Friday, October 16, 2015

NEVEREST Archive: Report

Deliverance, Denial, and the Death Zone: A Study of Narcissism And Regression in the May 1996 Everest Climbing Disaster


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Associate Professor of Organization Behavior and Theory

Department of Management

100 Institute Rd.

Worcester, MA 01609

(508) 831-5182
(508) 831-5720 (fax)

Senior Lecturer of Organization Studies
University of Auckland
Management and Employment Relations Department
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Auckland, New Zealand
+++ (649) 373-7599 ext. 7153
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Printed in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science (1999, V35, #2: 842-844).

Building on previous disaster research, this paper presents and analyzes the May 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster.  Using a blend of psychodynamic and structuralist theory, the paper demonstrates how historical changes in the field of high altitude climbing fostered the emergence of pathologically narcissistic, competitive, and regressive dynamics that ultimately contributed to numerous climbing deaths.

The authors thank Paul Carlile, Pushi Prasad, Les Schaffer, Mary Zalesny, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments in the development of this paper.  We also thank Clayton Alderfer for his patient and constructive feedback throughout the review process.

Deliverance, Denial, and the Death Zone: A Study of Narcissism

And Regression in the May 1996 Everest Climbing Disaster



The last decade has seen organizational scholars taking a lively interest in disaster theory, particularly as organizations become increasingly capable of inflicting unprecedented levels of harm on society and the environment (e.g., Perrow, 1984; Shrivastava, 1987; Pauchant & Mitroff, 1992; Gephart, 1993; Hynes & Prasad, 1997). Explanations for disaster have often been either psychological, such as a collapse in sensemaking (Weick, 1993), or structural, such as Perrow’s (1984) typology of system complexity and coupling. Here, following Bourdieu’s micro/macro analytic precedents (cf. Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), we combine these two broad camps to create a more contextualized (and hopefully more comprehensive) way of thinking about disasters – disasters are seen to result from the interaction of particular psychological and sociostructural dynamics.

From the psychological side, we draw from narcissism theory, a body of thought which has proven well suited for explaining the motivational sides of disaster.  For example, in his analysis of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Schwartz (1990) compellingly attributes the fatal launch decision to NASA officials and employees’ unquestioning belief in the infallibility of the organization and its leaders. Also from a psychodynamic perspective, Kernberg (1985) and Kets de Vries (1984, 1991) have studied narcissism in leadership and its impact on performance.  Kernberg (1985) has characterized narcissistic leaders by their “excessive self reference and self centeredness; … grandiosity and overvaluation of themselves exist together with feelings of inferiority; (they) are overdependent on external admiration, emotionally shallow, intensely envious, and both depreciatory and exploitative in their relations with others” (p. 101).   Kets de Vries’ (1991) also has discussed how CEO’s are often affected by narcissistically-based transference reactions and how that can lead them to lose “touch with reality” based on a belief that they are “special” and have “a license to do anything” (128).

By definition, narcissistic individuals depend on an audience to validate their self-worth (Lasch, 1978).  However, narcissism is fundamentally intrapsychic, reflecting a structure of self that is either well developed or deficient.  Healthy narcissism or positive self-regard (Pauchant, 1987) is, according to Pulver (1970), “high self-esteem based on predominantly pleasurable affect self-representation linkages” (336).  It is characterized by the ability to feel positive about oneself, confident and capable.  Unhealthy narcissism or self-inflation (Pauchant, 1987) is “self-centeredness or apparent high regard for oneself utilized as a defense against underlying unpleasurable linkages”(336).  According to Jacoby (1990), self-inflation is based on “the overcompensation of inferiority complexes and the accompanying fear of self-depreciating life situations…accompanied by the so-called ‘narcissistic vulnerability’, the tendency to register with oversensitive antennae the least sign of challenge to one’s self esteem and to react with distress (83).”  The self-inflated narcissist seeks validation from others to compensate for feelings of impotence and failure; ironically, when validation does arrive, the reaction may be shame, a sense of not being worthy of it (Jacoby, 1990).

Narcissism within psychoanalytic and object relations theory has historically been discussed in terms of inadequate mothering.  According to Kohut, the mother as “selfobject” has two important functions in the development of a healthy structure of self.  The first is to confirm the infant’s innate sense of vigor and perfection (mirror transference function); the other is to be someone with whom the infant can merge, thereby idealizing the parent and internalizing a sense of  “calmness, infallibility, and perfection” (idealization transference function) (Pauchant, 1987: 125).   These two functions reflect the poles of grandiosity and idealization and create a tension gradient that must be held in balance if the child is to develop a healthy structure of self. 

If the selfobject lacks empathy or interacts with the infant to meet his or her own needs rather than those of the infant, the child may experience a void at either or both of these poles and be forced to develop defensive and compensatory structures.  For example, if neither parent ever confirms the child, the child as an adult may feel compelled to make “solipsistic claims for attention” (Kohut, 1971: 9) as a way to compensate for the absence of an adoring parent.  Likewise, if neither parent is one with whom the child can easily merge or idealize, the person may compensate by compulsively seeking out other powerful objects (for example, ideological movements, high risk activities, or charismatic individuals) with whom they can try to merge (Kohut, 1971).  For this reason, the development of an unhealthy structure of self represents a failure in the “emancipation from the self-object” (Jacoby, 1990: 68).

According to Kohut (1971), narcissistic disorders manifest themselves in a variety of ways: difficulty forming significant relationships, work inhibitions, a lack of humor, difficulty empathizing with others’ feelings, and a tendency towards periods of uncontrolled rage when feeling slighted (23).  Brown’s (1997) list of the defense mechanisms by which narcissists manage threats to their fragile ego includes denying limitations and vulnerabilities, rationalizing unacceptable behavior and feelings, overestimating abilities and accomplishments, and offering consistently self-serving explanations for successes and failures (Brown, 1997: 646-647).  Though attribution theory suggests that many people use these defenses regularly, self-inflated narcissists feel compelled to use them more often and under circumstances that many would not regard as ego-threatening.

In this paper, we attempt to create a bridge between these psychodynamic views and more structuralist perspectives to explain organizational disaster. Specifically, we show how  high levels of self-inflated narcissism interact with organizational history, environment, and other contextual variables to foster regressive work group cultures.  Following Brown’s (1997) recent call for “in-depth, inductively derived case studies” (671) to examine the role of narcissism in organizational life, we focus on the May 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest.  We discuss how the commodification of high altitude climbing significantly influenced:

·          The roles, responsibilities, and motivations of leaders. Before adventure climbing became popular, expedition leaders were highly skilled generalists –  ‘first among equals’ – who provided expert climbers with a plan, resources, and collaborative decision support.  As adventure climbing entrepreneurs, however, they had to be technical/logistical experts and business people who needed publicity to attract well-paying clients and who had to cater to the needs of clients in a way that was physically and emotionally exhausting.

·          The profile of climbers. Compared to climbers before adventure climbing, the climbing skills of high altitude adventure climbers had decreased, as their level of narcissism had become less healthy.

Combined, these two elements caused a shift in the work group cultures of high altitude climbing teams, from more collaborative, high learning, intentional group cultures (Diamond, 1991) to more regressive, low learning, dependent group cultures.  Particularly on this disaster, competition for clients through an emphasis on publicity and service (that is, getting clients to the top) had also increased greatly. 

Our research is based entirely on archival data, articles, transcripts of taped interviews, video accounts, and copies of roundtable internet discussions, collected before, during, and after the disaster occurred.  Two important sources are John Krakauer’s (1997) best-selling book, Into Thin Air, and Anatoli Boukreev (Scott Fischer’s lead guide) and G. Weston DeWalt’s (1997), The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, which in part rebuts Krakauer’s criticisms of Boukreev for guiding without the use of oxygen and descending before Fischer’s clients had returned safely to Base CampGiven that our account is based on retrospective accounts of guides and clients relying on memory, having survived a nightmarish tragedy, having different stakes in what story is told, and suffering from various degrees of hypoxia (oxygen deprivation typical of high altitude climbing which impairs a climber’s ability to think or reason), we believe that telling the ‘one, true story’ – assuming that this is ever possible – is particularly difficult in this case.  In fact, in a subsequent posting to an Everest chat-line, Krakauer agreed commenting:
“I find your hunger for facts – your powerful desire to find out what really happened on Everest – heartening and noble.  But as some of you have discovered, the truth is extremely elusive, even when people are not intentionally lying or covering up.  Memory, I found, is extremely unreliable above 8000 meters, due to hypoxia and exhaustion.  I was up there, and I’ve made an effort to repeatedly interview most of the other climbers who were up there, yet I remain unclear about many key points.  It’s especially difficult to determine the truth from rumor and innuendo and second-hand information” (Krakauer, 1996b).

