Producer’s Note: This episode contains personal accounts of climbers' deaths during mountain expeditions, which some listeners may find upsetting.
Annie: I'm so excited to welcome my guest today, Ken Kamler. Ken is a microsurgeon who practices extreme medicine in the most remote regions on earth. He has been the doctor on six Everest expeditions: four with National Geographic and two with NASA. And he was the only doctor near the peak during the epic 1996 Mount Everest disaster since made famous by the book and documentary Into Thin Air.
Ken has also been a physician on both a Kilimanjaro research expedition with the U.S. Army and on an expedition to use unmanned submersibles to recover an Apollo 11 rocket engine from 14,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. He has given TED Talks about his many adventures, has been profiled in the New York Times, and has been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show for the whole hour!
Ken is the author of two survival books, Doctor on Everest and Surviving the Extremes, and is the recipient of the 2009 Lowell Thomas Distinguished Explorer award and The Explorers Club Award for Heroism and Altruism on Everest.
Ken, I'm so excited to have you here. Welcome.
Ken: Oh, thank you. Thanks for that great introduction.
Annie: Obviously this is the most amazing bio. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got to Everest, to these extreme locations and these extreme sports?
Ken: Yeah. Ever since I was a kid I always liked the outdoors. I grew up in the Bronx in New York in a housing project, which is pretty much the opposite of being in the great outdoors. And I was a precocious reader; I started reading even before I went to school. I'd like to say my first climb was up my father's bookshelf, where I took down this book, Annapurna.
And the book that I had picked up was actually a classic story of the first summit of Annapurna, which at that time was the highest mountain in the world ever climbed. Everest had not yet been climbed. It was a fascinating book to me. It opened up a whole world of outdoor adventure and huge open spaces in the Himalayas. Just quite the opposite of where I was growing up. And I always had this in the back of my mind, that someday, maybe, I could see what that part of the world looked like. But growing up in the Bronx, no one ever talked about mountain climbing. In fact, if you did, people looked at you funny. So I became a doctor but I never lost that desire to explore those big open places I had read about in Annapurna.
When I was a resident in a New York hospital, we got a patient in who had taken a bad fall in New Hampshire, a climber, and needed several operations.
Annie: What mountain? Because I grew up in New Hampshire.
Ken: It was in the White Mountains.
Ken: He took a bad fall there and we were a specialty hospital, so he came to us for treatment. I got to know him and I told him that I always had this idea of climbing.
He gave me a phone number and a name. And he said, “If you ever want to go climbing, here's the guy who can teach you how to do it.” So I went up to New Hampshire to learn how to climb. The day I got there, I found out that the day before this guy who was going to teach me how to climb had taken a fall himself and broken his ankle.
So I thought, “Well, that's the end of that.” But he said, “You know what? My roommate is an ex Green Beret who specializes in mountain warfare.” I said to myself, “What am I going to have in common with an ex Green Beret from North Dakota?” You know, I’m a kid who grew up in the Bronx. But in fact, we hit it off very well; he taught me how to climb and I loved it. And then about three or four months later, he called me up and he said, “I'm planning to go to Peru with a group of climbers, would you like to come along?” It was the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Peru and climb. So I immediately said yes, but I also realized that I was not nearly at his level of climbing skill, or the other people in the group, and I was being brought along because I was a doctor. They wanted to have a doctor on the team. And I became the guy to go to, if you need a doctor for an expedition.
Annie: So you've been on Everest six times. But there's a really interesting thing that people wouldn't assume about you, having been on Everest six times.
So I guess I'll just ask you: what is the summit like on Everest?
Ken: Well, I don't know. I haven't been there! I've been within 900 feet, but I haven't summited.
In '95 I was within 900 feet of the summit. I was with nine other climbers. Everest in those days was very different than it is now. It's become a carnival. But when we were there in '95, there was nobody else up there trying for the summit. We're the only team. And we were making good progress at the beginning, but there was a lot of snow. It wasn’t snowing that day, but snow had been falling a few days before then. The snow had really accumulated and it was a crystalline kind of snow that was not leaving any footprints, it was too fluid. It was like walking in a sugar bowl: you put your foot down and the snow would coalesce around you, and when you lifted your foot up it would fill in the space again. So there were nine of us and it was as if each one of us was breaking trail. Normally when you have a group climbing like that, you climb in a line and the first guy is breaking trail, which is exhausting, and then after a while he drops to the back and somebody else breaks trail. You take turns because it's exhausting work. But in this case, we were all breaking trail because no trail was holding.
So we were making very slow progress and getting pretty tired. And we were up on what’s called the Southeast Ridge, which is the last 1,500 feet to the summit of Everest. And when you're on this narrow ridge there’s a drop-off. If you fall to your left, you fall 8,000 feet into Nepal. If you fall to your right, you fall 12,000 feet into Tibet. And it's a narrow, sinuous kind of line that you're following. Clouds are passing through you. And when a cloud passes through you can't even see your feet or anything so you've got to stop. So progress is very slow and dangerous. So we're moving very slowly, very cautiously. And even though the day itself was good and we were feeling okay, our progress was too slow. We realized that we could make the summit, but if we did then we'd have to come back down, probably in the dark and certainly out of oxygen.
So we stopped to talk this over. And even talking it over is difficult because you're on a thin line. You can't gather in a group; it's far too narrow. So we gathered in little groups of three because we had three radios. And even though we were 900 feet from the top, we realized that it would be too risky to continue. And all nine of us decided to turn around, even though we could have summited. It's a very tough decision to make at that point, because you've been planning this expedition for a year, you've been on the mountain for almost three months now. You're putting everything into getting to the summit of Everest, you're only 900 feet away and you could make the summit, but you have to stop and think what's more important: what's ahead of you at the summit or what you have behind you, waiting for you back home, your family and your friends. And it's hard to remember that when you're 900 feet from the top. It's so tempting to go for the summit. Plus, you don't have as much oxygen as you want so it's hard to think clearly. But I made the decision—and so did the others—that we were not going to go for the summit. It's very hard to turn around when you're 900 feet from the top.
