Reaching the summit is only half way

Climbing big mountains is one thing, but doing it safely with your team is another. How do we prepare to climb safely during our 2017 expedition?

Be prepared

July 25th 2016 – 5:00 AM. This morning at 3:00 AM we started our summit attempt on Pik Lenin and have made some good progress over the last hours. But it is cold, very cold. Actually so cold, that I can hardly feel my toes. Gijs has the same problem. Instead of ignoring it, we discuss what to do. Go back or continue? We decide that we have to go back if it doesn’t improve over the next hour and explicitly ask each other about our toes every 15 minutes. Luckily the sun rises in the next hour and we are able to continue to the summit!

On the way down I am very tired. Gijs and Arjen have noticed this and based on the symptoms they are concerned that I might be developing a serious altitude sickness. I think that I’m ‘just’ over-exhausted and have not eaten enough. But when they say I have to take some medicine and ‘rush’ down, I don’t protest, but trust their judgement. Luckily I did not develop any altitude sickness, but I’m still very thankful to them that they acted and felt responsibly for my health & safety.

What to do when one of the team gets ill, do you let him go back by himself? What do you do in case somebody shows signs of confusion and bad coordination, but you are almost on the summit? What do you do if one person is much slower than the rest? 

We face many difficult situations in the mountains when quick decisions have to be made. We discuss as many scenario’s as we can think of while we are still at home and can think clearly. This helps when being faced with those situations during the expedition. The above example from our 2016 expedition was one of those scenarios we were prepared for. Gijs and Arjen knew exactly how to handle and I knew that I had to rely on their judgement and listen to them. 

There is also a lot of practical preparation going into the expedition, all to improve our safety. This means: first aid courses, lessons on high altitude sickness, big medicine kit, we have a doctor on standby, satellite phone, radio communication with basecamp, location of the nearest hospital, training trips to the Alps, etc.

Take responsibility

“The strength of the team is each member. The strength of each member is the team.” - Phil Jackson

Team member Allert Bosch works for Van Oord and wrote a blog last year about his work at the Gemini offshore wind park. Safety is important when working offshore, but actually it is important every day. For Allert, Van Oord’s safety principles are on top of his mind during his work, but also when climbing a big mountain.

To make our expeditions successful, we have to take responsibility for both ourselves and our teammates’ health & safety. To ensure the safety of the entire team, we introduced several routines to check each other’s health. Every morning and evening everyone tells how he is feeling and while climbing we regularly check on each other and even do some ‘tests’. There is only one way to the top and back down: together. During our 2017 summit attempt we used this routine as you can read in the above example.   

Challenge each other

During our final descend to the basecamp, we take off our crampons at the lower part of the glacier to walk faster through the slushy snow. The terrain is getting steeper and steeper. Gijs walks in front of me, but doesn’t seem to care about or realize it. I shout at him and he stops. “Gijs, I don’t feel comfortable here anymore walking without crampons. Let’s stop and take some time to strap them on”. “Ok”, responds. Although he may have a different opinion, there is no point in arguing about this, and he realizes this. Let’s not take unnecessary risks.

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” -Ken Blanchard

We constantly need to be aware of the changing weather conditions, each other’s health, route finding and dangers on the route. The only way to do this is to discuss situations within the team and make explicit decisions instead of just going on-and-on. In these discussions there should be 100% openness to say what you think of the situation and you need to listen to each other. If somebody does not feel comfortable with a situation and wants to stop / go back, that’s leading.

Take your time

July 21st 2016 – 6.00 AM. Snow and strong winds. Today we were planning to start our summit attempt on Pik Lenin (7.134m), but we decided to stay in the basecamp. We consider the conditions to be too tricky to go up the mountain. Although other teams have decided to go anyway, we have studied the weather forecast and decided that we rather wait a couple of days with the risk of not summiting at all, then going up in these weather conditions.

The mountain does not run away. If something is not right, we’ll come back another time.

Be fit!

Sounds simple, but being as fit as you can be greatly improves the safety of the expedition. If you are fit, you are faster, which means you spend less time on altitude and on the mountain. When you are exhausted you will more likely make bad decisions. Being the weak-link in the team, can even become a danger to the whole team! Therefore we follow an extensive training program during the months before our expedition.

Climbing a mountain, dangerous?

People often say that climbing mountains is dangerous.  We agree that climbing a mountain brings a certain amount of risk with it, but so does driving a car or riding your bike in Amsterdam without a helmet. We believe that by putting a lot of effort in our preparations and using basic safety principles while climbing, we can mitigate many of the risks and return safely at the end of the trip!


Allert Bosch