I recently caught up with one of the Frontline episodes on my DVR. This one was called Storm
Over Everest, and it initially aired on May 13,2008. You can view the episode here, if you like.
The episode recounts a violent blizzard trapped numerous climbers at about 26,000 feet. Two
things stood out to me, as an IF Fellow, as I watched. Note that I have never climbed much
more than a 2000′ hill, so I know little about the sport climbing world. I was struck, however,
that something that could seem like it would be a person v. the mountain scenario is actually
a very social, collaborative effort. On this particular day, there were about 10-12 people who’d
come to climb the mountain, 1-3 sherpas for each of them, plus about a half dozen guides.
As one group began descending after reaching the summit, one of the women in the group
collapsed from exhaustion. Another woman reached in her pack and pulled out a sugar
injection, which got the first woman back on her feet. The guide who was with them then
asked another of the women to switch oxygen packs with the woman who was struggling.
That woman resisted giving up her oxygen, but the guide reminded her that she was walking
and this other woman was struggling just to stand. Sometimes you do have to leave a person
behind on the mountain, but the idea is to try very hard to work together so as to avoid that.
It later became very clear why: on a mountain, especially when things start to go badly,
morale is everything. If you start to feel alone or as if the warmth of death might be a welcome
end, your only hope is the others around you who are committed to getting you and them off
the mountain. As it turned out, this group got stuck and disoriented on the way down by a
horrendous storm. This is where the other observation struck me. As the group huddled
through a horrible night, the guide noticed something that looked familiar and took those
who could still walk back to base camp. One of the men who was left behind at that point
noted that he did not see whatever sign the guide saw and would have died on the mountain if
he’d been up there on his own. He concluded that this was the benefit of the guide: the guide is
experienced with the mountain and picks up the cues that will get the group where it needs to go.
It struck me that this could be an analogy to how the IF sanctuary process works. As a group
explores an area of concern, many ideas come up. Various sidetracks are explored. The group
eventually starts to feel lost, and this is where the project manager becomes really important.
It’s our job to watch for the themes– the signposts– that will help to get the group to a set of
interesting policy possibilities at the end of the day.
The commitment of a group of people, who see the world in different ways and who come from
many different backgrounds, is the collaborative dimension of a project that is imperative to
making it go. This in no way means that we expect these ride-ranging folks to come to a
consensus on which policy possibilities to put into a report. It’s exactly the opposite: we want
everyone to feel comfortable raising lots of contrasting ideas. The collaborative dimension–
the idea that the group will try to do everything it can to ensure that everyone feels included,
that no one is left behind– creates an environment in which everyone feels safe to put any idea
forward so that lots of different ideas can truly be explored.