Mount Everest Disaster 1996

On May 10, 1996 five climbers died on Mt. Everest, the deadliest day in the mountains history.

The victims included the leaders of two teams, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. The others were clients who paid $60,000 to climb the mountain. A complete account of the expedition was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book "Into Thin Air.”

There were many mistakes made. The first was the composition of the team. The team included several people who did not have high altitude climbing experience. Sandy Pittman, was selected for her celebrity status another because he had failed a previous assault on the mountain and another attempting to break the record for the oldest person to reach the summit at the age of 71.

There is a basic rule among mountain climbers that turnaround times cannot be ignored. If the summit is not reached by this time, the climbers must descend. It is a critical rule since descending, especially on Everest, is much more dangerous that ascending. Add to this the fact that if the turnaround time is violated the descent may have to be made in darkness. Now the problem during this ascent was that the turnaround time was not clear. Rob Hall had contemplated a turnaround at either 1 or 2 PM but never made a decision, which, as Krakauer said was “Curious, considering how much he’d talk about the importance of designating a hard deadline and sticking to it no matter what.”

Lessons Learned
There are several lessons that are worth learning from this disaster. First, it is essential to include the right people on a team. Even the best leaders (Rob Hall and Scott Fischer) cannot overcome a team whose members do not have the right credentials.

Second, the failure to establish and enforce the turnaround time points to one of the most common traps in project management, the sunk cost trap. This occurred on Everest when leaders and clients were so close to their goal, and had spent so much money to get so close, that it was inconceivable for them to turn around and abandon their dream. You can imagine that they thought about the cost and time and simply couldn’t think of their situation in any other way, even if it had the potential to kill them. What they couldn’t do was think of the $60,000 as a sunk cost. Regardless of what they did, it could not be recovered. Accordingly the sunk cost traps often is useful in explaining why projects are continued well after they should be abandoned.

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