Everest’s Psychological Trap

This past Saturday, four people died trying to summit Everest, making it one of the deadliest days ever on the mountain. This weekend, another crowd of some 200 climbers are expected to push for the summit, meaning that the death toll could well rise still further.

What makes Everest the most dangerous mountain on Earth? The extreme environment is only part of the equation. Yes, the summit zone is fantastically cold and storm-lashed, and the air is so thin that an unacclimatized person would die within minutes. But all of that would be only moderately dangerous, were it not for a fourth, more elusive factor: the psychologically warping effect of the summit itself, a phenomenon I call a “mind trap.” In this kind of situation, our ability to make a correct decision becomes dangerously skewed, so that a small error can quickly snowball into an irrecoverable fatal accident. There are different kinds of mind traps, that can snare victims under different types of circumstance, as I wrote about in a recent Psychology Today article. The one that tends to claim Everest climbers is a variety called “red lining.”

Mountain climbing at extreme altitudes is a race against time. Human endurance is severely limited in the face of extreme cold and limited oxygen, and windows of good weather can shut abruptly. Lingering too long is an invitation to disaster, so when preparing their final push to the summit, mountaineers need to set a turn-around time – a “red line” that they must abide by it strictly.

But anytime we plan a mission that requires us to set this kind of safety parameter, there’s a risk that in the heat of the moment we’ll be tempted to overstep it. Divers see an interesting wreck or coral formation just beyond the maximum limit of their dive tables. Airplane pilots making an instrument approach descend through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway, and decide to go just a little bit lower.

In the case of Everest, many climbers have spent tens of thousands of dollars and endured long, tough training to get within striking distance of the summit. They’re a self-selected group, driven and goal-oriented. As the turnaround deadline draws near, the temptation to push beyond it can be overwhelming. “In some cases, they don’t even heed the suggestions of their Sherpa guides,” Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told The New York Daily News. “The Sherpas can’t advise them otherwise because their clients will think ‘I’m so close to the mountain, why shouldn’t I try a bit more?'”

The pressure has become even greater in recent years due to the ever-increasing crowd of would-be summiters. The route to the top is only so big, so on promising days hundreds of climbers can be seen threading up in single file. The biggest traffic jam of all awaits at the Hillary Step, a rock face just short of the summit that requires a technical climb. As each climber waits his turn, often for hours, his oxygen supplies are dwindling and his feet and hands are growing ever cooler. With each passing minute, the danger grows greater, and so does the perceived urgency to press on.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think: I’ll just go over a little bit. What difference will it make? The problem is that once we go over the red line, there are no more boundaries. Nothing’s calling you back to the safe side. And in a brutally tough environment like Everest, once mother nature’s jaws slam shut, there may be no one to help you.

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