Know When To Turn Back

Dec. 21, 2004

One of the most compelling books Ive read in a long time is Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (1997, Villard Books). In this harrowing first-person narrative of the tragic 1996 climbing season (12 died attempting to summit the worlds highest mountain that May), author Jon Krakauer details how a deadly mix of ambition, ego, poor planning, questionable decisions, and bad weather killed nine climbers in less than 48 hours. As devastating as the narrative itself is Krakauers exploration of the moral issues raised by the actions of expedition leaders and participants on and near the peak. While acts of heroism abound in this tale of high-altitude catastrophe, there are nearly no untarnished heroes. Almost everyone involved made questionable judgments that contributed to the death of one or more fellow climbers. One exception to this -- and instructive to leaders everywhere -- was a 29-year-old soloist who attempted the peak a few days before the Everest disaster. Gran Kropp had left Stockholm the previous October on a custom bicycle, planning to haul 240 lb of gear some 8,000 miles to the foot of Everest and then climb the worlds highest peak, unaided by oxygen or Sherpas. Robbed by Romanian schoolchildren, assaulted with a baseball bat in Iran, Kropp nonetheless reached Everest in shape to begin his climb. Hampered by thigh-deep snow, Kropp fought his way to 28,700 feet, just 328 feet and less than 60 minutes shy of the top, before making an inspired decision. Despite having spent seven months getting there, Kropp -- concerned that because he had reached his preplanned turnaround time he could not summit Everest and then safely descend -- turned back. "To turn around that close to the summit . . . ," said Rob Hall, the leader of Krakauers ill-fated expedition. "That showed incredibly good judgment on young Grans part. Im impressed -- considerably more impressed, actually, than if hed continued climbing and made the top. . . . With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive." Hall tragically ignored his own advice, lingering on the summit well past his own preplanned turnaround time in an attempt to help several of his paying clients reach the peak. That decision -- combined with those of others and plain bad luck -- led not only to Halls death but to the death of several others as well. Fortunately, most executives dont have the life-and-death responsibility of Himalayan guides for their clients and employees. But every leader is confronted with complex decisions that involve ambition, ego, and planning, with far-reaching consequences for employees, clients, and even entire communities. Before making one of those judgments, read Krakauers book and ask yourself just what summit your organization is trying to reach, and at what cost. Because with enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up a hill. The trick is to get back down alive. Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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