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Want to survive Mt Everest? Then join a team from an egalitarian country where people listen to each other. It’s that simple



The Summit of Everest: What it's Like

THERE are plenty of ways to die on the world’s highest peaks. 

There’s bad luck, like the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas and other Nepalis on the Khumbu Icefall below Mt Everest last year.

There’s your own body, which can let you down in any number of ways from cerebral and pulmonary odoemas (an abnormal accumulation of fluid) to heart attack and plain old exhaustion.

There’s lack of experience, which claims an increasing number of big-spending victims each year on guided expeditions.

But according to a new study, the one factor which leads to more deaths on Everest (and the world’s highest peaks) is a rigid social heirarchy.
One of the lucky ones... this man survived an avalanche on Mount Manaslu in northern Nepa
One of the lucky ones... this man survived an avalanche on Mount Manaslu in northern Nepal. At least nine mountaineers were killed. (AP Photo/Garrett Madison, Alpine Ascents International) Source: AP
 
Here’s what that means. When countries with a strict social heirarchy organise mountaineering expeditions, they tend to reach the summit more than most groups. But they also end up with more dead climbers because the safety concerns of some climbers tend not to be addressed by expedition leaders.

“For better or worse, hierarchy exerts strong influence over group outcomes,” report the study’s authors, a doctoral candidate and a professor from Columbia Business School and an assistant professor from INSEAD graduate business school in France.

“Strong hierarchical values pave the way for coordinated effort, but, at the same time, these values can mute the voice of others in the face of threat,” the report’s authors say.

“Our results suggest that, to avoid errors, strong hierarchical cultures need to implement mechanisms geared toward encouraging low-ranking members to voice their perspectives
and for high-ranking members to integrate this feedback.”
Andrew Lock in his office in 2007.
Andrew Lock in his office in 2007. Source: News Limited 

 News.com.au contacted leading Australian mountaineer Andrew Lock to gauge his thoughts on the study. While he wasn’t aware of it, he agreed that it seemed to ring true.

“Look, anecdotally I would find it difficult to argue that position,” he said. “Certainly I have seen those rigid groups in the mountains. When there is a degree of inflexibilty in an expedition, I can certainly see that less experienced members may not be willing to raise their voices or their voice may not be heard.”

Andrew Lock is no ordinary climber. He recently released a book called Summit 8000, which details his amazing, and successful, 16-year quest to climb the 14 peaks in the world higher than 8000 metres. He is the only Australian to join the elite “Eight-thousander” club which has just 33 (undisputed) members.

When you read Andrew’s book, you see that decision-making is often the difference between life and death. Several times he wisely neglected to attempt a summit even though he was within a few hundred metres of completing an expedition which had been months and tens of thousands of dollars in the making.
Dhaulagiri is no place to get stubborn.
Dhaulagiri is no place to get stubborn. Source: NewsComAu
 
Once, on a climb of the world’s 7th highest peak, the 8167 Dhaulagiri in Nepal, Andrew needed to spend a night alone on the mountain to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. Acclimatisation is something climbers do to prepare their bodies for the onslaught of summit day, but it’s highly unusual for a climber to spend a night alone so high. But his team leader, an Aussie, agreed to let him do it. Andrew reckons he could have experienced life-threatening physical difficulties if he’d attempted the summit without that extra night up high.

Andrew Lock has lost more than 20 of his climbing friends either on expeditions in which he participated, or on subsequent climbing trips. He knows that danger strikes in many ways in the so-called “death zone” above 8000 metres. But he also knows that the more regimented a climbing party, the more the chance of failure.

“I know of instances where an Indian army team died on Everest where one would think they should have had the nous for lateral thinking, to turn around when the circumstances were not right,” he says.

India, says the study, is one of the world’s most heirarchical countries, right up there with the likes of Russia and China, who have also had multiple fatalities over the years on Everest and nearby peaks.
Andrew also cites the example of a Japanese expedtition which came to grief on the summit plateau of Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain at 8,163m.

Mt Manaslu, Nepal. The Japanese group came to grief on the flattish area between the two
Mt Manaslu, Nepal. The Japanese group came to grief on the flattish area between the two summits. Source: News Limited
 
“How the lot of them got caught out raises questions,” he says.

“My experience from cultures around the world is that Australians are more outspoken and willing to challenge leadership, not confrontationally, but willing to talk about it.

“I can imagine in some cultures people simply would not argue with leadership and that would bring them unstuck.”

Not that any of this should lead you to think we Aussies are immune to danger.

Five Australians have died on Mt Everest over the years. But far more Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans and Indians have succumbed to the mountain’s will, so you’d have to think the study’s authors are onto something.

As their report says: “Hierarchy, it turns out, can elevate climbers to the summit, but at a potentially steep cost.

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