Nevertheless, the many journalists, clients, and guides who are the sources for this article worked very hard to put forth an accurate story. Between the publication of his Outside magazine account in September of 1996 and the publication of Into Thin Air in 1997, for example, John Krakauer corrected several mistakes in his original story and tried to examine his own culpability in the disaster.  In his Outside article, Krakauer wrote that during his descent just above Camp Four, he had spoken with guide, Andy Harris, and seen him return safely to Camp Four.  When Krakauer realized that Harris was not at Camp Four, he assumed (and subsequently wrote in Outside) that he had walked off the mountain to his death.  Only later, in checking his story with other climbers, did Krakauer learn that the person he had spoken to above Camp Four was not Andy Harris but one of Scott Fischer’s clients, Martin Adams. Upon discovering his mistake, Krakauer (1997) wrote in his book:
I was stunned.  For two months I’d been telling people that Harris had walked off the edge of the South Col to his death, when he hadn’t done that at all.  My error had greatly and unnecessarily compounded the pain of (his friends and relatives).  Andy was a large man, over six feet tall and 200 pounds, who spoke with a sharp Kiwi lilt; Martin was at least six inches shorter, weighed maybe 130 pounds, and spoke with a thick Texas drawl.  How had I made such an egregious mistake?  Was I really so debilitated that I had stared into the face of a near stranger and mistaken him for a friend with whom I’d spent the previous six weeks?

In summary, given considerable convergence among several carefully prepared and well-researched accounts from Krakauer, Boukreev, and other clients and guides, we believe that the story we present below offers a more-or-less accurate account of events that took place during this disaster episode.


Because of a brief window of good weather favorable to high-altitude climbing, the first two weeks of May are a popular time of year to climb Mount Everest in the Himalayas of Nepal.  At 5 PM on May 9, 1996, three teams of climbers and their Sherpas (people of the Darjeeling region of Nepal who, for most of the 20th century, have been employed on Himalayan climbing expeditions as high altitude porters) began arriving at Camp Four.  Camp Four was located at the bottom of the South Col on the slopes of Everest, approximately 26,100 ft. above sea level.  Krakauer (1996a) described Camp Four as “one of the most inhospitable places I’ve ever been” (57).  It consisted of  “strips of shredded tents, discarded bright-yellow, green, and red oxygen tanks, spent batteries, empty raisin boxes, and Powerbar wrappers (and) a skeleton or two lying about on the loose shale still zipped into down suits” (Wilkinson, 1996: 39-40).   Among Everest climbers, Camp Four is also regarded as the beginning of the “Death Zone,” the point at which climbers become most susceptible to carelessness, sluggishness, and even death because of severe oxygen deprivation.

-------------- Table One About Here ----------------

Rob Hall, a New Zealander and owner and founder of Adventure Consultants, led one of the three teams.  Hall was an extremely competent climber who had ascended Everest four times himself and who took a conservative approach to guiding; he was known not to “cut his clients a lot of slack” (Wilkinson, 1996: 39).  With him on this climb were guides, Mike Groom and Andy Harris, and clients, Doug Hansen (a postal worker who had failed to reach the top in an attempt the previous year), Yasuko Namba (who was trying to be the second Japanese woman to climb the summits of all seven continents), Beck Weathers (a surgeon from Dallas), John Krakauer (a rock climber and journalist who was planning to write an article for Outside magazine), and four other clients.   Hall’s head Sherpa or climbing sirdar was Ang Dorje (referred to in this paper as Ang).  Hall had ten other Sherpas and a Base Camp manager and doctor as well.

A second team was led by Scott Fischer, a highly-respected American climber and owner of Mountain Madness, an adventure guiding business in Seattle.  Fischer was leading his first commercial Everest climb and believed in giving his clients considerable freedom in how they chose to ascend the mountain.  His guides included Neil Beidleman and Anatoli Boukreev (one of the strongest high altitude climbers in the world who regularly climbed above 8000 meters without supplementary oxygen).  His clients were Sandy Hill Pittman (wealthy New York socialite, journalist, and adventurer who had negotiated an agreement with NBC to post daily reports on the team’s progress for NBC Interactive Media), 

Lene Gammelgaard (trying to be the first Scandinavian woman to top Everest), Klev Schoening, Charlotte Fox, Tim Madsen, and Martin Adams.  Fischer’s climbing sirdar was Lopsang Jangbu (referred to as “Lopsang”).  He had nine other Sherpas and a team doctor as well.  A non-climbing member of the team, Jane Bromet, had come to provide daily reports for OutsideOnline (affiliated with but different from Outside magazine). According to Boukreev and DeWalt (1997), Bromet was invited because she was considered “loyal and could be counted on to maintain the company line” – something they were not certain that Pittman would do.

A third, “unguided” Taiwanese team was led by Makalu Gau and consisted of one other climber and three Sherpas.  They had agreed not to climb on May 10, the climbing date that Hall and Fischer had reserved through negotiations with expedition guides and leaders, including Gau.

Arriving at Camp Four in a howling snowstorm, climbers got into their tents, sipped tea, and rested in their sleeping bags fully dressed and ready to begin their ascent late that night.  Given the raging storm, Boukreev and several clients thought that trying to summit that night was a bad idea (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997:147) and that a return to Camp Three was in order.  In the adventure system, however, the final decision was Hall and Fischer’s to make, and they were inclined to wait and see if the weather cleared.

Somewhere between 7 and 10 PM that evening, the sky did clear, the wind stopped, and the temperature became an ideal 15F below 0.  Near midnight, Hall’s team departed for the top, followed thirty minutes later by Fischer’s.  According to retrospective accounts, some members of Fischer’s team were upset at being behind Hall’s team whom they considered to be “old…and slow” and believed this cost their team “a couple of hours on the ascent” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997:153).  Departing immediately after Fischer and ignoring the agreement not to climb were Gau and his team.

By 7:10 AM the next morning, Hall’s entire team had reached the Balcony at 27,800 ft.  One of Hall’s clients, Jon Krakauer, had been there since 5:30 AM. (Hall had instructed his clients to remain at the Balcony until all of his clients had arrived.)  During his long wait, Krakauer watched as Fischer’s group and the Taiwanese team passed him. Once Krakauer began climbing again, he noticed that Fischer’s lead Sherpa, Lopsang, was vomiting in the snowHe and the guide, Boukreev, were climbing without supplemental oxygen – a questionable practice for any guide at high altitudes, according to Krakauer11.  He also noticed that Lopsang was “short-roping” (or pulling by rope) Sandy Hill Pittman up the mountain that morning.  Fischer had given permission to Lopsang and Boukreev to climb without supplemental oxygen and was apparently aware that Lopsang was short-roping Pittman.  As head Sherpa for Fischer’s group, Lopsang was supposed to have been at the front of the group, putting in the route and fixing ropes higher up the mountain.  In fact, he and Hall’s head Sherpa, Ang, were supposed to have left 90 minutes before Hall’s group the night before to fix all the necessary ropes.

Because the Sherpas had not set up the route as expected, several costly bottlenecks ensued along the trail.  When Krakauer and Ang reached a point near the Balcony where Ang could have fixed ropes alone, he refused to do so, arguing that he was doing more than his share of the Sherpa work (Lopsang had fallen well behind while short-roping Pittman) (Krakauer, 1996a: 59).  Although Fischer’s guide, Beidleman, was able to fill in for Lopsang, the delay used up almost an hour of time and created the first of two bottlenecks on the route.  By about 11:30 A.M., there was still a long line of climbers waiting to use these fixed ropes.  At this point, three of Hall’s clients made the decision to turn back joining a fourth who had turned back earlier – a good decision, in retrospect.

A second bottleneck and delay occurred further up the mountain at the South Summit.  Again, ropes were supposed to have been fixed there across a hazardous ridge up to the Hillary Step – a rock face 40 feet high that is just below the summit.  At about 11 A.M., Krakauer reports that he, Harris, Beidleman, and Boukreev were waiting near the South Summit for Lopsang and Ang to arrive and fix ropes.  They waited in an “hypoxic stupor” for almost an hour, before realizing that Ang and another of Hall’s Sherpas were sitting right next to them.  Again, however, Ang refused to fix the ropes at this location (apparently, for the same reason as before) (Krakauer, 1996a: 60).  Because it was almost noon, the four of them realized they would have to fix the ropes themselves.  Lacking enough rope, they had to leave a 100 meter stretch of dangerous snow ridge without fixed lines. 

