 6th, 2013

The sad news of the death of 37 year old DaRita Sherpa at Camp 3 drives home the point that mountaineering involves significant risks. In fact, some of you may be asking the question, isn’t climbing Everest too risky? Climbing at this altitude involves risks, to be sure. So does flying an aircraft, riding a motorcycle, unloading cargo or building a new deck for your house. The question is, have you and your friends/coworkers done everything you can to mitigate those risks? If you don’t pay attention to risk, you’re as likely to lose a finger moving a piece of furniture at work as you are to lose one to frostbite on Everest.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve heard us talk frequently about Risk Management, and that’s intentional. One of the purposes of the team’s Everest climb, in addition to our long standing goals of promoting a positive image of the Air Force, enhancing morale, and honoring our fallen comrades, has been to provide a highly visible example of Risk Management. The USAF recently revised its RM guidance, changing the term “ORM” to simply “RM”, to emphasize the point that the skills we learn in our day jobs in the AF can (and should) be applied to off-duty activity as well. We hope those of you following this climb will glean some useful information about how to use RM in your own recreational activites.

RM is divided into two phases: Deliberate, which you can think of as “long-range” RM, and real-time RM. Those of you in uniform have been trained in the 6-step ORM process (which has been simplified to 5 steps), and you may be thinking “get real…you guys aren’t doing a 5-step process up at 26,000 feet!”. And you’d be right to think that. Most of the deliberate RM for this climb was accomplished months in advance by experienced guides who have been on Everest many times. As clients in a commercial expedition, we accept the controls established by those expert guides, just as those of us in uniform accept RM controls that are built into policy guidance, AFIs and tech orders. But what we are doing…every day…is applying the principles of real-time RM.

The framework for real-time RM follows a very simple ”ABCD” moniker. A: Assess the situation, B: Balance controls, C: Communicate, and D: Decide and Debrief the RM decision. Recognizing risk (the assessment phase) means paying attention to the hair on the back of your neck, or the little voice in the back of your head, that tells you to pause for a moment and consider what you’re about to do. It could be jacking up a car to change a flat, or clipping into a slightly frayed rope on a steep icy slope. You pause for minute to ask yourself, “What could go wrong here? Is there anything I can do to mitigate that risk?”

Answering that second question takes you to step 2, balancing controls. What resources are available? Do I need a spotter, or in climbing terms, a belay? If there is another person involved or nearby, a second opinion (communicate!) is invaluable. They may see a hazard or an option that you’ve overlooked. Finally, you make a decision and execute. But don’t forget the “debrief’ part: after the fact (perhaps when you’ve not hanging from a rope in a howling wind), talk it over and ask yourselves, did we make the right call? Would we do it differently the next time? RM is an iterative process, and the more you do it, the better your decision making.

If you are an Airman, and especially if you are a supervisor or a commander, please share this post with the people who work for you. The more people who learn the lessons of “Off-duty RM on Everest”, the more good we can do for our Air Force.

5 May: HAPE and HACE

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Those of you who listened to Rob’s most recent voice update (see previous post) were probably jarred by the news of a fatality on the mountain. According to other news reports, the victim was a 37-year old Sherpa who died at Camp 3 of HACE, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema.

HACE and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) are two of the insidious killers that Himalayan climbers must constantly guard against. Though the two conditions are very different, they are both often preceded by symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS. These symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness and insomnia, are common ailments for almost everyone as they begin their acclimation to the higher elevations on Mount Everest. Such symptoms will normally abate as climbers progress though their acclimation rotations, but if they persist, they can be a sign of more serious trouble.

HAPE is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath and a persistent cough, fast, shallow breathing, and drowsiness. Other indicators are gurgling or rattling breaths, and blue or gray colored lips or fingertips. The most effective treatment is immediate descent to a lower elevation, followed by rest and rehydration, and supplemental oxygen if needed.

HACE, or swelling of the brain, can progress rapidly and can be fatal in a matter of hours unless the person retreats to a lower altitude. Common symptoms of HACE are mental confusion, changes in behavior, and loss of coordination. Recognizing these symptoms requires climbers to pay especially close attention to one another, in order to differentiate the onset of HACE from the normal fatigue and mild hypoxia that occurs when climbing at high elevation. The fact that the USAF 7 Summits climbers have bonded as a close-knit team is a definite advantage as they monitor one another’s health in the days ahead.