“And even though we were 900 feet from the top [of Everest], we realized that it would be too risky to continue. And all nine of us decided to turn around, even though we could have summited. It's a very tough decision to make at that point, because you've been planning this expedition for a year, you've been on the mountain for almost three months now… But you have to stop and think what's more important: what's ahead of you at the summit or what you have behind you, waiting for you back home, your family and your friends.... It's so tempting to go for the summit. Plus, you don't have as much oxygen as you want so it's hard to think clearly. But I made the decision — and so did the others —
that we were not going to go for the summit. It's very hard to turn around when
you're 900 feet from the top.” — Ken Kamler
Annie: As you tell it, it seems very obvious. You're on this very narrow ridge, you're maybe 900 feet [from the summit] but because of the conditions it's going to be so slow going that by the time you come down you won't have oxygen and it will be dark. And I assume that dark is a particular problem when trying to navigate a ridge where you're going to fall 8,000 feet into Tibet and 12,000 feet into Nepal. I may have that reversed.
So, my understanding about Everest in general is that most of the dangers are not on the ascent. They're on the descent, for just those reasons. So, we're hearing you tell the story, and from the outside looking in it seems that obviously you should just quit and turn around. But what we know is that people who are much more experienced than somebody like me, who are used to making these types of decisions much more than I am, are actually quite bad at that particular decision of “Should you continue on or not under those circumstances?”
And I think you touched on it a little bit… there's this great work by Maurice Schweitzer who's at Wharton. He talks about the downside of goals. in particular, he really talks about goals as creating a myopia where you're necessarily privileging certain values that you have over others, or certain goals that you have over others, for example the goal to “have a happy life with your family” or be comfortable. When you're climbing up Everest obviously those other goals, you know, “I want to have a very long and fruitful career as a doctor,” they get deprivileged compared to the goal of making the summit. I'd love to hear… I imagine that you've experienced that kind of forgetting or that shadowing of other things that are important to you when you're on that mountain.
Ken: This is how I approach any goal that I might want to take on. It keeps me balanced as to what's important and what isn't. I always ask myself this question about anything I'm thinking about doing: If you can't tell anyone about this and no one is ever going to find out that you did it, would you still do it?
“This is how I approach any goal that I might want to take on. It keeps me balanced as to what's important and what isn't. I always ask myself this question about anything I'm thinking about doing:
If you can't tell anyone about this and no one is ever going to find out that you did it,
would you still do it?” — Ken Kamler
I think that's a very important question people should always ask themselves because if no one's ever going to find out you did this, but you want to do it anyway, then it's a real goal. Then it's something you're doing for yourself that you deeply believe in and feel that it’s important to sacrifice for. But with most people's goals, I think a lot of our motivation is reflected glory, how other people will think about them. You want people to think something good about you, which is why you do these things, rather than thinking something good about yourself.
So that 900 feet that we're talking about... The reason why I wanted to climb Everest... I thought about it quite a bit because it's a huge sacrifice in terms of time and and it takes you away from the rest of the world for at least a year. And I said to myself, “If I can never tell anybody and no one is ever going to find out that I climbed Everest, do I still want to do this?” I thought about that a lot. And the answer for me is yes. I still want to do this because really I am doing it for myself. I want to see if I can meet that kind of a challenge if mentally and physically I have what it takes to do it. And then when I came within 900 feet of the summit at a time when nobody else was summiting, to be 900 feet from the summit on a 29,000 foot mountain. I felt like I did it. I felt like I was up to the task. I was up to it mentally, physically. And for me it was as good as if I had summited, I didn't need that last 900 feet to prove it to myself. So I was happy with that. I was okay.
“I said to myself, ‘if I can never tell anybody and no one is ever going to find out that I climbed Everest, do I still want to do this?’... the answer for me is yes. And then when I came within 900 feet of the summit at a time when nobody else was summiting... For me it was as good as if I had summited,
I didn't need that last 900 feet to prove it to myself. So I was happy with that. I was okay.” — Ken Kamler
I thought maybe when I get back, my friends and family are going to be disappointed. They're going to say, “gee, you didn't make it,” but I didn't get that reaction at all. Virtually everybody said to me that they were proud of me for having the ability to be 900 feet from the top and make the right decision to come back down, and that I still had enough sense to weigh that decision and come to the proper conclusion.
Annie: There's a couple of really interesting things in there. I think that when we're thinking about ourselves... there's this really interesting work that shows that people who get the bronze medal in the Olympics are much happier than people who get the silver.
Ken: Is that true?
Annie: Yes, it is true. And you can imagine why, right? For the silver, the counterfactual is, "Oh, I almost got gold. I didn't quite get there,” whereas for the bronze it's "oh, I could have just gotten fourth place. I'm so happy." So it depends on what that counterfactual is. If the weather's really bad when you're halfway up Everest [and you have to turn around]? I think in some ways that feels better for people cognitively than being within 900 or 300 feet. Sort of like, “oh, I don't want to quit on the 25th mile of a marathon. I would prefer never to have started.” And because we process it that way, I think there's something that we really get wrong, which you said so clearly, which is: we imagine the disappointment of other people, because in that moment we're feeling the disappointment for ourselves and we then imagine other people will feel for us as well. But of course that's an inside view problem, right? We're seeing that from inside of our own perspective.
Annie: If you get outside of your own perspective and you imagined somebody coming back from that situation and saying, “I was climbing in a sugar bowl and I realized that I was going to fall 8,000 feet into Nepal if I continued.” Everybody would not only say that's amazing [that you turned around]. I think they would recognize for themselves how difficult that decision would be when you were so close, because this idea of being so close, it [feels] like it's so much better to have not tried at all—as far as the decision —than to be so close.
