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Climber shares decision making, resilience lessons learned

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado – Mountain climber Chris Klinke shares decision-making and resiliency lessons he learned while attempting to summit the Himalayan mountain K2 in 2008. He was part of a group who not only saw the most climbers summit the peak – considered to be more dangerous than Mount Everest – in one day, but also had 11 of the group die on the journey. Aug. 1, 2008 is considered the deadliest day ever on one of the world’s deadliest mountains. Klinke’s decision to turn back likely saved his life. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Smith)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado – Mountain climber Chris Klinke shares decision-making and resiliency lessons he learned while attempting to summit the Himalayan mountain K2 in 2008. He was part of a group who not only saw the most climbers summit the peak – considered to be more dangerous than Mount Everest – in one day, but also had 11 of the group die on the journey. Aug. 1, 2008 is considered the deadliest day ever on one of the world’s deadliest mountains. Klinke’s decision to turn back likely saved his life. (U.S. Air Force photo by Dave Smith)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado -- Aug. 1, 2008 was the best day the varied groups of climbers had seen in three weeks. A perfect day, in fact, for attempting to summit the peak considered even more dangerous than the famed Mount Everest.

At 28,251 feet, Karakoram 2, commonly called K2, has harsher weather and steeper rock and ice faces than Everest. It is a climbers' mountain and only about a tenth the number of people have summited its treacherous peak as have Everest. So when the weather broke and forecasts were favorable, a group of 26 climbers from eight nations, speaking eight languages, decided to make a push for the summit.

The day may have been perfect, but all would change and 11 climbers would perish, making it the deadliest day on K2. At one point climber Cas van de Gevel uttered what would become a twisted sort of anti-prophecy.

"Cas said, 'It's a perfect day and there are 26 of us. What could possibly go wrong?'" recalled Chris Klinke, former vice president of American Express turned climber. Klinke was part of the group pushing for the summit that fateful day. He shared his experiences and what he learned that day with Team Pete in a Wingman Day presentation May 29.

The plan for ascending started to come apart almost at the beginning, when late starts by some put a kink in the goal to summit and return before dark. After that, it was discovered that the only person among the climbers to ever set foot atop K2 had descended to base camp with an illness, then some trail breakers did not bring along enough rope to set up the planned fixed lines. About 11 a.m., with the group already on the push for eight hours or longer, Serbian climber Dren Mandic fell to his death after unclipping from his line.

Somewhere in this general time frame, Klinke, who summited Everest in 2006, made a serious decision, one that likely saved his life: he decided to turn back. As the late start and high solar radiation began to show as melted ice, he became concerned.

"It started to make me a little worried," he said.

Decision making in the mountains is serious business to put it mildly. Eighteen people summited K2 that day, but only nine made it down. In fact, most deaths on the mountain happen after climbers summit, Klinke said.

"You recognize that your decision making, or lack of decision making, will have an impact," he said. He recommends considering all possible options and not being afraid to fail. He pointed out that he didn't summit his first mountain until his fourth attempt, then failed again on his fifth climb.

"I learned as much from my failures as I did from my successes," he said.

One of the biggest issues the teams faced that day is one of the most important things to get right: communication.

"We had people from eight nations speaking eight languages trying to communicate what to do to move forward," Klinke said. Communicating directions, goals and plans are critical in both life and extreme situations like mountain climbing. Teamwork is made up of communication and decision making.

Decision making is also important when determining risk, he said. For example, the group of climbers who made the summit push that day were the first group of more than 10 to attempt a summit at one time, and risks increased along with the numbers. Add in that groups on K2 are typically not commercialized -they don't use large teams of hired porters from Nepal and Pakistan - and climbers climb the peak's equivalent about three times carrying 80-90 pound loads of supplies before ever attempting the summit, and opportunity for trouble continues to increase. Carefully assessing risk cannot be overlooked.

When Klinke decided to abandon his summit attempt he considered a number of factors, including how far off schedule and plan the teams had become, approaching darkness and his personal health factored into his decision making process. He was hit by a chunk of ice that dented his helmet and left him feeling ill. Whether it was altitude illness or the impact of the ice, it was enough to help make his decision to go back.

"About 5 to 10 percent of those who attempted it actually summited, and of those 50 percent died. A lot of it is decision making. I could have come out on either side," Klinke said.

Klinke shared three leadership lessons he took away from K2 that day. First, make sure everyone in the group has the same goal.

"It's not all just summiting, it's summit and get the entire team back safe," he said. "That's my motto: Climb hard, climb high and come home."

Clear cut leadership is of great importance as is listening to the leader, he added.

Seeking input from other stakeholders is important as well. Even as the head guide he said it is critical to seek out all the members of the group.

"Their lives are on the line with mine," he said.

Finally, Klinke advised acknowledging the importance of each team member.

"Recognize you are dependent upon every member of the team. Nobody summits by themselves, nobody climbs alone," Klinke said.

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