Sherpas, who have lived at high altitude for generations and often come from villages at elevations of about 13,000’, are considered the world’s strongest performers at altitude. They are not, however, immune to altitude sickness. In fact, their reputation as strong climbers at altitude can make it culturally difficult for a Sherpa to admit when he is suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness, and any delay in seeking treatment causes greatly increased risk.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the young man who perished yesterday. It is a sobering reminder that humans are merely visitors to these high mountain realms, and even then, only in the best of circumstances.

The USAF 7 Summits Challenge was created almost 8 years ago as a means of honoring the sacrifices of fallen USAF warriors, and we are also sadden by the most recent losses in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families as well. Our team appreciates the support from all of you, and we are as dedicated as ever to honoring our comrades in arms, and bringing everyone home safely.

30 Apr: Team Rest at EBC

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Good Morning All!

Today is our second day of rest from the upper parts of the mountain. Several of the Air Force team walked down to Gorak Shep to access Internet and upload photos (check out the Facebook page!).

Our first “rotation” on the upper part of the mountain went very well. All six of the USAF 7 Summits climbers made it to Camp 2 (~21,100ft) and a few went up to the base of the Lhotse Face for a little extra exercise (22,000ft).

Temps up at Camp 1 and Camp 2 were pretty nuts! Climbing from 1 to 2 at 6:15am, before the sun hit, was chilly- windchill easily into the negative teens. The cold air bit at any exposed skin and froze around our covered faces. But as soon as the sun hit the snow covered slopes that surrounded us, temps jumped and it was UV radiation rather than frostnip we had to worry about.

It was a sign of our team’s strength that we all slept well and maintained our appetites at Camp 2. I have high hopes (ha!) for how we’ll do at Camp 3 in a few days. Speaking of that- here is our tentative plan:

May 1 & 2: Rest in EBC (Many of our guys have lost a good deal of weight, so using this time to eat, sleep, and hopefully get rid of dry irritating Khumbu Cough).

May 3rd: Climb through icefall to Camp 2 (skipping Camp 1 bc we are feeling strong)

May 4th: Rest at Camp 2
May 5th: Climb Lhotse Face to Camp 3 (~24,000ft). Will be uncomfortable to sleep/eat, so just staying one night). May 6th: Descend to Camp 2
May 7th: Everest Base Camp
May 8th-12th: Rest Days
May 13-???: Wait for good summit weather window. Once we get the green light, we will likely go Camp 2, Rest @2, Camp 3, Camp 4 (short stay using oxygen), leave in evening (9-10pm) for summit (9-10hr to the top)!

Hmm, what else to say?!

I think the hardest part for me right now is dealing with the boredom/repetition. Going to bed cold, waking up cold, eating the same foods, and thinking “There is a lot more of this between now and the summit push!” Luckily this team of American Airmen is awesome. It makes me smile to unfurl the Stars and Stripes each morning and see it flapping above the rock and ice. Meals are always lively as we tell stories and joke around constantly. If it wasn’t for the camaraderie, we’d probably lose out minds and focus.

It’s been interesting to live without news and daily information from home and around the globe. It is actually kinda nice- we get to focus on the mountain, the huge challenge above us, and keeping our personal ties strong. But I know each of us also miss family, friends, and other loved ones. Many conversations center around what we’ll each do when this long adventure is over. I’ve got warm oceans/lakes/rivers, fly fishing, and maybe a little trip to Vegas on my mind. Plus, it’ll be nice to get back into the cockpit and fly!

Thanks to all of you that are following this historic climb and to those of you sending your support and best wishes. We have been on this expedition for over a month and the home stretch is quickly approaching. We wish we could send more photos/updates, but with the great help of Col (ret) Rob Suminsby and Maj Mark Uberuaga, plus the support of the AF Safety Center, AF Public Affairs, and AF Recruiting, the exciting story of this climb is reaching across the United States and beyond. I think that as the Top of the World gets closer, things will get even more exciting. You can bet the six of us are looking forward to it!

Blue Skies to you all.

-Maj Rob Marshall
“Climb High, Fly Low”

Early Morning Photo of Everest from Camp 2 Walking to Camp 1 (black pyramid on left)

Panorama from Today: Using Rest Day to Boulder on Side of Khumbu Glacier

Capt Ackles descending a 3-part ladder in the Khumbu Icefall. I had to keep moving while taking the photo- too risky to stop in this location.

Khumbu Cough

Monday, April 29th, 2013

While the team rests at Base Camp before the next acclimatization rotation, the Sherpas have completed fixing ropes to Camp 3, and will begin supplying that camp tomorrow.