Annie: So the fact that you were able to overcome that is so incredible. And then obviously to get that reinforcement when you went back home to find out that yes, people really did recognize what an amazing decision that was.
So you said something so interesting to me before that fits into this idea of goals. In terms of: what are our goals and how when we set a goal like summiting Everest, or finishing the marathon, or getting the project done… we all have goals.
How are those goals actually, in some ways creating perverted decision-making? So one of the ways that we just talked about [before recording] is that we forget that we have other things like wanting to live a long and happy life and we'll make bad decisions about continuing. When we talked before you said something so interesting about how people get the goal for Everest wrong, because they think the goal is to get to the summit. So I'd love for you to talk about: what is the actual goal when you're going up Everest?
Ken: Yeah. Well, the actual goal is to get back down alive. When you get to the top of Everest, you're only halfway there. It doesn't count if you don't come back down, it really doesn't. So people forget about that. Like what you said, there are eight times as many fatalities going down as there are going up because people get to the summit and they think that's the goal and then they sort of lose their focus. They're either elated that they made the summit or they're disappointed that they didn't, and they're exhausted, and they come back down having lost the idea that the real goal is to get back down alive.
“The actual goal is to get back down alive.
When you get to the top of Everest, you're only halfway there” — Ken Kamler
Annie: Yeah. I feel like in general, people often get the time horizons of their goals wrong. For example “I can continue to run this marathon, but I may injure myself so badly that I'll never run another one.” Instead, it's fine for you to quit this one time, because that is going to allow you to run more. The same thing happens if you're starting a business and it's failing: get out quickly so that you have time to go do something else that's going to be more profitable. But we lose sight of that. Or when we're in a job that we hate, and we think that if we quit it'll be some sort of declaration of failure that you couldn't make it work. But [if you stay then] you're taking away the ability to go do other things that are going to be amazing.
So I think [it’s important to] get the goal exactly right. Obviously for most of us it's not as much of a life and death situation, but you can see the effect of that [problem] so clearly when you put somebody in a life and death situation who gets the goal wrong.
“People often get the time horizons of their goals wrong. For example ‘I can continue to run this marathon, but I may injure myself so badly that I'll never run another one.’ Instead, it’s fine for you
to quit this one time, because that is going to allow you to run more. The same thing happens
if you're starting a business and it's failing: get out quickly so that you have time to go do something else that's going to be more profitable. But we lose sight of that. So I think [it’s important to] get the goal exactly right.” — Annie Duke
I want to rewind to the day before you head up into the sugar bowl. As you said, you were the only group that was summiting on that day. [It was different than when] we think about Everest once it became really well known, and we think about lots of groups trying to get up on the same day.
So you mentioned that you were the only one that day. But there was a group that was attempting to summit the day before, right?
Ken: That's right. That was Rob Hall's group. the New Zealand team.
Annie: Yeah. The New Zealand team. And they also couldn't get up. Is that correct?
Ken: Right. That's correct. They couldn't get up. They encountered the same problem we did: the snow was too loose, they couldn't get good trails, and they couldn't even put in ice screws. When you climb like that, you put a screw into the ice, and at some points that are very dangerous you can tie a rope to that and help yourself along. But because it was like a sugar bowl, we couldn't even screw anything in, it wouldn't hold, and they had the same problem. So they also thought it was too dangerous and they came back down.
Annie: You passed them on your way, right?
Annie: So that was 1995. And in 1996, now you're going to make another summit attempt. At the first two times [you went to Everest] I think I recall you got caught down at base camp, being a doctor.
Ken: Yeah. That was the problem. You know, I had a higher priority than climbing the mountain.
Annie: Right. I suppose I shouldn't call it that. It's having your goals—and what makes you happy—correct. So being a doctor got in the way of the two summit attempts, but in '95 you actually got to try to summit. The day before, Rob Hall comes down the mountain with his expedition, the New Zealand expedition, and says “oh, it's really tough up there.” They fail. You try to go up, you fail. And now you say, “okay, I'm coming back for another time.” And this is the next year in '96.
So you're going to go up [in '96.] And tell me what happens with that summit attempt?
Ken: Okay, first let me say, I was content with '95, I could have stopped there. But when National Geographic makes you an offer to go back to Everest and you realize that you have a chance to be the doctor again on another Everest expedition, it's alluring. And I wanted to go, I wanted to be part of the team.
Annie: But there are people filming that year, right?
Ken: Yeah. In '96 there were a couple of other teams on the mountain. Rob Hall was back again.
Annie: Right, he took an expedition pretty much every year. Is that right? Yes.
Ken: Yes. He took an expedition every year. But that year Dave Breashears was there with the IMAX team to film a scripted movie on Everest. They had a storyline and they had… not [actors], they had climbers who were going to actually act in roles and do a movie with Everest as the backdrop. So Breashears was there with an IMAX team and some really superb climbers to make this movie. And there was also Scott Fischer who was an American climber who brought along this American team, also trying to summit.
Scott's team and Rob's team and Dave Breashears' team and our team were the principal teams on the mountain. There were some other smaller groups from other countries, but we were the main teams.
Annie: So you're going to head up the mountain. I just want to pause for a moment to talk about a decision tool that I think it's really interesting that people use on Everest, which is called turnaround times. Can you explain what those are and why you have those?
Ken: Yeah. [Turnaround times are] a built in safety margin. What you do is you figure out how many hours of daylight you have and how many tanks of oxygen you have. And you figure out how much time you need and how much oxygen you need to get back down. So as you're climbing, you pre-set points in your mind. “If I don't get to this point by this time, no matter how good I'm feeling I have to turn around, because my safety margin is getting too thin.” You check your oxygen and you check your time.
