Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 14, 2012

High altitude, high risk

Mountaineers discuss decision-making in extreme environments

by Eric Van Susteren

When Chris Klinke and a group of fellow mountaineers started up K2, they knew the risks of climbing the second highest, and possibly most dangerous, mountain in the world. He didn't know he'd be present for one of the deadliest days in mountaineering, during which 11 climbers would die.

Klinke and five other mountaineers — including the youngest person and oldest American to climb Mt. Everest — spoke at a panel at Stanford University on Dec. 5 about decision-making and risk assessment in extreme environments.

During Klinke's ascent of K2 in 2008, a series of variables and decisions the group made put them in a dangerous situation.

Eight teams from different countries, who spoke different languages, decided to attempt the climb together and share responsibilities, but communication broke down, causing significant delays.

He was dissuaded from climbing to the summit mainly because of treacherous conditions and a late start that could have meant navigating dangerous terrain at night.

Of course, the falling chunk of ice that had dented his helmet and may have caused his painful headache didn't help either.

"Nothing can describe a headache at that altitude but 'splitting,'" he said, noting that a number of variables, including dehydration and altitude sickness, could also have contributed to it.

After assessing the risk, he decided to descend all the way to base camp instead of climbing to the summit. The decision may have saved his life.

Klinke, who had worked as vice president at American Express, compared risk management in mountaineering to the business world.

In business and mountaineering, one cannot eliminate risk completely, he said.

"The only way to avoid risk completely is not to climb," he said.

But a business can transfer risk by buying insurance; a mountaineer can do the same by hiring guides or checking and rechecking oxygen tanks and rope.

The talk was part of Stanford visiting scholar Markus Hallgren's 4-year research project on everyday decision-making in extreme environments, specifically in high altitude mountaineering and emergency wards. He and his fellow researchers have studied expeditions like the one Klinke was involved in, gathering interviews and even accompanying expeditions.

Though Hallgren focuses on everyday decision-making in extreme environments, he said his work applies to decision-making in any organization.

"Extreme environments kind of clarify things that in ordinary organizations are a little muddled," he said. "In ordinary organizations there might be political processes, and there's distance between you and the impact. In extreme situations a decision impacts you in the next five minutes or at least within the day."

Probably the most significant difference is the gravity of the consequences of decisions, Hallgren said.

"In a regular organization the consequences aren't fatal," he said. "Maybe you lose some money, but if you make the wrong decision in an extreme environment you die."

Hallgren's project is in its first year, but he has been studying mountaineering since 2007. He and his fellow scholars have closely followed three expeditions, including the fateful K2 ascent of 2008, and have planned four more in the coming two years.

Klinke, who has climbed some of the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world, follows a few guidelines when making decisions in extreme situations.

He tries to be aware of himself and his environment and the limitations they pose. He thinks through the consequences a decision would have and any alternatives there might be.

Finally, he strives to be aware of those around him and of their needs. He said he wouldn't try to reach a summit without being sure he had the energy to get himself up and down and help others along the way.

He acknowledged that all this can be difficult when his brain is starved for oxygen because of the extreme elevation.

"We would do the 'sudoku' test when we were up there, and I could only fill out like five boxes," he said. "You think you're so smart when you're up there, but you're really so dumb."

Bill Burke reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 2009 when he was 67, making him the oldest American to ever climb the world's highest mountain. He calls himself a "walking paradox" as a climber.

"The risk — of heart attack, stroke, pulmonary edema, all these things — is increased dramatically with age, but it's mitigated basically because I'm a chicken," he said. "I don't want to die on a mountain. I've tried Everest five times, and I've failed four."

Burke has climbed the highest mountains on every continent and has seen the effects internal and external pressures can have on a climber's decision-making process.

They may be as simple as securing a sponsor for the climb, he said.

Burke, who retired from a 40-year career in corporate law, said he trains year-round to climb Mt. Everest and that the price of an ascent is steep. He estimated an unguided ascent costs between $30,000 and $60,000, while a guided climb may be between $80,000 and $120,000.

Since some people can't afford to come back, it affects their judgment of whether it's safe to reach the summit.

Previous successes can take off the pressure.

"If you've already made it to the top, then you're just up there for fun, for the experience," he said.

Burke is now 70 and said the greatest factor in his decision-making is his desire to survive.

"I have a wife of 50 years, four children and 14 grandchildren," he said, as he described freezing sheets of ice and snow that pelted him and his sherpa as they neared the summit. "I stopped for a cup of tea and starting shivering immediately. Could I make it to the top? Yes. Can I make it down? I couldn't be sure — if the weather conditions worsened or my conditions worsened."

The Internet and social media have put a whole new spin on decision-making in extreme environments, he said.

"A lot of people are on social media or have blogs with thousands of people following them," he said. "Sometimes that puts too much pressure on them to make it to the top."

Jordan Romero said he didn't feel that external pressure when he ascended Mt. Everest in 2010, despite the fact that he was only 13 when he climbed it, making him the youngest climber in history to reach the summit.

"For us it didn't feel like pressure, but support," he said. "We knew that getting down was way more important than getting up. The pressure was for us to get down."

Romero, who climbed Everest with his father and stepmother, has also climbed the highest summits on every continent.

Romero faced some controversy before the climb because of his age, but his father, Paul, felt he had prepared enough to lessen the risk.

"After months of planning and talking to sherpas and world-class climbers, it becomes easy. Executing it is the hard part," Paul Romero said. "It was his idea from the beginning, and we wouldn't have done it without making sure he was physically strong enough and trained for it." •

Editorial Assistant Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

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