Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 14, 1937, an avalanche swept away an expedition led by German mountaineer Karl Wien, killing him, six other climbers and nine Sherpas — nearly the entire team. That catastrophic moment on the face of Nanga Parbat in present-day Pakistan still stands as the deadliest mountaineering disaster at high altitude. But there’s another, subtler way to look at it: as a valuable lesson for future climbers on where not to set up camp. For mountaineers and managers alike, the secret to success is to be in the right place at the right time to heed such lessons — and put them into practice.
To Wien’s contemporaries, the real lesson probably seemed to be: only knaves scale mountains. During the first half of the 20th century, the British, Germans, Swiss and Americans all dispatched expeditions to climb peaks taller than 8,000 metres. None conquered a summit. Not only that, nearly half of those teams suffered frostbite, altitude sickness, or the death of at least one member. Today, the picture is strikingly different: a hundred or so expeditions attack such mountains every year, often with success. Indeed, those of modest talent can now hire guides and Sherpas and have
a decent shot at standing on top of the world.
How did this happen? John Boyce, an amateur climber and professor of economics at the University of Calgary, wanted to know. So he and colleague Diane Bischak assembled data on expeditions to the 14 highest peaks between 1895 and 1998. They then tried to sort out which factors contributed to the improved success rate in mountaineering. The prime take-away: climbers learned from each other’s conquests and tragedies through what are known as “knowledge spillovers.”
Previous research had suggested that high-altitude mountaineers were somewhat xenophobic, sharing information only with colleagues of the same nationality. That seemed to make sense, given language barriers and the fact that, prior to 1970, expeditions tended to be big, government-financed affairs. But Boyce and Bischak’s data showed that information was disseminated far more widely, and Boyce thinks he knows why. For one thing, glory-seeking mountaineers are motivated to publish detailed accounts of their triumphs in alpine journals. And their colleagues have every incentive to read so as to understand the latest techniques.
Moreover, mountaineers talk to one another — often in scenic locations. “As soon as the spring opens up in the Himalayas, all these expeditions converge on Kathmandu and Islamabad,” Boyce explains. “They all have to go through the same bureaucratic processes to get their permits, and that takes a few days. The main avenues by which these expeditions approach the mountains, they have huge concentrations of climbers at the base camp. These guys have lots and lots of time to talk to one another.” The resulting flow of ideas — everything from the latest tips on avoiding frostbite and altitude sickness to the best routes and camp locations — helped more climbers reach the summit and live to brag about it.
Unsurprisingly, Boyce also found that mountaineers learn by doing — that is, expeditions with more experienced climbers and Sherpas generally perform better. More remarkable, perhaps, was his conclusion that while improving technology clearly aided success over time, individual results were often ambiguous. Technical axes, for example, helped climbers ascend steeper ice but also increased the likelihood of death — possibly because the tool enables people to take tougher routes. The use of bottled oxygen actually seemed to impede both success and survival. That may be due to the extra weight and associated logistical problems, or perhaps because it gives climbers unwarranted confidence.
Is all this relevant to anyone not loitering apprehensively at the foot of K2? Mountaineering is a unique endeavour, and Boyce admits some fellow economists were skeptical. But he argues that these insights are useful to anyone working in a creative pursuit. “It’s hard to create lots of ideas in isolation,” he says. “Ideas are created by reading what other people do, seeing what other people do, talking to other people.” And that’s why he contends that management at film companies, universities and other creative organizations should foster communication both internally and externally.
Alas, this insight couldn’t have saved Wien and his crew. Boyce and Bischak found no evidence that knowledge spillovers contributed to a reduction in the number of climbers plummeting to their deaths, growing weary on descent — or being hit by an avalanche. Ways to avoid such calamities “are not easily learned from others,” the academics observed.