So when the new movie about the ill-fated 1996 Everest climbing season came out, I had to see it. While I was familiar with the events that led up to the death on Everest of eight climbers in less than three days, I went into the movie ready to be reminded and further informed. I was not disappointed.
What struck me now that nearly 20 years have passed is how pertinent the events that happened on that mountain are to life and business. There are lessons to be learned from this tragedy, despite or because of the passage of time.
1) Always have a plan. Whether it’s the first time anyone has tried it, or the 100th time you’ve done it, you have to have a plan. Without a plan, you’ll go off track, take unnecessary risks, put you and others in jeopardy to one degree or another. None of the tour operators that went to Everest went there without a plan – despite the fact the mountain had been summitted many times before.
2) Set parameters. This isn’t the same as a plan. It’s the rules by which you’ll live, implement the plan, treat others, and engage with life. Without those rules, you’ll get distracted…get drawn into actions that might be harmful. You have to put a stake in the ground and keep it there. This isn’t about being inflexible; it’s about being very clear about what you will or won’t put up with. The expedition tour operators on Everest in 1996 -- Rob Hall and Scott Fisher -- set a very clear parameter. Turn around time of 2 p.m….no matter what. They didn’t follow it and look what happened.
3) Don’t deviate from the parameters. Once you do, you run the risk of being toast. Hall and Fisher didn’t follow the rule – one that Hall had established early on. Hall allowed customers with a desire to get to the top of the mountain, no matter what, break their own rule. The extra time spent doing so when they should have turned back was probably the greatest single cause of the tragic loss of life.
4) Be willing to leave someone behind. This isn’t about leaving someone to die; it’s about knowing when to walk away from people who don’t support the plan or don’t want to follow the parameters that have been set to get there. There’s no upside in waiting for someone to come around when the rest of the group is onboard with the plan and ready to follow it. It’s also unproductive to have someone who wants to hijack the plan and go at it his or her own way. In the business world, that means you leave someone out who is going to hold you back or divert you from what you need to do. In your personal life, you surround yourself with people who support rather than distract you from your intent.
5) Follow your instincts. Data is a good thing, but the thing about instincts is that they come from experience. You know when something is right or wrong because your cumulative experience has prepared you to know. It’s how we’ve survived this long as a species. Some of the people who survived the Everest climb that year knew instinctively when to turn back, when to call it a day. The others were blinded by a single goal when both instinct and reason were probably telling them to turn around.
6) Don’t be afraid to go it alone. There will be times when the group will say screw the plan, forget the rules, let’s do it another way. If everything above says don’t, then don’t cave to group pressure and go counter to what you believe is right. Anatol Bukreev was a Russian climber and expedition leader on Everest who didn’t cave to the pressure to climb beyond the turn around point and in increasingly hazardous conditions. He was staying with the rules he’d made for himself. Consequently, he was in a stronger position to help bring more than one person off the mountain later and saved a life or two in the process.
7) Don’t give up. No matter how horrible the circumstances you find yourself in, find a way to persevere. This isn’t flouting the idea of a plan or negating some of the above. It’s saying that even if your plan falls apart, don’t give up on the goal, but stay smart and flexible in the process. Every good climber knows that getting to the top of the mountain, any mountain, is only part of the accomplishment. It’s getting back down safely that’s the real end result. Beck Weathers was one of the climbers on Everest who was left for dead. He eventually found the fortitude to walk himself into camp despite the inability to feel his hands and suffering from snow blindness and extensive frost bite on his face.
You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest to understand these lessons or to put them into practice. They’re pertinent no matter what situation you might find yourself in. Hopefully, that won’t involve sub-zero temperatures at 30,000 feet.