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Real-World Self-Leadership Case: Mount Everest Tragedy

The case study below addresses the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy. Based on the information presented in that case, please respond to the following questions.

  • Do you think that better self-leadership among the members of the 1995 Everest expedition teams could have led to better decisions? How?
  • In what ways might groupthink have played a role in this disaster, and how could a teamthink approach have been beneficial in this situation?
  • What would you have done if you had been a member of one of the 1996 expedition teams?

Tragedy on Mount Everest

On May 10, 1996, four expeditions of climbers set out to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at more than 29,000 feet above sea level and the grandest objective in all of mountaineering. Hours later, eight of the climbers would be dead and several more injured in what would become one of the most disastrous days in the mountain’s history. Climbing Everest is an inherently dangerous undertaking, and hundreds of climbers have perished attempting to reach the summit. Summiting involves careful planning, tight controls, and close coordination. Climbers often leave the highest base camp, Camp IV, at midnight carrying canisters of oxygen that will last 16 to 17 hours. The objective is to summit early in the day, followed by a quick descent in advance of the relatively common afternoon snowstorms and full oxygen depletion, which occurs around 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. A turnaround time of noon is considered conservative, while a return time of 2:00 p.m. is viewed as risky.

By 1996, the Everest experience had been commercialized to the point that four groups of climbers were attempting to summit the relatively overcrowded mountain that day. Of note were two commercial expeditions, the first led by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants and the second by Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Both were skilled and knowledgeable climbers who had experience summiting Everest. Hall’s team was composed of fifteen climbers including clients and professional guides Mike Groom and Andy Harris, while Fischer’s team had twelve members, including clients and guides Neal Beidleman and Anatoli Boukreev. Both teams included local Sherpa guides, whose mountaineering skill and experience are critical to successful Everest expeditions.

As they planned for the final push to the top, Hall and Fischer decided that they would pool their resources and work together. One Sherpa from each team would be dispatched ahead of the main groups to set the fixed ropes necessary to climb a technical area known as “The Balcony.” However, one of the Sherpas, Lopsang Jangbu, was busy assisting a client and did not ascend in advance of the team to assist the second Sherpa, Anj Dorje, in setting the ropes. Dorje refused to work alone and consequently the ropes weren’t set. When the main group of climbers reached The Balcony, a bottleneck ensued that substantially slowed down all the climbers while Anatoli Boukreev and Neal Beidleman worked on getting the ropes in place.

With a nasty storm forming beneath them, the delays and resulting slow climbing made it apparent that the teams would not be able to reach the summit by 2:00 p.m. However, instead of turning their clients around and heading back down the mountain, guides from both teams decided to keep going and attempt to summit. As was his habit, Boukreev climbed ahead of the main groups and reached the summit by himself. Although his boss, Fischer, disagreed with this practice, Boukreev believed that guides should not be responsible for babysitting clients and that anyone attempting to climb the mountain should be able to watch out for themselves. Consequently, Boukreev climbed entirely alone that day and did not help any climbers up or down the mountain, which could have resulted in a faster descent for all ahead of the fierce storm that would soon break.

Around 4:00 p.m., Rob Hall assisted client Doug Hansen in reaching the summit. Moments later as they began their descent, Hansen collapsed with his oxygen supplies exhausted. Hall refused to abandon him there. Meanwhile, Fischer and Jangbu were in serious trouble a few hundred feet lower, while the rest of the climbers, scattered at other locations on the mountain, were being enveloped by the thickening snow storm. In the end, Hansen, Hall, and Fischer would all die, along with five other members of the expeditions. The death toll could have been even worse if Boukreev (who later claimed he descended quickly in order to be fresh if called upon to assist in rescuing other descending climbers) and Beidleman had not literally dragged several of the remaining struggling climbers back to the safety of Camp IV. The 1996 Everest disaster remains one of the darkest chapters in the history of the lonely mountain.