Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, is a non-fiction novel that chronicles the events of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster through the eyes of journalist and survivor Jon Krakauer. A relatively seasoned mountaineer, he is part of the ill-fated Adventure Consultant expedition lead by Robert Hall in May of 1996. Krakauer’s account looks back with hindsight at the events that day ultimately leading to disaster; including the leadership that day on the mountain.
Analyzing the Everest tragedy from the perspective of leadership, we see the theory of situational leadership in practice (Northouse, p.93). Situational leadership theory argues that different situations call for different types of leadership, and as the novel outlines, the extreme conditions and dangers of high altitude climbing, where individuals need to push themselves beyond endurance, would demand situational leadership (Northouse, p.93).
Rob Hall the guide and owner of Adventure Consultants demonstrates an exemplary situational leadership. He exercises both directive leadership by establishing goals for his team to reach the summit, he defines the roles of his team, and more importantly sets deadlines (Northouse, p.93). He is also supportive of the climbers on his team, helping Doug Hansen to achieve his goal of reaching the top, then refusing to leave him behind when the storm came upon them (Krakauer. p.238). Unfortunately, Hall’s leadership choices would be his final one as he and Hansen would both lose their lives on the mountain (Krakauer. p.240).
Another example of incredibly situational leadership is demonstrated by guides Mike Groom of Adventure Consults and Neal Beidleman of Mountain Madness. Both men were trying to return to camp in the middle of a severe storm with seven clients, bringing them within 200m of Camp Four before succumbing to the elements (Krakauer, p. 216). The unexperienced clients were completely dependent on them as guides to be the leaders, using everything they could think of to cajoled, demanded, and force them to keep moving (Krakauer, p. 216). Their efforts would save five lives that night (Krakauer, p.283).
Conversely Krakauer notes those who failed in their position of leadership. One of the more controversial figures in the novel is Anatoli Boukreev, one of the guides of Mountain Madness the other team. Boukreev is a seasoned climber, however his attitude towards the clients in his care shows poor leadership throughout. Krakauer notes that the day they headed for the top Boukreev raced far head of the clients, as well as descended back down to camp on his own without assisting anyone (Krakauer, p.218). Krakauer also notes the controversy over Boukreev refusing to use supplemental oxygen during his climb (Krakauer, p.219). Boukreev was being paid to lead and be a guide, however his actions showed he was concerned simply with the goal of getting to the top, and the people around him were dispensable demonstrating a behavioral approach to leadership, specifically authority-compliance (Northouse, p.75). While Krakauer makes no outright accusations in the book, the made for TV movie, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest based on the book, shows Bouvkreev being fired by his team leader Scott Fischer, just before they climb (Markowitz, 1999).
Krakauer does not lay blame on anyone one person or event that day. It was a series of little things that eventually lead to the tragedy. Krakauer argues that no real lessons were learned that day, as people are still willing to pay guides to take them to the summit (Krakauer, p.286). When it comes to the leadership that day, it was perhaps a powerful reminder to other leaders that you cannot control everything, especially not mother nature. As well as hubris, a leader needs to remain realistic, and realize the limitations of themselves and the people they lead (Krakauer, p.284). “People with Everest dreams needs to keep in mind that when things go wrong in the Death Zone- and sooner or later they always do- the strongest guides in the world may be powerless…”(Krakauer, p.287).