By about 1:15 PM, Boukreev, Krakauer, Harris, and Beidleman finally reached the summit.  A bank of storm clouds was gathering in the near distance.  Except for Beidleman, who waited until about 3 PM for Scott Fischer and other clients to reach the top (indicating later that he did not feel that it was right to leave “until everybody had reached the summit.  They were so close” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 176)), Krakauer, Boukreev, and Harris took a few pictures and headed back down.  However, just as they were about to descend the fixed ropes at the Hillary Step, they encountered a queue of 20 climbers at the base of the Step waiting to climb up.  Krakauer notes that he had to unclip himself and wait with Harris while the others ascended. 

At about 2:30 PM, sensing that the ascent was going slowly and client oxygen supplies were running low, Boukreev got permission from Fischer to “descend as quickly as possible to Camp Four” in order to warm himself and “gather a supply of hot drink and oxygen in the event that (he) might need to go back up the mountain and assist descending clients” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 248-249). With that in mind, Boukreev did not wait for the ascending climbers at the Hillary Step and moved quickly down the fixed ropes on his way back to Camp Four.

At this point in time, it was late in the day for climbers to be just arriving at the Hillary Step.  Many were either on their third bottle of oxygen or, like Krakauer, were running out and waiting to get a refill down at the South Summit.  While Krakauer waited and watched climbers ascend, he noticed that the first clients to come up were all from Fischer’s group.  At the back of the queue were Hall, Namba, and Doug Hansen.  Hansen in particular appeared to be struggling.  When Krakauer saw Hall, he thanked him for helping him reach the top to which Hall replied, “Yeah, it’s turned out to be a pretty good expedition.  I only wish we could have gotten more clients to the top” (Krakauer, 1996a: 60).  To Krakauer (1997), “It was obvious that Hall was profoundly disappointed that five of his eight clients had packed it in – a sentiment that I suspected was heightened by the fact that Fischer’s entire crew appeared to be plugging toward the summit” (187).

The last person to reach the top of the Hillary Step was Scott Fischer, who was also moving slowly.  As the person designated to “sweep” struggling clients from behind, Fischer himself had struggled all day.  Yet, when asked how he was doing, Fischer replied, “Just dragging ass a little today for some reason.  No big deal,” (Krakauer, 1996a: 50).  Even though Fischer was in serious trouble, others – knowing him as a strong and capable climber – seemed oblivious to it.  At about 3:20 PM Hansen finally did reach the summit, almost an hour after Hall’s arrival (and almost 90 minutes after the 2PM turnaround time).  Short-roping Hansen, Hall began descending as weather conditions started to deteriorate.  Fischer, Lopsang, and possibly Gau also started down at about the same time. 

At the South Summit, Fischer started to have trouble standing, and Lopsang began to short-rope him to keep him from falling.  At about 4:30 PM, Hall and Hansen reached the top of the Hillary Step where Hansen collapsed and Hall, out of oxygen, radioed for help.  Fischer and Lopsang passed them soon after.

At dusk, the wind grew stronger, the clouds rose up, and snow started to fall.  Krakauer states, “The weather had deteriorated into a full-scale blizzard.  Snow pellets born on 70 mile-per-hour winds stung my face; any exposed skin was instantly frozen” (Krakauer, 1996a: 62).  It was imperative that everyone return to Camp Four as quickly as possible in order not to be stranded outside in the darkness, wind, and cold.  By 6 PM, Krakauer reached Camp Four alone and fell into his tent, cold and exhausted.  Boukreev – who was the first of the successful climbers to return to Camp Four at 4:30 PM – had started back up the mountain with four oxygen bottles.  However, walking out into near zero visibility and not knowing anyone’s location, he soon turned around and abandoned the first of several rescue attempts.

The merge

By 8 PM on May 10, a large, mixed group of descending guides (Groom, Biedleman), clients (Namba, Weathers, Madsen, Fox, Pittman, Schoening, and Gammelgaard, Pittman), and Sherpas reached the South Col in complete darkness and hurricane force winds and snow.  Only a few lamps worked and visibility was near zero.  For the next two hours, they “staggered blindly around in the storm, growing ever more exhausted and hypothermic, hoping to blunder across the camp” (Krakauer, 1996a: 64).  The noise was deafening, and at one point they almost walked off the mountain face.   Beidleman decided to stay in one spot and hope that the weather would break.  To keep from falling asleep, those with more strength took turns hitting and punching the weaker ones.  Groom radioed base camp that they were hopelessly lost.

After a lucky break in the weather in which stars became visible and their position more discernible, Beidleman decided to set off with Schoening, Gammelgaard, and Groom, who were ambulatory, to find Camp Four and bring back a rescue team.  It took Beidleman and the others about 15 minutes to find Boukreev at Camp Four. With directions and after two tries, Boukreev was finally able to find the others. 

In his first trip, Boukreev gave a bottle of oxygen to Pittman and Madsen to share and carried Fox, who was in reasonably good condition, back to her tent on his back.  It took him almost an hour to reach Camp Four (Dowling, 1996: 40).  At around 4 or 5 AM on May 11, he returned to carry and drag Pittman down as Madsen followed behind.  Boukreev believed that Namba was dead, or close to it, and did not see Weathers, who had been blown a short distance away from the group and was partially covered in snow.  Later that morning, a search team discovered that both Weathers and Namba were still barely alive.  They decided not to try to carry them down believing that they would “almost certainly die before they could be carried down to Base Camp” (Krakauer, 1996a: 160). 

Also alive on the morning of May 11 were Hall, Fischer, Lopsang, and Gau. Since 4:30 PM the previous afternoon, Hall had spent 12 hours trying to get Hansen down the Hillary Step to the South Summit so they could resupply their oxygen. But Hansen had collapsed completely.  Despite repeated urgings from a close friend to save himself, Hall refused to abandon Hansen on the mountain.  Somewhere below the Hillary Step, however, Hansen apparently slipped and fell to his death.  Not until 4:30 AM the next day, May 11, did Hall, “badly frostbitten and hypothermic”(Krakauer, 1996a: 55), finally make it down to the South Summit.  By 8:30 AM, Hall was able to find some oxygen and started talking about descending.  A rescue attempt was made but failed because of more bad weather.  Throughout the day, friends implored him to try to come down.  At one point he sounded annoyed: “Look, if I thought I could manage the knots on the fixed rope with me frostbitten hand, I would have gone down six hours ago” (Krakauer, 1996a: 159).  Krakauer notes that, “It was amazing that Hall was even alive after spending a night without shelter or oxygen at 28,700 feet in hurricane force wind and minus 100 degree wind-chill” (Krakauer, 1996a: 158).  Finally, at 6:20 PM on May 11, he was patched through to his pregnant wife in New Zealand a final time and said goodbye.  It was the last he was heard from.

Scott Fischer also died on May 11.  On the night of May 10 at 1200 feet above the South Col, Lopsang found that he was no longer able to short-rope Fischer down the mountain.  Just as he was about to leave him, three other Sherpas showed up carrying Makalu Gau.  At about 10 PM they tied the two semiconscious men together and started down for help.  When Lopsang reached Camp Four, he tried to get Boukreev to assist Fischer, but Boukreev was busy trying to save the stranded Mountain Madness clients on the South Col. Once he had completed that task, however, Boukreev was too exhausted to try rescuing Fischer and hoped that, “because he is a guide,” Fischer would “survive much better than these clients” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 226).  The next day between 10 AM and 1 PM, Sherpas found Fischer and Gau barely alive.  They decided that Gau had the better chance of survival and helped him down.  At 7 PM that evening, Boukreev finally reached Fischer, who by then was dead.

Miraculously, despite losing a glove and being given up for dead twice, Weathers awoke from a comatose state and “stumbled back to camp, his arms extended like a mummy’s” (Wilkinson, 1996: 45) at about 4:30 PM on May 11.  On Monday, May 13, he was taken off the mountain with Makalu Gau, in one of the highest helicopter rescues ever tried.  Miraculously, both survived although Weathers had to have one arm amputated.

