Case 9: The climbers who perished by succeeding


This post is number nine in my series looking at cases where it seems that “believing we are right” has led to bad outcomes, sometimes even spectacularly bad results, for leaders, teams and organizations.

For my upcoming book, Big Decisions: Why we make decisions that matter so poorly. How we can make them better, I have identified and categorized nearly 350 mental traps and errors that lead us into making bad decisions. The many high-profile situations that I have examined demonstrate the bad outcomes that can be produced by mental traps and errors. My premise is that, at the least, if we recognize and admit that we don’t know the answer, we will put more effort into looking for better decision options and limiting the risks stemming from failure when making important decisions.

In this case, mental traps led one of the world’s best mountain climbers to ignore his pre-set rule, with tragic results.


Mountain climbing guide Rob Hall believed that his expedition plan would get the Mount Everest climbers in his charge onto and down from the summit. He believed his hard rule that the team would turn around at 2 p.m. if they were not yet on top of the mountain would protect the climbers from disaster. He believed that allowing his climbers to express any dissenting views while the expedition made the final push would hurt their chances of success.

Nearly all the climbers on the summit push that day, including Hall and his team, kept climbing and arrived at the top after two o’clock. As a result, many climbers found themselves descending in darkness, well past midnight, as a ferocious blizzard enveloped the mountain. Five people died in this highly publicized 1996 disaster and many others barely escaped with their lives.

What might have led renowned guide Hall astray, beyond the judgment-skewing effects of high stress, and oxygen and sleep deprivation?

  • Evidence suggests he saw the climb as a “now or never” opportunity for his charges. However, other climbers including filmmaker David Breashears and his team who were on the mountain at the same time got to the top and down in following days. This “all or nothing” thinking suggests that Hall was trapped by a False Dilemma (when the choice is presented as being between two options, when in fact one or more additional options exist).
  • While Hall’s climbing and leading experience are evidence that he should have known about the dangers of scaling Mt. Everest, clearly his planning did not account for the bad luck of leading less experienced climbing clients in a surprise storm of epic proportions. A big factor leading to the disaster was Hall and others Underestimating the Importance of Luck (we too often underestimate the importance of luck in the outcomes of our decisions, according to various studies).
  • Hall’s insistence that his decisions not be questioned on the ascent meant he heard no dissent – even when his guides and climbers had doubts and questions about the decision to continue climbing. This lack of feedback in essence freed Hall to continue the climb after his deadline. It perversely amplified the False Consensus Effect (seeing more consensus for our beliefs than is actually the case, leading us to not consider judgments different from ours).

No doubt, evaluating multiple options and dealing with dissent can impede progress. But Hall’s party encountered the worst of outcomes because options were not recognized and the judgment of others went unheard.