I went to see Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest in the cinema that tells the story of the tragic events on Everest in May 1996 that played out around the Hall/ Fisher groups, resulting in eight people dying during their attempt to reach the summit. The following year, Jon Krakauer, who was a member of Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants group, wrote about the same events in his book Into Thin Air.
The 3D effect is put to stunning use in the film, offering spectacular moutainscapes and vertiginous views down into the void. My favorite is a panning shot of the Russian MI-17 helicopter the group chartered to take them from Katmandu up to Lukla airport in front of the spectacular mountain panorama of the Everest massif, as it reflects human efforts and struggle in such stark contrast to the power of nature.
I felt that Everest offered what felt like a fair portrayal of events, depicting Rob Hall’s meticulous planning and risk management ahead of the event, his deep concern and caring for his clients – and how it all went to pieces during the summit attempt. Of course, this is the kind of incident where the full truth will probably never be known, who made which decision when that led to the catastrophic system failure – and maybe in the end it is a moot point as often there will be a subjective component as to how you view an event. Jon Krakauer’s and Kormákur’s views of what happened on 10 May certainly differ in a number of details, but I think this is beside the point.
Göran Kropp was a young Swedish adventurer who was also on Everest during that period. With a difference. He had left Stockholm in October 1995 by bike, pulling a trailer loaded with 110kg of equipment, travelled 8000km to Everst base camp arriving there in April 1996. On May 3, Kropp climbed through thigh-deep snow and reached a point 90m from the summit. However, he decided to turn around because it was too late in the day and if he continued, he would be descending in the dark. He ascended without bottled oxygen – and without Sherpa support. After aborting his first attempt, he descended back down to base camp and was recovering there whilst disaster unfolded on the mountain. Three weeks later, on May 23, he reached the summit on his second attempt.
Then he cycled back home.
What impressed me about Kropp’s story was the way in which it clearly illustrates that it is important not to get totally fixated on the target – at all cost. I would hazard a guess that for Kropp, after cycling all the way from Stockholm, the peak of Everest was just one of multiple targets. The getting there was just as much part of the task he had set himself as reaching the peak of Everest. Maybe this is what allowed him to take a step back from his ambition to reach the summit, despite the fact that it was so close you could almost touch it, when he reached his defined turn-around time? This is certainly where Rob Hall and Scott Fisher came unstuck: for whatever reasons they remained on the mountain well beyond the turn-around time they had defined and then got hit by the bad weather. Maybe clients paying $ 70’000 each, with the sole goal of reaching the summit made admitting defeat harder?
Of course this is all a bit speculative, but indulge me in my musings. It would seem to me likely that the mind set of the various players on the mountain around that ill-fated 10 May to a certain degree played a role in what happened.
The lesson I take away from this is to not get fixed on a target, in extremis even blanking out how I get from here to there. Say we are rigging a highly technical removal of a structurally damaged tree, I could set myself turn-around times, points at which if I realize the solution I thought would be spot on has proved itself not to be suitable, I can put a stop to proceedings, review the situation and maybe chose a different route. Not getting fixed on a target also implies recognizing the fact that every step along the way is an equally important part of getting there, paying diligent attention to every detail as I work towards my target.
Speed lines are a classic example. You spend a couple of hours fiddling around, getting them set up, then the moment comes when you rig out the first piece… which can be fantastic, doing exactly what it is supposed to do, with section of canopy gliding out serenely on the speed line – or can be horrible, with the line dropping down too low, not clearing the objects you were aiming to protect. Instead of botching it against better judgement, maybe this is such a turn-around point, where the moment has come to assess alternative options or routes.