By the end, five climbers had died: 3 guides (Hall, Fischer, and Harris – although it is not precisely clear where or how Harris died) and two clients (Namba and Hansen).  Three others on a different expedition climbing from the Tibetan side of the mountain also died during the storm.  If not for Beidleman’s resourcefulness in finding Camp Four and Boukreev’s strength in dragging people in, the number of deaths would have been much higher.  Within months, Hall’s adventure climbing business had been sold, and some of the survivors had cut lucrative movie and book deals (Mediati, 1996).  Two movies of the disaster, one for TV and the other for IMAX theaters, were released in 1998.  By 1998, both Boukreev and Lopsang had been killed in separate Himalayan climbing accidents.


Participants and observers of this tragedy are still caught up in asking, “Did this have to happen?”  Though many have died attempting Everest, few had as much experience, knowledge, and skill as Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, begging the question “Why?”  Blaming fingers have been pointed in every conceivable direction, yet to date, little of this discussion has proven particularly explanatory or helpful.  In this section, we discuss how sociostructural shifts (one macro and one micro) combined with particular psychological shifts to form this disaster.  In particular, we demonstrate how the commodification of high altitude climbing fostered ineffective leadership structures.  Together, these factors created an environment that attracted less skilled and more self-inflated clients and increased competition between climbing teams.  Finally, this constellation of structural and psychological factors led to ineffective work group cultures that were unable to cope with the unexpected changes in Everest’s weather. Our points are summarized in Table 2.

-----------Table 2 About Here ----------

Macro Structural Antecedents: The Large Scale Commercialization of Climbing.  In the mid-1980’s, high altitude climbing practices and attitudes rooted in 19th century ideals of discipline, self-denial (Lasch, 1978), camaraderie, and romanticism (Hansen, 1995) began to change dramatically.  The first hint that even the highest peaks on earth could be climbed by well-to-do, less-skilled adventurers occurred in 1985 when a wealthy American businessman and part-time climber, Dick Bass, decided to climb the highest summit on each of the seven continents.  His success opened the possibility that “if you are fit enough and have the physiological makeup to function at high altitudes—and enough training, Sherpas, guides, bottled oxygen, and money ($65,000 being the norm) – Everest can be bagged” (Wilkinson, 1996: 38). 

As high altitude adventure climbing started to become popular, climber motivations and attitudes seemed to change as well; as climber and guide, Doug Scott, noted in a 1993 interview:
This obsession with 8000-meter summits is new, and the lengths to which people go to climb one.  A lot of deaths now occur not by falling off, or getting caught in a storm, but with climbers who climb themselves into the ground, who die of exhaustion or mountain sickness such as cerebral edema or pulmonary edema.  A lot die now because they’re so gung-ho, so obsessed with summits (O’Connell, 1993: 158).

This obsession with Everest and the willingness for novices to take extreme risks to reach the top coincided with climbing’s increasing market status and commodification as a sport.  New technologies and distribution channels provided an ever-growing supply of goods and gadgets – ultralight, ergonomically designed gear, sophisticated guidance equipment, radio communications, and climbing gyms made it possible for many more novices to try the sport, easily exchanging economic capital for cultural capital (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).  Many clients were highly successful professionals from business, medicine, and law who had made it to the top of their professions and were looking for a different venue in which to stake their claim. High altitude adventure climbing in general, and Everest in particular, was a popular choice.

According to Edmund Hillary, the result of this shift to adventure climbing was that:

“Vast numbers (are) going up . . . People seem to regard it as something to do” (Barton, 1996: 1). 

“The Nepalese government has removed all restrictions in the last couple of years. Virtually anybody can get permission as long as they pay their money (about $US10,000 fee per climber) . . . I have met a number of the parties (who) admitted they had no experience at all.  Many of the people who go on these commercial operations don't do it for their love of the mountains. They do it to get home and boast about it” (Conway, 1996). 

“There has been an erosion of mountaineering values.  It used to be a team effort.  Nowadays, it’s much too ‘everybody-for-himself.’  That can get you killed” (Life, 1996: 41).

Although the total number of deaths on Everest had risen steadily over the previous 20 years (from 1 in 1976 to 15 in 1996), the number of successful summits had risen even faster (from 4 in 1976 to 98 in 1996) (Coburn, 1997).  Given that the ratio of climbing deaths/successful summits had actually decreased (from 25% to 15%), the argument could be made that adventure climbing had actually made climbing safer.  In fact, we believe that improvements in equipment, technology, and climbing logistics probably had improved climbers’ chances of making it to the top of Everest; however, these enhancements did not reduce the risks, especially under crisis conditions.  In fact, we suggest that technical improvements could not counterbalance the regressive work group cultures that had emerged (because of changes in client dispositions and leader roles and responsibilities) and that had made adventure climbing teams vulnerable in a crisis. In our view, this was a disaster waiting to happen; similar disasters on Everest in subsequent years (1997 and 1998) offer some confirmation for this argument.

Micro-level Structural Shifts: The ‘Selling Out’ of Climbing Leadership.  According to a popular handbook of mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills, first published in 1960 and based on traditional climbing practices, the traditional expedition leader was “responsible for the safety of the party and success of the trip” (Peters, 1982: 414) as members climbed within their ability and knowledge.  Good leadership depended greatly on the climbing “party’s willingness to follow the leader’s judgments and decisions” (Peters: 415).  The leader was considered to be “first among equals” who practiced an interdependent model of authority: they accepted the need for hierarchical roles and individual contributions and believed in the “usefulness of both authority and self-expression” (Kahn and Kram, 1994: 30-31).

Consensus decision making during high-altitude climbs was an essential feature of effective leadership; leaders simply could not guide highly-skilled, motivated, and experienced climbers unless they were willing to listen carefully, engage in dialogue, and take climber ideas and concerns into full consideration.  Chris Bonington (a Himalayan climber and guide from the 1970’s) explained why he thought a consensus approach to leadership was so important on high-altitude climbing teams:
It is not a democracy in the sense that everything is put to a vote…But I would talk to a lot of people within the group so that I got a general feel for the consensus, then make a plan, submit that plan to the group, ask for comments, and if I got good suggestions I would incorporate them into my plan.  I would therefore work within the consensus but would not have a formal vote at every stage of the expedition …as a general trend, I think an organization needs to work within the consensus of the group and the leader’s role is to interpret the consensus.  However brilliant the leader’s plan, if the group doesn’t think it’s a good plan, it’s not going to work. (O’Connell, 1993: 136).

In adventure climbing, the proliferation of adventure travel companies run by ambitious entrepreneurs coincided with the popularization of the sport.  Because of the low skill of many clients, high climbing fees, a competitive marketplace, and the importance of getting climbers up and down the mountain safely, however, adventure climbing leaders and guides were often forced to assume a more dependent model of authority towards their clients.  In other words, they were forced to structure relationships either through “formalized relations” (Kahn and Kram, 1994: 28), in the case of Rob Hall’s organization, or through charismatic leadership, in the case of Scott Fischer’s organizationThat clients were fundamentally dependent on them or their system made the leaders’ role far more burdensome and complex.

Adventure Consultants, run by Rob Hall, was one of the earliest and most successful of these ventures.  Between 1990 and 1995, the company successfully had guided 39 clients, each paying as much as $70,000 US, to the top of Everest.  In his article in Outside magazine, Jon Krakauer noted that Adventure Consultants “was responsible for three more ascents than had been made in the first 20 years after Hillary’s inaugural climb” (Krakauer, 1996a: 52) – an impressive statistic.  According to a close friend, for Hall, “Everest was work, a major cash flow generating exercise.  The magic wasn’t in reaching the summit any longer, but in helping clients reach their dream” (Conway, 1996). Although his record of getting clients to the top was unparalleled during the early 90’s, it is noteworthy that during a 1995 attempt, seven of his clients were forced to turn back before reaching the summit — the first time his summit yield had been so low. 

In Hall’s organization, each party had a specific role to play.  The leader and guides had to organize the climb (secure permission, get licensees), acclimate clients, take care of anyone who got hurt, and plan out the logistics.  The Sherpas were given responsibility for implementing logistical aspects of the climb (setting all the fixed ropes, for example), and doing most of the physical labor (including carrying all the food, shelter, and oxygen).  Clients were expected to follow the guidelines and rules established by leaders and guides during acclimation and the climb itself.  Consistent with this rule-based, conservative approach, Hall’s organization emphasized safety.  For example, during the six weeks before ascending, clients would make three trips above Base Camp as a group, “climbing about 2000 feet higher each time” (Krakauer, 1996a: 53); this would help their bodies acclimatize to the extremely thin air at the 29,000 foot summit.  In addition, Hall was strict in requiring that the client group stay together during the ascent and turn around should conditions deteriorate or get later than 2 PM in the day; the latter condition assured that there would be sufficient time and light for a safe return to Base Camp. 

