What Mount Everest can teach us about goals

Standing at 8,848m (29,029 feet), Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain, making it a target for daredevils and adventurers to attempt to summit. Despite not being an especially challenging technical climb – you can essentially “just” walk up large sections of it – summiting Everest is dangerous for many reasons, including high winds, fatiguing conditions, and the high altitude, which can induce altitude sickness leading to pulmonary and cerebral edema. Historically, it has been estimated that one person dies for every 4 who summit. As a result, around 300 people have died on the mountain, and, given the logistical issues associated with recovering a body under such dangerous conditions, many of these people remain on Everest.

Here’s something to consider: each of those deaths, and each of those bodies, represents a person who was highly motivated to reach their goal. This is an important aspect to keep in mind, especially in today’s achievement culture, where we are often told to set a goal and stick to it, no matter what. But sticking to a goal can make people behave in both irrational and dangerous ways, ultimately leading to death in some situations.

A lesson in risk management

Climbing and risk management are closely linked. This is perhaps best exemplified by the 1996 Everest disaster, covered in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and the movie Everest, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

In May 1996 three teams from New Zealand, Taiwan, and the US were attempting to summit on the same day. The day unfortunately ended with eight people dead, making it the most deadly single event on Everest until the 2014 avalanche which killed 16 people.

The root cause was that, due to some timing and logistical issues, the teams got stuck at the Hillary Step, a rocky outcrop just below the summit, which climbers have to traverse using ropes one at a time. Due to the altitude, crossing the Hillary Step takes a lot longer than it would at sea level, and, as a result, many of the expeditions fell behind schedule.

Sticking to the schedule is important on Everest because it drives risk management; often, climbers leave their final camp at midnight, climb for around 12 hours to the summit, and then return. If a climber hasn’t summited by 2pm, they are forced to descend the Hillary Step (the most dangerous point) in darkness, and also run the risk of running out of bottled oxygen. As a result, at 2pm climbers should turn around, wherever they are, and descend. This is perhaps best exemplified by the story of Doug Hansen, who in 1995 got agonizingly close to the summit, before being forced to turn around just a hundred meters from the top.

This was not what happened in 1996. Hansen was among the group and this time he pressed on, along with other climbers, well past the 2pm cut off point. In 1996, he was determined to summit, which he did, although at the dangerously late time of 4pm. He didn’t made it back down.

Goal-induced blindness

All of this points us to an issue that often accompanies highly motivated people chasing a difficult goal; goal induced blindness. Here, the single minded pursuit of achievement changes our approach to risk, and alters our perceptions of what is actually happening. On Everest, this is a common occurrence; a study from the British Medical Journal reported that, of the 94 people who died after going above 8000m on Everest, over half (56%) did so during their descent from the summit; comparatively, only 17% died after turning around prior to reaching the summit. This suggests that many of these climbers are making poor decisions, choosing to press on when they should instead turn around.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the hard lessons learned on Everest and sport. When you have highly motivated individuals, whatever the realm, there is going to be goal induced blindness. In sport, this could be the highly motivated athlete believing that there is a linear relationship between hard work and success (there isn’t) and taking themselves to the point of overtraining. Similarly, an athlete may become hyper-focused on reaching success in their sport to the detriment of their personal life; their studies and relationships may suffer. Whilst some people may think this is the price of success, there has to be a balance; short-term sacrifices can be made for sport, but by the same token athletes also need a work-life balance that enriches them as individuals away from the track.

Moral implications of our goals

It’s also clear that highly motivated people focused on reaching a difficult goal don’t always make what would be considered to outsiders as the correct moral and ethical decisions.

David Sharp was a British climber who, in 2003 and 2004, had made unsuccessful attempts to climb Everest. In 2003, he suffered from frostbite, and had to abandon his attempt (he later had to have some of his toes amputated). In 2004, Sharp got agonizingly close to the summit, before having to again turn back. In 2006, he returned once more, this time for a solo attempt. On the 14th of May, it is believed Sharp reached the summit, and then began to make his way back down. However, on his descent, Sharp ran into difficulties; it was much colder than normal, getting dark, and he had no additional oxygen. At some point, Sharp sought shelter in a place called “Green Boots Cave”, named after the body of a climber with green boots who died there in 1996, and whose body remains on the mountain. Upon entering the cave, Sharp sat down in an attempt to rest and regain some energy.

Many other teams were ascending the mountain that day, all with their own goals of summiting the world’s tallest peak. Many of them passed and noticed Sharp; some mistook him for “Green Boots”, as he was in the famous cave; others thought he was merely resting. One group from the Himex Expedition encountered Sharp on their ascent, and determined that, whilst he was still alive, he likely would soon die, so they moved on. It is estimated that 30-40 climbers in total passed Sharp during the period of time whilst he was still alive, but no-one abandoned their attempts at the summit to give him help. Eventually, Sharp succumbed to the elements, and passed away.

The death of Sharp lead to intense criticisms in from many quarters. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to reach the peak of Everest, was highly critical of the lack of attempts to try and rescue Sharp. He was also critical of the behaviors of many climbers in general, who now appear to be focused on achieving their own goals, without being willing to help those around them. Whilst it would have been very difficult for anyone to rescue Sharp at such an altitude and in such conditions – and, indeed, very dangerous for those doing the rescuing – it is also very telling that only few climbers stopped to try to administer aid.

Again, there are clear parallels between such decision making and sport, especially with regards to the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Athletes in general are highly motivated individuals, often with a highly challenging goal, such as winning a medal at the Olympic Games or World Championships. Such highly motivated individuals may be more likely to possess a win at all costs attitude, which again could increase the risk of them utilizing PEDs in their pursuit of their end goal.

Furthermore, some research suggests that those who dope know that it is bad, but it is seen as a means to an end, and a tool that, whilst not positive, is necessary to allow them to reach their goals. As such, this also touches on the normalization of deviance. As I’ve written about previously covered, repeated exposure to moral and ethical wrongdoings may weaken the resistance of the athlete towards that behavior. This means that, if an athlete consistently perceives that their team mates and/or competitors are doping, that they also need to dope in order to be successful. We know that this is the case in practice because a common reason given by those who are caught doping is that “everyone does it”.

Finding solutions

So how can we overcome goal induced blindness and the moral implications that come with it?

One way to help solve the issue would be to have thresholds or cutoffs in place. However, as we’ve seen with the 2pm cutoff used in climbing Everest, this doesn’t work; at the point of having to turn back, many climbers over-ride the built in fail safes designed to protect them. The same is true of athletes; whilst many know the dangers of overtraining, it is nevertheless a common occurrence.

What might help the most in both situations is the simple consideration that knowledge is power. Just being aware of the risks and moral dangers brought on by goal induced blindness exists might help mitigate them. This can lead to important discussions that will at least make us think twice before continuing in the same direction. For example, if an athletes wellness and readiness markers are steadily regressing, athlete and coach should discuss whether this is part of a planned functional overreaching period, or if they are dipping into the territory of overtraining, and make changes accordingly. Having a goal is important, yes, but so too is having the flexibility to override the pursuit of that goal if harm is a possibility, as well as having people around you who aren’t as invested in your goal as you are, allowing them to advise you on the best course of action.

Another point that can help is reframing success. The win at all costs attitude focuses on the competitors, which are not always under our control. This mindset can exacerbate some of the issues identified above. Success can instead be framed in terms of the athlete competing against themselves. If an athlete is able to produce their best ever performance on a given day, that is a huge success, and also something that is largely controllable by that athlete. This could be an important step in driving the right motivational pathways in your athletes, and protecting them from making the wrong decisions.