This case study focuses on two mountaineering companies, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, and what went wrong on May 10, 1996, when a total of five climbers from these two teams died while on a final summit push on Mount Everest. Even more troubling is the fact that two of these people, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, were the leaders of the companies, and each had impressive experience on Everest. Many factors combined to create this tragedy, including weather, varying ability of climbers, and sickness.
However, one glaring error no the part of each company’s leadership stands out as a decision that may very well have cost all five lives: Neither Hall nor Fisher established or enforced a turnaround time for team members attempting to reach the summit. Why did Hall and Fisher both fail to turn their teams around at 2pm, as is common practice? Furthermore, why did no one else suggest or demand that the teams turn around at 2pm? An analysis of the team dynamics and the conditions surrounding the teams point to three main reasons: An escalation of commitment on the part of leadership; cognitive biases within leadership, and a lack of team dynamics conducive to constructive dissent.
The main issue facing both Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, therefore, is how to ensure that this sort of failure in leadership and team dynamics does not happen again, considering the high stakes environment in which their teams operate. Analysis:
Members of both teams, including each team’s expedition leader, made a mistake that groups in many situations make when faced with ‘sunk costs’ such as time, energy and money spent: they carried on to the summit past the recognized turnaround time for allowing a safe descent. Sniderman refers to this as “an escalation of commitment to a losing cause,” in which individuals push on with poor choices rather than abandoning the course of action because they already have significant resources invested in the existing course of action (Sniderman et al., 2007, p. 249). Moreover, both Hall and Fischer exhibited traits as leaders that were factors in their succumbing to an escalation of commitment to a losing course of action.
Both team leaders exhibited a substantial amount of cognitive bias, mainly in the form of overconfidence and high self–efficacy, which is defined as “an individual’s beliefs and expectancies about his or her ability to perform a specific task effectively” (Ibid, p. 249). These traits were exemplified in Hall’s “100 per cent guarantee of success” and Fisher’s claim that they had built a “yellow brick road” to Everest’s summit (Pittenger, K., 2004, p. 3).
Fisher’s overconfidence and high sense of self- efficacy was unjustified because his previous success on Everest had been as climber and not a team leader. Moreover, he was unsuccessful in three out four Everest summit attempts. Hall’s confidence was rooted in a solid history of leading 39 clients safely to the top of Everest. However, even he had experienced tragedy on the mountain, and he had failed to get any of his clients to the summit on a previous expedition the year before. Thus, he too should have been more respectful of the challenge they were facing.
Competition between these two men exacerbated their cognitive biases. As two of the world’s premiere expedition leaders, Hall and Fisher were in direct competition for clients, especially considering there are only so many people able to afford the two months off and the approximately $70,000 price tag to climb the world’s tallest mountain. Hall was coming off an unsuccessful expedition in 1995, while Fisher was trying to break into the commercial expedition market. Both men felt as though they had something to prove. This competition was intensified by the extensive media coverage of the climb. Each team had a reporter as a member, in addition to a film crew with a third expedition.
Due in part to these cognitive...