Beck Weathers – following the rules almost killed him.

The other adventure travel business in this story was Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness of Seattle.  Fischer had reached the top of Everest once before (without supplementary oxygen) in four tries but had never led a commercially guided trip on Everest.  A well-known and highly-respected climber and guide, Fischer was trying to establish himself in the high altitude guiding business and had offered some of his clients substantial discounts off the normal 65K fee (Wilkinson, 1996: 39).  However, financially, Fischer was not doing particularly well, and his expenses during this expedition had increased more than expected; one client had not fully paid, oxygen use was greater than expected, and medical expenses to care for health-stricken Sherpas were more than he had anticipated.  Fischer was quoted as saying: “Man, I’m going to climb this mountain, and I’m going to come home with ten thousand bucks if I’m lucky, and that’s just not okay” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 105).  A business associate of Fischer’s was quoted as saying, “I think the whole money issue was a huge stress” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 105).  If Fischer’s expedition had not been successful, that is, if few clients had reached the top or publicity had been negative, Mountain Madness might have gone out of business.  The same was probably true for Hall’s Adventure Consultants, especially given the previous year’s low yield.

Unlike Hall, Fischer’s philosophy of guiding was similar to his philosophy of climbing: provide total support, but give clients maximum freedom in how they make the climb.  As one of his guides, Neil Beidleman, explained it, “We didn’t want to take away from their adventure by taking them on a Disneyland ride” (Wilkinson, 1996: 39). His philosophy seemed to differentiate his guiding practices from Hall’s and made it attractive to clients looking for greater autonomy and ‘authenticity’ in their climbing adventure. Fischer relied on his personal enthusiasm and charisma to lead the team but intensely disliked interpersonal conflict (for example, he was unwilling to confront the non-paying client mentioned previously) and often made decisions on the basis of loyalty and friendship over good sense.  For example, he chose his youthful climbing sirdar, Lopsang, on the basis of friendship, not experience.  Also, during the acclimatization period he chose to escort a sick client and good friend, Dale Kruse, down the mountain even though Fischer was “’burning himself up’” in the process and could have assigned this chore to a guide (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 135). 

In conclusion, climbing leaders who were once experts at self-care, teamwork, and consensus building, had reconstructed themselves as self-interested owners, expert caregivers, and rule-oriented/charismatic leaders. Because of this shift in leadership orientation, leaders and guides had to cope with more work and greater complexity than if they had had a more interdependent, collaborative leadership approachWilkinson (1996) argues that the reason Scott Fischer was too exhausted to assist his clients on May 10 was because he had been helping sick clients and Sherpas “up and down the mountain” during the acclimation period, including rest days, prior to the final ascent (39).  Likewise, during the ascent itself, Rob Hall waited quite late in the day – more than an hour past the 2 PM return time – for Hansen to reach the summit.  Sensing that Hansen was in desperate trouble, he also decided to stay with him through the night, this despite the exhortations of others at Base Camp for him to save himself. Yet Hall had urged Hansen to return to Everest in 1996 at a reduced fee after he had come very close to reaching the summit the year before and, on this attempt, may have persuaded Hansen to continue his ascent when it appeared that he was ready to drop out 3 or 4 hours after departing from Camp Four (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 191; Krakauer, 1977: 165).  As with Fisher, Hall’s role as adventure climbing leader included a caretaker role, especially for a struggling client to whom he likely made a strong, personal commitment.  

Do clients have commitments to each other?  Selfish babies

Micro-level Structural Shifts: Rising Client Inexperience.  Prior to the rise of adventure climbing in the 1980’s, mountaineering was the province of skilled individuals with the right disposition.  Typically, expedition leaders looked for young men with considerable skill and experience on snow and ice at high altitudes.  John Hunt, leader of the first successful expedition to Everest climb in 1953, looked for men with a particular temperament as well – men who were committed to the team and its mission, not just to their own personal agenda:
There was the need to be sure that each one of the party really wanted to get to the top.  This desire must be both individual and collective, for such are the exigencies of Everest that any one of us might be called upon to make this attempt; I was looking for the “Excelsio” spirit in every member of the team.  In contrast to this, Everest also demands a quite unusual degree of selflessness and patience.  The final climb to the top must, by common consent among us, be an entirely impersonal choice, and for those not chosen for it, there might be thankless, even frustrating jobs during the most critical phase of the expedition.  This was certainly asking a good deal of prospective members of the team; temperaments are put to great and prolonged strain during big expeditions.  But one man can endanger the unity and spirit of a whole party, and unity on Everest would be all-important (Hunt, 1953: 24-25; underlining added).

By May of 1996, the climbing field had become largely commodified, contested, and uncertain.  Climbers had become differentiated into sellers and buyers, manufacturers and retailers, guides and clients. Before the field became so popular, climbing required an enormous amount of knowledge and skill: the mountaineer needed to be a weatherman, engineer, athlete, nutritionist, medical doctor, geologist, and handyman all rolled into one.  Climbing necessarily emphasized self-sufficiency and teamwork; climbers needed to be able to look after themselves and each other. Whereas climbers previously had been highly skilled both individually and as a collective, now as clients they often were inexperienced and unskilled; yet they demanded the same autonomy accorded skilled players without the responsibility to the team or to each other.

Psychological Antecedents.  Because of the structural shifts noted above, the psychological makeup of climbers (particularly clients) changed; the new commodified field of climbing now attracted a very different type of practitioner than before, ones more narcissistically crippled. We propose that adventure climbing clients had become not only less skilled than their predecessors, but also more self-inflated – perhaps as a compensatory device.  We offer the following pieces of evidence in support of this claim:

·          Denial of limitations and vulnerabilities: As Scott and Hillary noted, many inexperienced adventure climbers were driving themselves to reach the top of Everest (and other high altitude peaks) at any cost and by any means.  An impulsive, “go-it alone” attitude had replaced the patience, concern for planning, and emphasis on camaraderie of earlier climbing expeditions.  For many adventure climbers, Everest was often the final and most important step in their quest to become members of an exclusive club of climbers who had reached the highest peaks on all seven continents.  For several on this expedition, the May ’96 climb was their second or third attempt at reaching the top of Everest.  Consistent with this denial of limitations was the strong sense of entitlement that some high paying clients seemed to express. According to Krakauer, some clients, “having paid princely sums to be escorted up Everest,” had then sued their guides “after the summit eluded them” (1996:51).  This occurred even when, for reasons of safety, the guiding company had never guaranteed a successful ascent.2

On this expedition, for example, we read of Gammelgaard telling Beidleman, “I don’t need a guide, especially not you” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 115).  Further, we read of Boukreev’s concerns that clients, in their efforts to gain altitude during the acclimatization phase, went without rest and recuperation (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 101).  For example, he pointed out that instead of resting, Pittman had made a quick visit with friends in the town of Pheriche the weekend before the final summit.  Although an extended rest might have been “beneficial,” according to Boukreev, he felt that her “quick up and down…had cost her a great deal of energy (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 128). Even Weathers, almost blind, standing alone atop the South Col on the morning of the ascent, had spoken to Hall about trying to “boogie on up after everybody else” once his vision started to clear (Krakauer, 1997: 190).  As if climbing Everest with full vision were not challenging enough!

Indeed, according to Boukreev, in the client system, “people were willing to pay a cash price for the opportunity (to climb Everest) but not a physical price for preparedness” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 93).  As self-inflated clients paying large fees, perhaps they felt ready and able without having to pay a physical price.  Indeed, the client system itself seemed to reinforce this notion as exemplified by Fischer’s decision to expedite the journey to Base Camp by flying clients to a point more elevated and closer to Everest – in violation of the maxim, “start below 3040 meters and walk up, slowly” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 61). 

·          Difficulty in forming close relationships on the team:  In describing how the team forged friendships during the preparation stage of the climb, John Hunt described how his expedition team became friends during their long trek to Everest:
We followed a leisurely routine.  We would rise at 5:30 A.M. with the aid of a cup of tea.  The whole caravan would be on the move soon after 6 A.M…The walks between stages and our leisure hours in camp worked wonders in our mutual relationship.  Favorable first impressions warmed into firm friendships; we quickly learned to appreciate one another, comparing our very varied backgrounds and interests, discussing common or contrasting experiences – usually in the sphere of climbing mountains (Hunt, 1954: 68). 