We used to start at midnight. They start even earlier now. Your summit day you start off at midnight and you say, if I don't get to this Southeast Ridge—that dangerous ridge I was talking about before—if I don't get there by daylight I'm going to turn around because that means I'm too slow. Then you go up to the Southeast… The South Summit is a distinct point along the way. “If I don't get to the South Summit, say by six in the morning I'm going to turn around because I'm moving too slow.” So you have these points along the way where you can judge your progress and you pre-think this so that you have enough time and enough oxygen left to get back down. Generally, at least at that time, we used to say that if you're not on the summit at noon you have to turn around because you need to have that margin of daylight and that margin of oxygen as a safety factor to get back down.
Annie: Daniel Kahneman has talked about how the worst time to make a decision is when you're actually in it. And I assume that's much more true when you're dealing with a goal that feels very pass-fail, right? Like, 300 feet from the summit is a fail. Not for you, you have a very different view on this, but I imagine that for most people that are in that situation, it feels very much like “the silver [medal] is nothing to me. I'm just going to be sad. I want to get the gold.”
Ken: That's right. They want the trophy.
Annie: Yeah, exactly. So I want to achieve this pass-fail goal and make the summit. A lot of it has to do with another thing that you said which is, “I want to be able to tell people I've made the summit.” Because most people probably aren't sitting and saying, “is this for me or is this for other people?” and you're deprived of oxygen and you're deprivileging other goals that you have. In fact, you can't even see them at that moment. And so these turnaround times, these check-in points, are meant to actually save you from your own bad decision-making in the moment by making the decision in advance when you're in a more rational state of mind.
“Daniel Kahneman has talked about how the worst time to make a decision is when you're actually in it… [On Everest] you're deprived of oxygen and you're deprivileging other goals that you have.
In fact, you can't even see them at that moment. And so these turnaround times, these check-in points,
are meant to actually save you from your own bad decision-making in the moment by making the decision in advance when you're in a more rational state of mind.” — Annie Duke
Ken: Yeah. That's exactly right. You just have to hold to the decision you made when you were in a position to make a better decision.
“[Turnaround times are] a built in safety margin… So as you're climbing, you pre-set points in your mind. ‘If I don't get to this point by this time, no matter how good I'm feeling I have to turn around, because my safety margin is getting too thin.’… you pre-think this so that you have enough time left and oxygen left to get back down… You just have to hold to the decision you made when you were
in a position to make a better decision. ” — Ken Kamler
Annie: Okay. So now you're heading up that mountain and just as the year before, the New Zealand expedition is going up the day before you.
Annie: So now they head up the mountain along with this American expedition, right?
Ken: Right, Scott Fischer's team.
Annie: Yeah, and I think there were a couple of others.
Ken: Yeah there was. Makalu Gau was a Chinese climber who was up there with him.
Annie: So they went up the day before you. Tell us what happened on that day?
Ken: They were going for the summit. We were 2,000 feet below them in Camp III. We were at 24,000 feet at that time, planning to go up the next day. They were moving up slowly and most of them were on the Southeast Ridge. And [related to] what we just talked about with turnaround times, they didn't really hit their turnaround times. They should have turned around. They were moving too slowly but they kept on going anyway for the most part. Your turnaround time has a built-in safety margin and you can still get back down if you add some time to your turnaround time and you're willing to thin out your safety margin, taking a risk that you won't need that safety margin. You can say, “If things go well, I can actually squeeze out an extra hour here.” So that was what they were doing, they were going up and cutting their turnaround time too short.
We were listening on the radio at 2,000 feet below so we heard their progress as they went along. Rob's team had a radio, but Scott's team didn't have a radio. So we could follow the progress of Robert's team. Rob finally did get to the summit, but it was already two o'clock in the afternoon when he summited, which was too late. He should have been up there by noon or turned around. And some of his team was still not up there.
And we had heard that three people had summited and as far as Scott Fischer's team goes, we didn't know what was going on with them. They apparently hadn't summited, but they didn't have radio so we didn't know where they were.
Just around that time, the weather really turned. It became really cold and nasty and it was pretty clear a storm was coming in out of nowhere. No one expected the storm. A vicious storm hit the mountain out of nowhere and these climbers were all very vulnerable because they were up on the Southeast Ridge, the riskiest part of the entire climb. And they were hit with what we call a whiteout, meaning that the snow starts blasting, it stirs up the ice and snow and you get a situation where you can't even see your hand in front of your face. Everything is white. You completely lose your orientation. You can't see where you are, you can't see where you're going, it's cold. The last place you want to be is up on the mountain when that kind of storm hits.
We were having a bad enough time where we were, at 24,000 feet in our tents. We would listen to what was happening up above. And Rob said he was at the summit with Doug Hansen who was one of his climbers.
[During the] year before, Doug had been with Rob and not summited and Rob didn't promise, but Rob said “come back next year and I'll do everything I can to get you to the summit.” And Doug did come back the next year, but he was a far weaker climber than Rob. And he was exactly the case of someone who got to the summit, but didn't didn't appreciate that that's only halfway there. So Doug was absolutely spent on the summit. He could hardly move after that. And to come off the summit, one of the first things you encounter is called the Hillary Step, which is a rock face which you have to climb down to get off the summit and to get back onto the Southeast Ridge. If you're climbing in New Hampshire, you can do it, it's not that hard to climb, but when you're at 26,000 feet and you're already exhausted and there's a storm and you're wearing the ice boots rather than climbing shoes, it becomes an extremely difficult climb, and Doug couldn't do it. He couldn't get down. He couldn't make that climb. He was too exhausted. He ran out of oxygen.
So [Doug] was up there with Rob, out of oxygen, above the Hillary Step. And we had pretty much no idea what was happening with the other climbers because they were scattered all over the mountain in the storm. They were trying to make their way back to Camp IV, which is one camp above us, the last camp before the summit. They were trying to get back to the relative safety of Camp IV. But Rob was stuck with Doug above the Hillary Step.