While back at EBC for a few days, one of their highest priorities will be staying healthy.  EBC is a small city this time of year, with hundreds of climbers and trekkers passing through.  That can mean a lot of germs floating around, so everyone will be taking precautions to reduce the risk of catching anything.  Fortunately, most everyone caught the “GI bug” during the trek into EBC, so they’ve developed some immunity by now.   Every cloud has a silver lining…

There’s one malady at EBC that afflicts almost everyone to some degree.  Here’s some words on that from Edie Marshall, one of our trekkers and Lobuche climbers:

Note the neck warmers.

EBC Instruction. Note the neck warmers


“I’m still trying to shake off my “Khumbu cough” that is a scourge of trekkers and climbers in and around EBC.  The cold, dry and sometimes dusty air, coupled with an increased respiratory rate to compensate for the low oxygen levels, is rough on the respiratory tract. Folks will try to ward it off by wearing Buffs/neck warmers and breathing through masks or the neck gaiters to try to warm and moisten the air they are breathing. You will see people in the photos wearing them sometimes. Unfortunately, this can enhance the feeling of difficulty breathing, and does slightly lower the level of inspired oxygen, so it can be challenging to maintain the fabric around one’s face through all activities and at night. The Khumbu cough can get so bad that it breaks ribs, so it is a real concern for staying healthy and ready to reach the summit of Everest. Our team seemed to be doing a pretty good job of taking care of themselves for most of the time I was with them. For the Lobuche climb, I threw caution to the wind and figured I needed any and all oxygen more than I needed warmed, moist, and slightly less oxygen, so I got to come home with the Khumbu cough. Let’s hope our guys are faring better!”


28 Apr – Everest Climbing Season

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Some of you may wonder why you always seem to hear news from Everest around this same time every year.  There’s a very good reason for that:  the month of May affords by far the most favorable conditions for a summit attempt on Mt. Everest.

Most have you have seen the iconic photos of Everest, with the trademark plume of snow blowing from its summit.  Because the mountain rises to such a great height, 29,035’, the upper reaches of the mountain actually jut up into the jet stream.  That means for most of the year, the summit is raked by winds in excess of 100 mph.  But in May as the monsoon season approaches, the warmed air moving in from the Bay of Bengal pushes the jet stream to the north, affording climbers the opportunity to reach the summit without having to battle hurricane force winds.


Ideally, climbing teams are looking for a four or five day window of stable weather with the jet stream pushed well to the north, when winds drop to a more hospitable 20-30 mph. Usually this window opens in early May, and the timing of most expeditions is designed to allow climbers to be fully acclimatized and ready for a summit attempt by then.  The temperature rises somewhat in Spring as well, although the summit of Everest is almost always below zero (F).  Late in May, the arrival of the monsoon season brings heavy snowfalls, which increase the avalanche hazard, and therefore the Everest climbing season is usually over by the first of June.

Since accurately forecasting “the window” is so crucial to success on Everest, large expeditions spend a considerable sum for dedicated meteorological support.  (Smaller groups without such support spend a lot of time wandering around base camp, hoping to glean as much information as they can from the others.)  The forecasts cover a four or five day period, and obviously they are more accurate in the near term than further out.  As the team gets closer to its summit attempt, discussing the weather becomes almost a full time obsession, and an integral part of overall risk management.  (Fortunately, several of our team members are pilots, for whom studying weather forecasts is a very familiar task!)

As you can see, a lot of things have to come together all at once for a successful climb:  a strong, healthy, and acclimatized team, ropes properly fixed on key sections of the route, high camps supplied, clear skies, and favorable winds.  Right now, the jet stream is still fairly close to the mountain.  As “the window” gets closer, keep your fingers crossed that all the stars align for our team!





Back to Base Camp

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

After a very successful acclimatization trip up to Camp 2 the team descended back to base camp today.  They made the descent through the icefall with a sense of urgency.  Up at 4 am and on the trail by 5 the team made it back to base camp in just a few hours.  They made the early start in the cold morning to minimize the risk of warmer temperatures later in the day that can result in increased avalanche activity and potential for icefall.

Rob reports the team to be strong and working together really well.

Up at Camp 2, while the team was adjusting to the thin air, the Stars and Stripes waved from a  perch high on a rock over the camp.  Nick Gibson proved once again why PJs are an asset to every team by tending to a climber from another team in need of medical attention.  Way to go Nick.  We’re proud of you for taking care of others!

Next the team will take 4 rest days at base camp.  If we’re lucky they may be able to hike down one of those days and upload some photos.  After this rest period the team will make their second acclimatization trip by moving all the way from BC to Camp 2 and then up to Camp 3.  This will be the highest they go until the summit bid.  After this they’ll descend again and position themselves for the big push all the way to the top!

-Mark U.