By contrast, Krakauer described the difficulty his client group had in forming close relations during the preparation phase prior to the May 10 ascent:
…We never became a team.  Instead we were a bunch of individuals who liked each other to a certain degree and got along well enough, but we never had this feeling that we were all in it together.  Part of it was that we didn’t do enough of the actual work: Sherpas set up camp, Sherpas did the cooking.  We didn’t have to cooperate and work out who was going to haul this load or who was going to cook or do the dishes or chop the ice for water.  Which contributed to the fact that we never coalesced as a team, which in turn contributed to the tragedy: We were all in it for ourselves when we should have been in it for each other

… I mean, look at my role in the death of Andy Harris, the young New Zealand guide on our team.  There is no way that I should ever have left him on the mountain.3 [WMD1]   I should have recognized that he was hypoxic and in trouble…if I had been on Everest with six or seven friends instead of climbing as a client on a guided trip, I never would have descended to my tent and gone off to sleep without accounting for each of my partners.  It is shameful and inexcusable no matter what (from “False Summit,” Outside, May 1997, pp. 61-62).

·          At the center of attention: In sharp contrast to earlier climbers, adventure climbing clients often seemed willing to be pampered and catered to by guides and Sherpas.  The extreme case in this regard was Pittman’s use of a Sherpa to “roll up her sleeping bag every morning and pack her rucksack for her” (Krakauer, 1997: 117) as well as her use of Lopsang to short rope her up the mountain on May 10.  Satellite hookups and instant media coverage also helped to put this expedition at the center of a large, admiring audience with Pittman [at its centre] posting regularly on NBC Interactive, Bromet interviewing Fischer almost daily for Outside Online, and Krakauer collecting notes for his forthcoming article in Outside magazine.

·          Episodes of narcissistic rage: We can identify at least two [three?] clear examples where clients felt rage at their climbing organizations.  In both instances, clients felt slighted because the climbing experts and leaders, Hall and Fischer in this case, would not allow them to do what they felt entitled to do based on the competencies they believed they had.  The first occurred when Krakauer was forced to wait 90 minutes for the rest of his team at the Balcony early on May 10.  He commented:
I was peeved over wasting so much time and falling behind everybody else.  But I understood Hall’s rationale (for waiting for the rest of the clients to catch up) so I kept quiet and played the part of obedient client.  To my mind, the rewards of climbing come from its emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions, and dealing with the consequences.  When you become a client, I discovered that you give all that up.  For safety’s sake, the guide always calls the shots. (Krakauer, 1996a: 58)

In a different example, client, Lena Gammelgaard, spoke of how at first, Scott Fischer had told her that she could climb Everest on her own without oxygen (as Boukreev and Lopsang had been allowed to do).  Later, however, when he reversed his decision explaining to her that other climbers might need her help, she wrote in her diary:
How stupid that man (Scott Fischer) is.  I’m angry and hate to be subordinate to his final decision. He’s the captain and has the last word, and I tolerate the conditions that go for the group.  I’m angry and anger makes me strong.  Hard as bone and decisive but at the same time it makes me careless.  I’ve worked so long for this and believed in Scott’s goodwill, and when he shows me his irresponsibility for what he’s supported with his words, I become careless.  This is not what I want.  I feel humiliated because I in a certain way am punished by helping my team members and thereby helping Scott (underlining added). Now, it’s sure as hell the end of being nice and kind, because I want to reach the top of that mountain. (1996: 168)

Beck Weathers: what am I paying you for!


In conclusion, we attribute the drive of many adventure clients to reach the top of Everest to an effort at reparation of a damaged structure of self.  From a Kohutian perspective, adventure climbing offered clients an opportunity to be at the center of a doting world – both on the mountain and around the globe (a mirroring transference function) – and to merge with a potent selfobject – in this case Everest itself, a symbol of ambition, success, and exclusivity (an idealization transference function).   Krakauer (1997) described a climber’s willingness to endure the “toil, tedium, and suffering” of an Everest expedition as a search for “something like a state of grace”

Alternative to high altitude climbing - Ironman

(136). While Everest and other high altitude peaks may have always served this purpose for climbers, self-inflation and lack of skill combined with significant changes in leader roles and responsibilities discussed previously placed this group of climbing teams at a much greater risk for disaster.


The Emergence of Regressive Work Group Cultures.  To fully understand how structural changes led to the emergence of team processes that contributed to this disaster, we turn to Diamond’s (1991) work on regressive work group cultures.  His model suggests that regression in groups arises to cope with and contain anxiety and the fear of annihilation of self (Diamond, 1991). By joining “in a powerful union with an omnipotent force, unobtainably high, to surrender self for passive participation,” members can feel “existence, well being, and wholeness” (Turquet, 1985: 76, based on the work of Bion).

According to Diamond, regressive work group cultures can take several forms.  A  homogenized work group culture tends to be leaderless, fragmented, undifferentiated, and incapable of work.  An institutionalized work group attempts to control anxiety through bureaucracy, hierarchy, and rigidly structured systems.  An autocratic work group attempts to control anxiety through identification with a charismatic leader endowed with “primitive, sadistic, and omnipotent qualities” (Diamond, 1991: 205).  In both an institutionalized and autocratic work group cultures, members may be able to do some work and engage in limited learning.

In this case, changing climber dispositions and leader roles and responsibilities contributed to the emergence of regressive work group cultures.  Hall’s group had elements of an institutionalized culture, held together through an emphasis on strict adherence to the procedures and rules of his adventure climbing system. Fischer’s group had elements of an autocratic culture, centered around the charismatic persona and enthusiasm of Scott Fischer and his emphasis on “doing your own thing”, which, in practice, climbers were often not allowed to do.  Consistent with Diamond’s model, both these cultures fostered client dependency on the leader and contributed to the ambivalence that some members felt toward the system (see Krakauer’s comments on the client system) and towards the individual leader (see Gammelgaard’s comments towards Fischer’s oxygen decision reversal).  Competition for publicity and “yield” – especially, given the severe economic strains on both organizations – likely increased the regressive nature of group cultures and client dependency (Alderfer and Smith, 1982) 4

From Faithful Servants to Self-Interested Subcontractors: Equity Issues among Sherpas in a Commodified System.  From the first British expedition to Everest in 1921 to the first successful ascent in 1953, Western climbers had held their Sherpa porters and sirdars in high regard.  Without their skill, perseverance, fortitude, and loyalty under extreme, high altitude conditions, it is unlikely that any climbing expedition would have ever reached the top of Everest.  Although over the years, Western characterizations of Sherpas have often had a distinctly “colonialist” tone to them, climber respect for and dependence on Sherpa porters and guides have been indisputable.  John Hunt, the expedition leader for the 1953 ascent, described their expedition Sherpas as:
…small, sturdy men with all the sterling qualities of born mountaineers…cheerful, loyal, and courageous, possessed of exceptional hardihood (Hunt, 1954: 60). It is of great importance to the success of any Himalayan expedition that a very close understanding be built up between the climbers and their Sherpas (Hunt, 1954: 62).

Over the years, particularly with the advent of adventure climbing, the relationship between Sherpa porters and guides and climbing parties has changed considerably.  Even though Rob Hall referred to his climbing sirdar, Ang Dorje, with “respect and obvious affection” (Krakauer, 1997: 106), in adventure climbing, Sherpas had become subcontractors who were expected to carry gear and set fixed ropes for wealthy, primarily North American and European, clients – many of whom acted in a self-inflated way and showed little regard for Sherpa customs and beliefs5While some Sherpas might have felt degraded working as subcontractors in this commodified system, others, like Lopsang, might have seen it as an opportunity to benefit personally and professionally – hence, perhaps, his decision to short-rope Pittman up Everest.

Although there is evidence that Ang and Lopsang had not worked well together prior to this expedition, (Krakauer, 1997: 175), in the context of a more instrumental, contractual relationship, it is not surprising that equity issues arose between them.  If part of Lopsang’s role as Fischer’s sirdar was to collaborate with Ang to provide fixed rope assistance to both teams, why – in the context of a commodified system – should Ang have wanted to do the work alone?  Where once, as collaborative and faithful servants, they may have tried to support the expedition by selflessly covering for one another, as Sherpas in a commodified context, the equitableness of contributions (and fairness of rewards) had become increasingly more salient. 