Rob is a superb climber. I knew him from climbing in Antarctica many years earlier, and I knew what a superb climber he was. He could have climbed down himself, but he felt like he needed to stay with Doug. And it became obvious how dangerous the situation was. Some of the climbers made it back to Camp IV, a lot of them were unaccounted for because they were so exhausted that they would just fall into the nearest tent—not even their own tent—at Camp IV. So the people who got back to Camp IV couldn't even tell who was there and who wasn't there. We didn't know which climbers had made it back, which climbers hadn't. Two of the climbers coming down had passed a body laying in the snow and they looked over it. That person was Beck Weathers, and they said to each other “he's dead” and they kept on going to get themselves out.
Meanwhile, Rob had a radio. He was up near the summit with Doug. We were the closest team to them and I was the closest doctor to them. So there was no thought about us continuing our climb. At that point it was a given that we were going to do what we could to help these people.
And in fact, what I always remember was—it still gives me chill when I think about it—we were in two tents and our two best climbers, Todd Burleson and Pete Athans, were each one in one tent and the wind was howling so loud that even though the tents were only a couple of yards apart you couldn't communicate even by shouting, it was just too much wind, it was like a freight train going by. So Todd and Pete, even though they were only a couple of yards apart, had to communicate by radio.
Annie: Oh my gosh.
Ken: So they called each other on the radio. And the first words they said to each other were, “How quickly can you get ready?” Which still gives me chills when I think about that. There was no question in their mind that they were going to try and pull off a rescue. They didn't even say, “do you think we can do this? Do you want to try?” It was like a given for these two guys. They were going to try to pull a rescue. It wasn't even an issue. They just started saying, “How quickly can you get ready?”
They got ready as quickly as they could. And they went up into the storm to try to see what they could do to rescue some of these people. But before they left, they got on the radio and passed a message. I expected that message to be, "Hang on, Rob. We're coming." Something to that effect. But in fact, what they said to Rob was that he should leave Doug. He said, "Come down by yourself. There's no chance if you stay up there with Doug, come down and save yourself." That was the message they gave to Rob. And Rob replied, "We're both listening."
Annie: Oh my gosh.
Ken: It still gets to me.
So they went up into that maelstrom of a storm just to see what they could do. They got to Camp IV and they encountered the climbers who had made it back down to Camp IV, including Jon Krakauer who wrote the book about it. So it was really chaotic up there, Todd and Pete did what they could. They tried to bring climbers into the tent, and tried to warm up who they could. But the word was that Beck was dead and Rob was stuck up there with Doug. There were also some sherpas up at Camp IV, and they said they would try to get to Rob with some other oxygen and some supplies. So they started up the mountain, up the treacherous Southeast ridge in the storm.
Annie: Oh my gosh.
Ken: Yeah, they were really risking their lives to try to get to him. And they got as far as they could, but the wind beat them back. They just couldn't get to Rob. And then they radioed to Rob and said that they're not coming, that they can't make it. And Rob knew what that meant. He knew that what was going to happen now was that he was not going to make it down.
And then at Rob's base camp, someone there got the idea that maybe if he could get in contact with his wife, Jan, who was home in New Zealand pregnant, that maybe she could talk to him and sort of give him the strength to actually make it down himself, because it became apparent at that point that Doug was no longer alive. So they managed to do that. They managed to establish radio contact through phone so that Rob actually talked to his wife and they had a conversation and she tried to sort of motivate him. And what happened was they wound up picking a name for their baby and then Rob had just signed off and said he needed to rest.
And that was the last we ever heard from Rob.
We had heard that… one of the climbers came back and said that Beck Weathers died. And they went so far as to notify his family that he had died on the mountain.
Annie: Oh my Gosh.
Ken: And then Todd and Pete were up at Camp IV, still administering to whoever had made it back there. And I was radioing advice to them from Camp III. There was no way I could go up to Camp IV. I was the weakest climber in the group and I would have been a casualty. But you don't need to be a doctor at Camp IV in that kind of situation. Todd and Pete were very experienced climbers. They knew first aid. I couldn't do anything more than they were doing.
But then, Todd chanced to look out the tent door and he saw somebody staggering around outside the tent and he thought it was a climber who had gone out to urinate and was having difficulty. So he went out to help him and to his total amazement, it was Beck Weathers. Beck Weathers had been left for dead, but here he was standing up and trying to get into Camp. So Todd got him, brought him in and warmed him up as best as he could up there. And I remember he radioed down to me. He said, “Ken, you're not going to believe this. Beck is alive, but I don't know for how long.”
So they brought him into the tent and they did what they could to warm him up. And also, they found Makalu Gau, the Chinese climber who also collapsed in the snow. He wasn't pronounced dead, they saw he was still alive and he was brought into Camp IV as well. So at that point we had two critically ill climbers, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau, at 26,000 feet in freezing temperatures, and with essentially no supplies at all to help them out other than try to warm them up. And the storm just raged on; it was a two-day storm. It just raged on and on. And when the storm finally cleared enough for people to actually climb, we did a kind of triage. There were injured climbers up there with frostbite and hypothermia—meaning low body temperature—who needed to get down. But we had to make decisions as to who can come down and who can't because if they stay up there, they might just die from exposure. If they come down, they might die on the way down if they're not in condition to climb down. So we did a kind of triage and we agreed that everybody should go down except Beck and Makalu, because they were just too critical, there was no way they could climb down.
