The team is back, resting at basecamp. After a successful rotation through the Khumbu Icefall and a push up to touch camp 3, everybody is ready for a break. We will spend at least a week resting and recovering and waiting for a promising weather window. The next push up the mountain will be our summit attempt. The excitement of this is always tempered with at least some bit of fear or trepidation. There is so much here that we do not control. The only antidote to all this uncertainty is to prepare as well as possible and to try to anticipate problems before they arise.
The biggest problem we face here is, of course, ourselves. We have chosen to interact with this environment, and in doing so, opened the door to both the objective hazards of the mountain and our own human fallibilities. As for the risk of icefall and avalanche, of too much snow or wind to climb, there is nothing to be done. You let it go. To guard against our own mistakes, there is much that can be done. The fundamental risk here is that the human attention span is finite. At the peak of our ability we can only concentrate on and absorb a few select aspects of our environment; when you add in cold, extreme exhaustion and hypoxia, the ability to think and act rationally is severely blunted. The propensity for mishap or accident rises in direct proportion to each of these individual stresses. In order to combat the physical and mental stress, we rely heavily on each other. We have developed a culture of challenge and rigorously apply it.
A challenge culture is simply the constant observation and questioning of the people and environment with which you are engaged. This culture is common and much the same in any job that combines rapidly changing conditions with high consequences. Emergency medicine, military operations, fire response and high altitude guiding may all have different terminology and process but they all rely heavily on this core concept. Here on Everest, we look at weather forecasts, inspect our ropes and gear, and we constantly demand of each other: Are you clipped in properly to your climbing gear? Is that knot tied right? Are you eating, drinking? Can you feel you hands? Your feet?
In Antarctica, working with our pilots, the questions are slightly different, but we are always working toward the same result. We make sure that everyone involved in the operation knows the plan and its contingencies – that they have an answer and mitigation for each identified risk. We ask about available fuel, emergency gear on board, alternative landings, pilot fatigue, and the weight limits and endurance of each individual aircraft.
This questioning, the challenge, is not confrontational. It is, and should always be, a quick and unemotional check-in, a simple and direct question. Even though there is no shortage of strong personalities in these places, the system works. When there is a prior agreement to use it and both the mutual goals and hazards of the operation are known and identified, it works even better. Naturally this questioning and challenge does not go completely without some moments of contention and minor embarrassments. As the word culture implies, this is a system of communication, growth and interaction and not a fairy tail of perfection. It can be a battle to keep it free of politics, agenda and misuse. In the beginning, with a new group of people, it can be difficult to establish the right tone and frequency of challenge. Very quickly, however, people tend to realize that we all slip up – that it is, in fact, impossible not to, and that the system works to the individual’s benefit far more often than to his or her detriment. It perpetuates solid results and few mistakes. It is quickly apparent that a small annoyance or embarrassment on the front side of an operation is infinitely more appealing and palatable than a costly mistake or the accident that has now been avoided.
Every job has critical aspects, things that need to be done correctly and in the right sequence in order for the project or task to succeed. Knowing that the human attention span is finite and owning up to this fact, as most all operators have in these high consequence environments, should push any business or endeavor toward this type of open communication and challenge system. If you use and push this type of system with a new group of employees or partners, expect some growing pains, expect to be challenged at inconvenient times and places. Stay focused on the upside. The very worst-case scenario here is that the challenge identifies a gap in knowledge, training or aptitude within this person – a lapse that if not identified would have had substantial cost or consequence shortly down the line. The best-case scenario is that this employee, now empowered to challenge your plans and actions, just saved your proverbial bacon.
If you take on a new partner, or as a company, hire people of greater intelligence and talents than you yourself possess, as you always really should, this challenge culture should be a natural arrangement and expectation. These people are here to correct, improve, expand and complete your concepts and projects. If they feel comfortable forwarding their ideas, voicing concerns and challenging perceived issues, then all their available talents and brilliance will be brought to bear on the task at hand.
If you want to climb a mountain or launch into the unknown, if you are going to fly, either literally or metaphorically, you will need help. You will need the cooperation, awareness and vision of the people that surround you. If you understand that every endeavor is full of pitfalls and potential mishap, then you will properly value their insight and focus. Aim for this; embrace and be open to challenge from any direction. It will only make you stronger.
All the very best
Written at Everest Base Camp, Nepal 2016
Photos and updates also available at: Madisonmountaineering.com – Dispatches Everest 2016
Facebook: Fred P Alldredge