In summary, the degenerating nature of work group cultures and the abandonment of more traditional Sherpa-climber relations help to explain why this disaster occurred. As we have stressed repeatedly, high altitude climbing is a risky endeavor that demands patience, perseverance, diligence, and high amounts of collaboration among climbers, leaders, guides, and Sherpas. Because of the sociostructural and psychological changes that occurred, we argue, none of these capabilities were developed during the acclimation period prior to the climb or during the climb itself.  When a severe storm struck unexpectedly on May 10, there was insufficient flexibility or capability within the system to respond competently.  In their roles as leaders, neither Fischer nor Hall was available to assist struggling clients. For a variety of reasons, key Sherpas, on whom the system of fixed-rope climbing depended, had also not fulfilled their roles. In addition, as ambitious, self-inflated individuals, not only did clients ignore the most fundamental rule for climbing Everest – the 2 PM turnaround rule6 – they were insufficiently skilled to cope with the storm on their own and not cohesive enough as a group to assist one another.  Only through the resourcefulness, strength, and luck of two or three guides did many of them manage to survive.
We attribute much of the emergence of regressive work group cultures and breakdown in the Sherpa-based logistical system to the structural changes in high altitude climbing that we discussed previously.  As a commodified endeavor, high altitude climbing now attracted clients who were less skillful and more self-inflated and was led by entrepreneurial expedition leaders who, as business people in competition with one another, had to concern themselves with both business objectives, such as the summit yield rate, as well as client needs.  As a consequence, clients had difficulty forming collaborative relationships, leaders assumed too much responsibility for expedition success, and Sherpa sirdars were motivated less by the goals of the expedition than by the objectives of their business leaders and their desire to build reputations as expedition guides.

For these structural reasons, it may be very difficult for adventure climbing expeditions ever to become “sophisticated work groups.”  In sophisticated or intentional (Diamond, 1991) work groups, members define the task clearly, desire to know as a basis for completing the task, cooperate through the skills members bring to the group, use structures and roles in the service of the task, tolerate and contain conflict, and feel a collective responsibility for how members interact with one another (Turquet, 1985: 74-75). 

Instead of alleviating anxiety by regressing into basic assumption patterns, leaders, staff, and team members on a “sophisticated” high altitude climbing team are reflective and purposeful, question leader-member relations, and “recognize and publicly test fantasies and defensive reactions” (Diamond, 1991: 208), of which this adventure was full.  Members pay close attention to process and emotional data (Hirschhorn, 1997) as a way to minimize regressive tendencies, an aspect of group dynamics that is particularly important on high risk ventures.

In conclusion, we are suggesting that when a human endeavor becomes a prestigious commodity that people can buy into using whatever economic and symbolic capital is at their disposal, narcissism, competition, and regression are likely to be important facets of the game

From high altitude mountaineering to “spirituality in business,” the commodification of high profile activities will be perpetuated by (and help to perpetuate) narcissistic illusions and fantasies of both buyers and sellersBy becoming acknowledged “experts” and celebrities on topics and activities that are culturally meaningful (because they invoke images of perfection and admiration), participants may be trying to heal narcissistic wounds, some of which might derive from neglectful parenting and others from cultural phenomena that breed alienation and despair.

 However, systems of psychic deliverance that are based on illusion yet require high-risk activity are, in our view, at high risk of falling apart.  Such was the case in the Everest disaster.  

If we are to better understand and deal with narcissism and regression at the organizational level, we need to study how these factors coalesce to give rise to regressive work group cultures and their ego-defensive practices and dynamics.  For instance, re-examining varied industry disasters in light of their structural antecedents might well give us more insight into how the narcissistic factors identified by Kohut (1971), Pauchant (1988), and Brown (1997) covary with changing industry conditions.  Further developmental studies of dependency dynamics, projective tendencies, and narcissistic factor configurations might result in better specification of disaster type and size.  It might also be worthwhile to study work group processes that have been notably non-regressive in the face of disaster (e.g., Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol disaster); such studies might yield improved understanding of how to manage regressive and narcissistic proclivities.  In an age of increasing uncertainty, competition, and media spotlighting, an age where organizations are more capable of destruction than ever, it seems to us that contextualized studies of narcissism, competition, regression, and organizational disaster have never been more important.  Hopefully we will see the emergence of such studies in the near future.

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 Table 1: A Chronology of Key Events
Wealthy businessman Dick Bass climbs 7 highest peaks on each continent, suggesting anyone can climb if they have enough money & training.
Large numbers of commercial climbing companies spring up, providing total climbing packages for about $US70,000 to Everest.  Robert Hall’s company, formed in 1990, becomes one of the most successful operations.
May 1, 1996
Hall & Fischer assemble respective climbing groups:  Hall’s group comprised of Hall, Harris, Groom (guides), Ang (Hall’s lead Sherpa), Weathers; Hansen; Namba; Krakauer and 4 other clients (who turned back early).  Fischer’s group comprised of: Fischer, Boukreev, Beidleman (guides), Lopsang (Fischer’s lead Sherpa), Pittman, Schoening, Fox, Madson, Gammelgaard, & Adams (clients).
May 8, 1996
Hall’s and Fischer’s groups begin acclimatizing on lower parts of the mountain.
May 9
Hall’s and Fischer’s groups ascend to Base Camp Four at bottom of South Col.  After resting, the two groups begin ascent to Everest summit close to midnight.  Makala Gau’s Taiwanese group also departs (ahead of schedule), breaking their agreement not to ascend on May 10.
Morning, May 10
Lopsang was noted ignoring necessary rope fixing.  At about 9 a.m. Ang refuses to fix ropes by himself and Beidleman has to fill in for Lopsang.  By 11:30 a.m. there is still a big queue because of this delay.
Midday, May 10
Krakauer, Beidleman, Harris, and Boukreev reach South Summit and wait for almost an hour for Sherpas to fix ropes up Hillary Step.  Ang arrives but refuses to fix ropes again.  The four go ahead and do it.  Lack of rope creates 100 meter danger zone. A second bottleneck forms as four of Hall’s clients decide to turn back.
Early afternoon, May 10
Boukreev, Krakauer, Harris, & Beidleman reach summit and descend (except for Beidleman).  20 person queue waits to ascend.  Krakauer (running out of oxygen) and Harris wait for queue at the top of Hillary Step.  Fischer’s group ascends summit with Fischer dragging slowly behind; Hall expresses disappointment at not getting more of his group to the top.  Weather begins deteriorating.
Mid afternoon, May 10
Krakauer, Adams, Harris, & Groom reach South Summit.  Hansen reaches top; short-roped by Hall, Hansen begins descent;  Fischer, Lopsang, & Makalu Gau begin descent.  Lopsang short-ropes Fischer who has trouble standing up.  Hansen & Hall reach Hillary Step.  Hansen collapses.  Hall, radios for help and spends next 12 hours trying to get Hansen down.
Late afternoon, May 10
Beidleman, Madsen, Fox, Pittman, Schoening, & Gammelgaard reach South Summit.  Boukreev starts back up, attempting rescue with four oxygen bottles.  Turns back.  Blizzard conditions begin.  All urgently make for Camp 4.  Namba runs out of oxygen and refuses to move; Beidleman starts dragging Namba to Camp 4.
Night, May 10.
Storm becomes hurricane force.  Mixed group of climbers reaches South Col but, unable to find camp, stop. Sky clears briefly and  Beidleman, with Schoening, Gammelgaard, & Groom set out for Camp Four leaving Weathers, Namba, Fox, Pittman, & Madsen behind.  Beidleman et. al. Find camp; Boukreev goes to find others and, after 2 trips, leads and, in some cases, carries clients back to camp.  Sherpas tie Makalu and Fischer together.
Morning and Afternoon, May 11
Hall, frostbitten & hypothermic, makes it to South Summit.  Hansen had slipped and died earlier. Hall is unable to move despite repeated urgings to do so. Rescue attempt fails.  Gau brought down by Sherpas; Fischer left to die. Weathers wakes from comatose state and arrives at Camp Four that afternoon. 
Night, May 11
Hall is patched through to his pregnant wife in New Zealand and says last goodbyes. 
After May 11
Five have died: 3 guides (Hall, Harris, Fischer) & 2 clients (Namba & Hansen).  On May 14, Weathers and Gau are helicoptered off the mountain.  Months later, Krakauer, Pittman, and other survivors publish magazine accounts and/or cut movie deals.  Major movie release expected by 1998.  Hall’s adventure business is sold.