So the other climbers came down past me at Camp III. And at Camp III, the only supplies I had were two plastic bags, one had steroids in it, one had painkillers, and there were preloaded syringes, ready to go, but they were frozen. I had no stove or anything to heat them up with, so I stuck them inside my down jacket under my arm and was able to thaw them out to get them to be liquid so that I could inject them. And as the climbers came by, depending on the shape they were in, I would decide if they could keep on going down by themselves or if they needed an injection, primarily of the steroid because when you're up at 26,000 feet you're very vulnerable to a condition where your brain swells, it's called cerebral edema. Your brain swells at that height, and once your brain swells, it's encased in a skull so it's under tremendous pressure and the pressure causes you to lose your ability to think and to coordinate, and at 26,000 feet that's deadly. So as the climbers are coming back down, if you give them a shot of steroids, they almost immediately will clear up, they can think clearer, and they can be coordinated again. It lasts a few hours, which would be enough time for them to go down lower to Camp II, which is a much safer location. So I gave shots to whoever needed it, or I thought needed it. But it's such a precarious place, Camp III, that to give the shot I had to do it just right through their clothes. There was no such thing as rolling up your sleeve or anything like that. We just injected it right through the clothing and sent them back down.
Meanwhile, Makalu Gau and Beck Weathers were in such bad shape that we decided that the risk of them dying on the descent was greater than the risk of them dying spending another night up in those conditions at 26,000 feet. But if they survived the night, we try to bring them down in the morning.
So Todd and Pete stayed with them and tried to hydrate them, give them fluids and sort of bring them around and warm them up a little bit. And in the morning they were in somewhat better shape and we decided that they could come down. There was nothing I could do for them at Camp III with my two little bags of syringes, so I also climbed down to Camp II.
When you prepare for these expeditions you have a lot of medical supplies but you can't bring them up the mountain very easily because everything is weight and bulk. Every trip through the mountain is dangerous and you have to think of what supplies you can use at various heights, what you might need, what you can use. Camp II is still quite high, but it's a lot lower than where we were, and at 21,000 feet it's a lot flatter and I could treat people there. So I radioed for supplies to be brought up to me at 21,000 feet, while I climbed down to 21,000 feet to meet my supplies and to wait for the arrival of Beck and Makalu. Todd and Pete were bringing them down, and then Dave Breashears from the IMAX team, along with Ed Viesturs, took the relay. Ed Viesturs was one of the actors in the IMAX film, but a superb climber. The two of them took the relay from Todd and Pete and they brought Beck and Makalu to me at Camp II, where I had set up my supplies to take care of them.
But then I had more decisions to make, because you would think that at 21,000 feet I would have all the supplies that I needed for the moment, but I had to decide whether or not I wanted to treat their frostbite, which is not a clear cut decision. You treat the frostbite by putting their hands and feet in warm water to thaw them out, but once you thaw out a body part you have to be sure it stays thawed, because if you thaw it out and it refreezes, the damage is twice as bad as leaving them frozen. So the temptation to thaw them out has to be weighed against the idea that you must keep them thawed out once you do thaw them out. And we're still at 21,000 feet, but I had fuel there. We certainly had enough ice to melt for water. And I felt like I could do that. We warmed them up, got them out of any hypothermia, and defrosted their body parts.
But then the next problem I was faced with was that the wind was extremely high. Even though it wasn't snowing there was a very strong wind blowing through the camp. At 21,000 feet, the air is still very thin. We were hoping that a helicopter could come in and pull off a rescue to get these guys off the mountain. But 21,000 feet is too high for the helicopter that was available because there's not enough air for the blades to keep the helicopter loft. But the pilot was willing to risk it. The envelope for his helicopter—the ceiling—was 18,000 feet. In other words, the helicopter was not rated to fly above 18,000 feet. But the pilot was willing to risk coming in at 21,000 feet to try to pull off a rescue, however he couldn't do it because of the wind.
The wind had been going for days and I didn't know how many more days it was going to go for, but I had another decision to make because climbers are just incredibly brave people, they have tremendous integrity, and I knew they would do whatever I thought ought to be done, without question. So my choice was either to wait out the storm, not knowing how long it's going to last, with two critically ill people in front of me, or to call for an over the ice evacuation, which would mean they'd have to load these two guys up and bring them down through the icefall which is the most critical, difficult part of the climb. It's hard enough to climb there by yourself. To bring down a more or less helpless climber through there is extremely risky. It's risky, not just to the people you're bringing down, but it's very risky for the climbers. So I'd be asking these climbers to risk their lives to bring down these two critically ill people, and I knew they would say yes immediately. They wouldn't question my decision, but I wouldn't be the one risking my life, these guys would be risking their lives. So I opted for the over the ice evacuation because I felt like these guys are going to die if they stay up here, they belong in an intensive care unit and I couldn't just watch them deteriorate at 21,000 feet.
So I called for the over ice evacuation. They loaded the two climbers up for the trip down. At this point, they were not in great shape, but they were in better shape and they could be put on ladders that we had to use as sleds to bring them down the mountain. We started down the mountain and I was so engrossed in my thoughts as to how I'm going to take care of these people down at base camp if we get there that I didn't realize that the wind had quieted down and all of a sudden I was startled by a noise. You know, when you're on Everest, at least at that time, there's no power equipment. There's no anything. You don't hear a loud noise for three months. And all of a sudden I heard this loud machine noise. It took me a second to realize that the loud machine noise was a helicopter. The wind had died down and the pilot was going to risk his life to come in during this lull in the wind at 21,000 feet, 3,000 feet above the rating of his helicopter, to try to pick up these climbers.
The air was so thin that he was having trouble staying aloft, so he was flying very close to the ice, depending on what's called prop wash, which means that the helicopter blades force air down—that's how the helicopter stays aloft—and if you fly close to the ice, there's a rebound effect and the air that you push down bounces back up. So you get like double air, and he was using this double air to maintain enough lift to keep his helicopter in the air. But the problem was that you can't see crevasses from the air, and every time the pilot flew over a crevasse he lost that rebound because the air would just go down into the crevasse. So when he flew over a crevasse, we could see the helicopter bounce down off the ice. He was skidding along on the ice every time he came over a crevasse. So he was trying to make his way to us, but he really couldn't see the crevasses. He couldn't find a route to get to us.
