What Climbing Everest Can Teach Us About Stop the Job Protocols

By Sean Flavin December 10th, 2020

As a group captive consultant, part of our job at Captive Resources (CRI) is to help the 5,000-plus member-companies we work with establish and maintain safe workplaces. Accomplishing this goal requires companies to develop safety protocols, consistently follow those procedures, and know when to stop a job when things go wrong.

That last factor can be opaque for a lot of companies. To shed some light on stop the job protocols, we invited Jim “Tango” Gray of Check-6 to join our weekly Risk Control Webinar series. Gray spent 21 years in the Royal Marines Commando, with multiple deployments in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones.

In his presentation, Gray used the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster as a case study in why stop the job protocols are so important in the workplace. Here is a recap of what happened and a few lessons your organization can take away from the tragic series of missteps on Everest.

Background: 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster

After climbers first conquered the mountain in the 1950s, summitting Mt. Everest was considered an achievement reserved for only the most accomplished mountaineers. But, by the 1990s, those accomplished mountaineers had discovered they could make a good living by guiding novice climbers to the summit. A rush of guide companies and thrill-seeking clients followed, setting the stage for the tragic events of May 10th, 1996.

On that day, several companies, including Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, sent groups for the summit. The groups included guides with years of experience, Sherpas who lived their entire lives at altitude, and clients of varying climbing experience.

The goal of these expeditions was twofold:

  • Get the clients — who pay handsomely for the opportunity — up to the summit, some 29,000 feet above sea level, on one of the few days a year the weather allows climbers to survive at the highest level of the mountain (known as the death zone).
  • Get the clients back down before weather conditions deteriorate or climbers succumb to any of the various deadly afflictions that can strike at high altitudes.

Accomplishing both goals required the groups to depart camp for the summit by 11:30 p.m., giving them a 14-hour window to reach the top before the deadline. There was a strict rule on Everest: No matter what, climbers have to start their descent by 2 p.m. to ensure they get below the “Death Zone” safely.

In May 1996, leaders of several groups disregarded that deadline. Here are a few lessons that organizations can learn from their mistakes.

No. 1: Adhere to Predetermined Criteria

Whether it’s climbing Everest or working on an oil rig, safety protocols are essential. For various reasons that we’ll get into, the lead guides decided mid-climb not to enforce the established turnaround time. Rather than stopping the job when they knew they should have, many group members carried on. The result was 13 stranded climbers exposed to some of the harshest conditions on Everest.

For companies, the stakes can be equally high. To ensure your organization’s job sites are as safe as possible, establish and enforce a clear set of safety protocols.

No. 2: Avoid Balancing Competing Forces

One of the likely reasons the turnaround time was ignored that day was financial pressure on the guides. This was especially true for Adventure Consultants’ lead guide. The company’s group included a journalist working on a feature about the climb, and a mailman who had paid the large fee for a second straight year after failing to reach the summit in his previous attempt.

This dynamic created a situation that forced the guide to balance the competing forces of his financial obligations (which would have taken a hit if he failed to get everyone to the top) and his responsibility to make sure his clients got home safely. The financial pressure won out as he allowed the returning client to make for the summit after 4 p.m. Not long after, a massive snowstorm hit the mountain, trapping the pair above the “Death Zone” without oxygen bottles.

No. 3: Don’t Make Decisions in Times of Stress

Adventure Consultants wasn’t the only group whose leader disregarded stop the job protocols that day. Mountain Madness’ leader reached the summit around 3:30 p.m. — a full hour and a half after the turnaround time. Both leaders had succumbed to competing forces rather than following specific protocols, causing them to make decisions that would lead to tragedy during the climb.

According to Gray, making decisions in times of stress is never a good idea. Instead, leaders and subordinates alike should follow predetermined protocols, avoid groupthink, and avoid letting anyone become a single point of failure

Related: What the Tenerife Disaster Can Teach Us About Human Performance

No. 4: Lead by Example

According to Gray, the biggest takeaway of his entire presentation is how critical of a role supervisors play in setting good examples and enforcing policies. On Everest, the group leaders did not set a good example for the climbers and disregarded their own stop the job protocols. In the end, the decisions these leaders made under duress ended up costing them their lives, and the lives of multiple climbers in their groups.

The stakes in your workplaces may not be as life and death as summitting Everest, but many job sites are dangerous places, especially when safety protocols aren’t followed. It’s up to every organization’s leaders to set the right example by following safety best practices and knowing when to stop the job when things go wrong.

About the Webinar

This presentation was part of CRI’s Risk Control Webinar Series — weekly installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership, and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect CRI’s positions on any of the above topics.

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