TABLE 2:       A Comparative Summary of Climbing Environments & Practices

Pre 1980’s

Post 1980’s

Macro Structural Shifts in Climbing Commercialization

·          Noncapitalist, 'traditionalist' orientation
·          Few climbers
·          Generalist orientation

·          Some competition

·          Delayed, specialized media coverage

·          Capitalist, 'gadgeteering' orientation

·          Many climbers
·          Emergent role specialization (guide/client)
·          Rapidly increasing competition & pressure to succeed
·          Extensive "instant" media coverage

Micro Structural Shifts in Leaders & Clients

·          Climbers – focus on the task as a means to summit
·          Generalist orientation
·          “First among equals”
·          Interdependent orientation to authority
·          Less complex and burdensome boundary management role
·          Primarily consultative and collaborative leadership style

·          Highly skilled and experienced climbers

·          Businessmen – focus on the task as a means to build business
·          Specialist orientation
·          The “expert”
·          Dependent orientation to authority

·          More complex and burdensome boundary management role
·          Hierarchical rule-based (Hall) or charismatic personality-based (Fischer) leadership style
·          Less skilled and experienced climbers

Psychological Shifts in Climber
And Dispositions
·          Contained narcissism (positive self-regard)
·          Lower potential for denial, rationalization,
self-aggrandizement, and entitlement

·          More pathological narcissism (self-inflated)
·          Higher potential for denial, rationalization, self-aggrandizement, and entitlement


·          Intentional work group cultures (Diamond, 1991) – ability to work through regressive actions
·          Use of basic assumptions to serve
primary task (Turquet, 1985)
·          Emphasis on self-evaluation and
appropriate application of skills to
serve the primary task
·          Internalization of climbing norms and rules
·          Sherpas as partners and collaborators
·          Institutionalized/Autocratic work group cultures (Diamond, 1991) – inability to work through regressive actions
·          Mired in basic assumptions (dependency, flight-fight, pairing)
·          Little capacity for self-evaluation – reliance on leader rules and/or charisma to manage task
·          Compliance with (and breaking of) climbing rules and norms
·          Sherpas as subcontractors – emergence of equity and contractual concerns

1 Boukreev strongly disagreed with Krakauer’s assessment saying that in his twenty-five years of climbing, only once had he ever used oxygen on an assault over 8000 meters (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 245).  He explained, “It is safer for me, once acclimatized, to climb without oxygen in order to avoid the sudden loss of acclimatization that occurs when supplementary oxygen supplies are depleted” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 249).

2 In early May when Madsen and Fox fell behind in their acclimatization, they grew concerned that they would not be ready by the May 10 summit date and asked Fischer if they could try their ascent later.  When Fischer indicated that there would be only one summit attempt, they were quoted as saying, “Which was a big surprise to everybody because we paid all this money and we only get one shot at it!..I thought that’s not what the advertising said” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 132).

3 In a different incident when Krakauer was atop the Hillary Step and running out of oxygen, he asked Harris to turn off his oxygen while he waited for a long cue of climbers to ascend; mistakenly, Harris turned the valve the wrong way and Krakauer’s oxygen was gone before he realized what had happened.  Only much later did Krakauer realize that Harris “had slipped well beyond routine hypoxia” (Krakauer, 1996a: 60) and was in real trouble as well.

4 In our view, competition between the climbing organizations exacerbated the clients’ already strong preoccupation with themselves (and their own climbing agenda) as well as the complexity of the task for Hall and Fischer. In an interesting comment during a May 20 interview on the Outside magazine on-line chat group, Krakauer said about this:
As soon as Rob gave me the go-ahead (to leave the Balcony at 7:10 AM), I went and got as far up, passed as many of Scott’s group as I had, and actually got right up behind Anatoli (Boukreev)…So I think there was a little tension between Scott’s group and our group – just sort of who was going to get ahead.  Everyone knew that you didn’t want to get stuck at the back of the parade.  (Krakauer, 1996c: 3) 

Intergroup competition manifested itself in other ways as well such as Fischer’s silent consent in allowing Lopsang to short rope Pittman (whose successful ascent was a potential publicity windfall), and the failure of leaders to emphasize and guides/clients to adhere to the 2 PM turnaround rule.

5 For example, according to Krakauer (1997), Sherpas “fundamentally disapproved of sex between unmarried couples on the divine flanks of Sagarmatha” (the Sherpa name for Everest, the goddess of the sky) (127).  Yet when at Camp Two, a client from Fischer’s team became sexually involved with a climber from a different party, the “amorous assignations that took place in this woman’s tent were duly noted by other members of her team, especially the Sherpas, who sat outside pointing and snickering during the encounters” (127).  According to Krakauer, the problem was not that the couple had one encounter but that “she continued to sleep with her paramour high on the mountain” (129) – this despite Lopsang’s pleas to Fischer to forbid them from doing so.  When later, after an accident, a Sherpa (Ngawang Topche) died, many Sherpas attributed it to Sagarmatha taking revenge  because of the client couple’s indiscretions.

6 One client was quoted as saying, “I remember standing there thinking, My oxygen is running out”…but at the same time we were there and there weren’t sufficient impediments to stop us or turn us back…(and) there were no cutoff times.  We never actually discussed cutoff times” (Wilkinson, 1996: 41).

1 Boukreev strongly disagreed with Krakauer’s assessment saying that in his twenty-five years of climbing, only once had he ever used oxygen on an assault over 8000 meters (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 245).  He explained, “It is safer for me, once acclimatized, to climb without oxygen in order to avoid the sudden loss of acclimatization that occurs when supplementary oxygen supplies are depleted” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 249).

2 In early May when Madsen and Fox fell behind in their acclimatization, they grew concerned that they would not be ready by the May 10 summit date and asked Fischer if they could try their ascent later.  When Fischer indicated that there would be only one summit attempt, they were quoted as saying, “Which was a big surprise to everybody because we paid all this money and we only get one shot at it!..I thought that’s not what the advertising said” (Boukreev and DeWalt, 1997: 132).

3 In a different incident when Krakauer was atop the Hillary Step and running out of oxygen, he asked Harris to turn off his oxygen while he waited for a long cue of climbers to ascend; mistakenly, Harris turned the valve the wrong way and Krakauer’s oxygen was gone before he realized what had happened.  Only much later did Krakauer realize that Harris “had slipped well beyond routine hypoxia” (Krakauer, 1996a: 60) and was in real trouble as well.

4 In our view, competition between the climbing organizations exacerbated the clients’ already strong preoccupation with themselves (and their own climbing agenda) as well as the complexity of the task for Hall and Fischer. In an interesting comment during a May 20 interview on the Outside magazine on-line chat group, Krakauer said about this:
As soon as Rob gave me the go-ahead (to leave the Balcony at 7:10 AM), I went and got as far up, passed as many of Scott’s group as I had, and actually got right up behind Anatoli (Boukreev)…So I think there was a little tension between Scott’s group and our group – just sort of who was going to get ahead.  Everyone knew that you didn’t want to get stuck at the back of the parade.  (Krakauer, 1996c: 3) 

Intergroup competition manifested itself in other ways as well such as Fischer’s silent consent in allowing Lopsang to short rope Pittman (whose successful ascent was a potential publicity windfall), and the failure of leaders to emphasize and guides/clients to adhere to the 2 PM turnaround rule.

5 For example, according to Krakauer (1997), Sherpas “fundamentally disapproved of sex between unmarried couples on the divine flanks of Sagarmatha” (the Sherpa name for Everest, the goddess of the sky) (127).  Yet when at Camp Two, a client from Fischer’s team became sexually involved with a climber from a different party, the “amorous assignations that took place in this woman’s tent were duly noted by other members of her team, especially the Sherpas, who sat outside pointing and snickering during the encounters” (127).  According to Krakauer, the problem was not that the couple had one encounter but that “she continued to sleep with her paramour high on the mountain” (129) – this despite Lopsang’s pleas to Fischer to forbid them from doing so.  When later, after an accident, a Sherpa (Ngawang Topche) died, many Sherpas attributed it to Sagarmatha taking revenge  because of the client couple’s indiscretions.

6 One client was quoted as saying, “I remember standing there thinking, My oxygen is running out”…but at the same time we were there and there weren’t sufficient impediments to stop us or turn us back…(and) there were no cutoff times.  We never actually discussed cutoff times” (Wilkinson, 1996: 41).

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