So one of our climbers, Ed Viesturs, got what I consider a brilliant idea. One of the other climbers was carrying pink Kool-Aid. So he took the Kool-Aid and he laid out a trail with the pink Kool-Aid that avoided the crevasses so that the helicopter pilot could see the Kool-Aid from the air and could follow that trail, avoiding the crevasses.
Annie: Oh my gosh.
Ken: And it worked, the pilot came down. He didn't actually land because he was afraid if he actually touched the ice, his skids would freeze in the ice and he would be unable to take off again, which would be fatal for him because even if he didn't die in a helicopter crash, he was suddenly way above an altitude that he was acclimatized to. If you're not acclimatized to the altitude your lungs give out. So he was really risking his life in several ways.
But he hovered just like a foot or so above the ice. And we brought the two climbers to him. Beck, to his credit, said to take Makalu first because Beck was in better shape than Makalu was. The pilot could only take one climber at a time. At that altitude, he didn't want any more weight. In fact, he was so cognizant of the weight problem that I was carrying a little purse of Makalu's personal effects and after we loaded Makalu into the helicopter, I tossed that purse onto Makalu's stomach and then the pilot tossed it right back out. He didn't even want to take that much extra weight. He was so afraid of the weight limit. So he took Makalu, brought him down to 17,000 feet, and unloaded him. Then he came back up and picked up Beck and then went back down to 17,000 feet and loaded both of them, because 17,000 feet is within his safe range. So then he took both of them and took off to Kathmandu with them.
Annie: Oh my Gosh.
Ken: And then suddenly there we were, just below Camp II, and it was quiet, and it was over. All of a sudden, my patients were gone. The whole thing was instantly over. It was so strange. All of a sudden.
Annie: Gosh, thank you so much for sharing that story. It's so unfathomable.
I want to just ask you… I know there's no way for you to get into the head of Rob Hall in that moment, but just a couple of questions in terms of his decision-making and balancing out the decisions he was making. Because there are two things that I find perplexing.
So what people don't know is that the way Beck Weathers ended up in the situation that he was in is that he had had surgery that made it so that when he was at that high altitude, his eyes basically failed.
Ken: Yeah, that's correct. He had what's called a radial keratotomy. That operation is no longer done, but it was to avoid the need to wear glasses. The surgeon makes cuts in the cornea, which changes the shape of the cornea slightly, and it corrects your vision. The operation works, but it causes scars on the cornea. And when you go to altitude the cornea swells in everybody, that's a normal body response. Vision has to go through the cornea. So as long as it's swelling uniformly, you don't even notice any problem with it. But if it swells irregularly, then you start to get distorted vision. And because of the scar tissue, Beck was getting very distorted vision to the point where he couldn't see. So he turned around part way up the mountain. He realized this was not going to work for him. But because of his distorted vision and because of the whiteout, he couldn't see where he was going. So he got completely lost up there and it was freezing cold. He realized that he was in bad shape. His hands were freezing, so he took his glove off and he tried to put his hand inside his jacket to warm it up. But between the time he took the glove off and before he could get his hand in his jacket, he collapsed. He was just laying in the snow unable to move and freezing to death. And that's when the two climbers came by and looked at him and said, “He's dead.”
You learn in medical school that if you have hypothermia to that degree—meaning low body temperature—you're going to die unless you get an outside source of heat. You need outside heat to bring you back up. Your body's incapable of warming yourself at that temperature. So somehow Beck… He didn't read the chapter, and he got up!
Beck stood up, and not only that but he still couldn't see, it was still a whiteout and a storm was going, but he was able to reason well enough in that condition to think that when he was climbing, the wind was at his back. So now, if he had any chance of getting back to the tents, he had to face into the wind. So here's a guy who’s exhausted, hypothermic and thinking clearly enough to say, I am going to take the worst route possible—meaning the hardest route right into the wind—because that's my only chance of survival. And he faced right into the wind, moved forward, made some progress, and then saw where he thought were blue rocks. So he went toward the blue rocks, and the blue rocks were in fact the tents of Camp IV. As he got close, that's when Todd looked out of the tent and saw him staggering around and came and got him.
“So here's a guy who’s exhausted, hypothermic and thinking clearly enough to say,
I am going to take the worst route possible — meaning the hardest route right into the wind —
because that's my only chance of survival.” — Ken Kamler
Annie: Oh my gosh.
So here's the question that I have in terms of Rob Hall's decision-making. So, he knew that Beck couldn't get up to the summit and he basically had said “Wait here, and I'll come back and get you on the way down since you can't see.” And then obviously he feels this obligation to Doug Hansen, but it's my understanding from having spoken to you before, that after Rob Hall summited at 2:00 PM, when it became clear that it was very late and Doug Hansen, being a weaker climber, was going to arrive quite late to the summit… If Rob Hall had come down from the summit, would he not have met Doug Hansen along the way?
Ken: Yes he would have.
Annie: So I'm just curious, because obviously from the outside, not being in that situation... So I say this with very little judgment here, just because I recognize how different my perspective on it is, with the benefit of hindsight…
It feels like [it would have been possible that] he gets to the summit late, Doug Hansen isn't there, he comes back down, meets Doug Hansen along the way, says “Not this year, sorry. It's very late” and then goes back and tries to get Beck Weathers. Now the storm may have prevented that, but that could have been maybe the attempt that he would have made.
So I'm just curious, as a final thought: how much do you think the attempt the year before that had failed, and his somewhat convincing Doug Hansen to come back and try again the next year, negatively affected his ability to think through that situation on the summit?
Ken: Yeah. To me at that time, Rob Hall was the greatest climber in the world. I really thought he was, I still think at the time he probably was. I knew him from climbing in Antarctica. I knew him for a long time and we'd worked together for years on Everest. And I don't feel like I have anywhere near the stature to criticize Rob Hall. It's a very hard thing to do, but I think at that point Rob got carried away. I think he got carried away by the idea of satisfying Doug Hansen. He'd more or less promised—you can't promise the summit—but he promised him, he convinced Doug to come back with the idea that he could really bring them to the summit this time. And I think it got the better of him. I think he lost his clear judgment at that point. He actually should have turned the whole group around, because they were all too slow.
They should have all turned around, but I think Rob felt like he was going to push it this time because he wanted to have these people succeed. And I think maybe his own judgment was clouded at that time. It's hard to even say that because he was such a superb climber, so smart and so mountain wise. But maybe he also felt competition from the other team. Scott Fischer's team was on there too and even though they might climb together, they're still competitors in a sense, they're looking to bring other people up the mountain, there's a lot of other factors involved. And I think just at that time he made the wrong decision, you know?
Annie: Yeah. I think there's such a good lesson in there. I mean, as you say, he was a really good decision maker and he was an expert climber. I think that's really an important lesson for all of us to hear: expertise doesn't necessarily protect you. These biases, what happens when we have a goal in mind, and the way that our goals can cause us to become myopic to being able to see the time horizon, for example that the goal is to actually get down the mountain [not just to summit]. We have families to go back to and we want to come back another year to be able to go up the mountain again. All of these other things get de-privileged, they get put in the shadows by this one goal of [reaching] the summit. That's happening to all of us every day, for those of us who aren't nearly the decision makers or the experts that Rob Hall was. So I think there's many lessons to be taken off that mountain.
“Expertise doesn't necessarily protect you. These biases, what happens when we have a goal in mind, and the way that our goals can cause us to become myopic to being able to see the time horizon, for example that the goal is to actually get down the mountain [not just to summit]... That's happening to all of us every day… So I think there's many lessons to be taken off that mountain.” — Annie Duke
Ken: It's really, you can't see the forest for the trees.
Annie: Exactly. It's just that myopia.
Ken: Yeah, exactly that.
Annie: Yeah. And by the way, the myopia even causes him to privilege the goal around Doug Hansen and the promise he made to Doug Hansen over Beck Weathers. It's what's right in front of him that he sees.
Ken: That's right. Even Beck Weathers was forsaken at that moment.
Annie: Yeah, and again, no criticism. These are really difficult decisions and I think the lesson is that if Rob Hall can succumb to those types of decision errors, we all ought to be thinking about this much more for ourselves.
Ken: Well, that's a very good point. Anybody's vulnerable to that, if Rob Hall could make the wrong decision.
Annie: Yeah. So this has been so amazing and we've taken up so much of your time. I would love to ask you just a couple of follow up questions.
What decision making tool would you want to pass down to the next generation of decision makers?
Ken: I'd like to have people look at their lives this way: Imagine you're brought to a planet and you're told that with luck you'll have maybe 80 or 90 years to be on this planet. How would you want to spend your time on that planet? What goals would you have for yourself on that adventure for those 80 or 90 years? Wouldn't you want to see and experience as much of it as you could, as much of your life as you could, and hopefully leave the planet a better place than when you arrived? Isn't that really what you would want to do? And in fact, isn't that the situation you're in? We're on this planet for a finite amount of time, and I think it's important that you realize that the way you spend your time here is very much a choice. You're making choices all the time.
“We're on this planet for a finite amount of time, and I think it's important that you realize that the way you spend your time here is very much a choice. You're making choices all the time.” — Ken Kamler
When you say to somebody “I can't do that, I can't come tonight for dinner” or something like that. What you're really saying is “I won't come.” You could come, but you're saying you won't come. You might have a very good reason for not coming. Maybe it's your kid's birthday or something, or maybe you're 10,000 miles away. You could have a real reason for not coming. But for the most part, you're making a decision not to come, You can't fly, you can't run 60 miles per hour, but with most things, when you say you can't, you really mean you won't. So you have to realize that you're making a choice to do these things.
Most of your decisions, most of your choices, are under your control. I always like to say everyone should have their own Everest. And it doesn't have to be a mountain. It can be any goal that you feel is impossible or almost impossible, but something that you think is valuable. And if you go for it, you will find in yourself that you have qualities you never knew you had. You realize qualities you have in you that you can make use of in many other ways, even if you don't reach that Everest, whatever you decided it ought to be.
“I always like to say everyone should have their own Everest. And it doesn't have to be a mountain. It can be any goal that… you think is valuable. And if you go for it, you will find in yourself that you have qualities you never knew you had. You realize qualities you have in you that you can make use of in many other ways, even if you don't reach that Everest, whatever you decided it ought to be.”
— Ken Kamler
Annie: That's amazing advice. I love the idea of “everybody should figure out what their Everest is,” and it doesn't need to be a mountain.
Annie: So for listeners who want to go online, learn more about you, or follow you on social media, where should we send them?
Ken: Well, I have two books that they could read. A lot of my philosophy is in those books. And I don't have a website, but I'm on Wikipedia.
Annie: And they obviously can go to the TED site to be able to see you.
Ken: You can go to the TED site, for sure. I have a couple of TED Talks and I have a lot of TV shows you can look up, I've been on TV quite a bit, a lot of radio stuff, NPR interviews. I try to put out my philosophy, for what it's worth, every time I get a chance to talk to people in large groups.
Annie: I know we spent a lot of time [together] but we touched on so little of your experiences, what you have to say, and your philosophy, just through time limitations. So I hope that people will go to the show notes and the links are there to explore [Ken’s work] more because everybody should be learning from Ken Kamler.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Ken: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I really enjoyed it myself.
Published September 8, 2021