Harness your experience

  • Published
  • By Col. Daniel Loveless
  • 86th Healthcare Operations Squadron commander

My alarm went off around 3:45 AM.  My gear was ready, and I quickly put on my base layers and hut sandals.  I carried my bag and gear and left them outside the dining room.  It was breakfast time.  To me, eating is absolutely essential to climbing and I overeat when I climb as you will almost assuredly burn more calories in a summit climb than you can eat in that day.  The food was quite good for being in a hut at 10,695 feet, minus the coffee. It was instant, but regardless of taste, necessary.

Twenty two-man teams of climbers lined up by the door of the Hörnli Hut, which leads to the path up the Matterhorn.  We put on the rest of our layers and gear necessary for the climb.  As we exited the hut, everyone turned on their headlamps and started to walk to the first obstacle, a fixed rope that runs up a 20-foot section of sheer rock. 

Traditionally, the Matterhorn takes eight to 12 hours to summit.  Many climbers will turn around if they haven’t reached the Salvay Hut at 13,123 feet within three hours.  Given the fast pace of the climb and the need to have equipment for rock climbing and walking on ice, the Matterhorn requires you to do more with less. 

To do this I employed a number of strategies. These same strategies can help you when you are tasked with many items already on your plate.

The first step is to define your timeframe.  How long do you realistically need to accomplish your tasks?  For the Matterhorn, my guide set a goal of eight hours.  If I did not think this was possible, it might be smart to rethink the climb.  The same holds true for your work.  Setting the time helps to keep you on track and is also important for changing your course if you fall behind schedule.  In the case of mountaineering, that means turning around.

The next step is to harness your experience.  This is something you need to do before taking on a complex challenge.  Throughout your career, aim to take on new and difficult additional duties or assignments.  These will build and prepare you for future challenges.  The amazing part about building experience is that there is a bit of a gestalt benefit from this, in that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.  This even applies to more than just groups of individuals.  This principle can definitely apply to just an individual as well.  For me this is probably the most important factor for climbing safely.  Experience is key as human error plays a role in mountaineering fatalities more often than not.  In preparation for this climb, I had climbed numerous mountains with more complex ice and rock climbing conditions.  In addition, I had scaled a lower altitude mountain with mixed rock and ice climbing in preparation.  This gave me the experiences I needed to maximize safety and reduce my risk.  The only thing I could not prepare for was the overall duration of the rapid pace that is required to summit the Matterhorn.

When you have a lot on your plate, you have to make decisions about what you can and can’t do.  You only have so much time in a day, so you need to be able to ask yourself, is this really necessary?  Can I do the duty or complete this mission safely and effectively if I don’t do this?  All of this amounts to process improvement.  By critical analysis, we can at times not only make things faster, we can potentially even make the endeavor safer, as unneeded steps increase complexity and therefore increase risk.  For this climb, it came down to reducing redundant equipment.  Generally you will bring along a large parka and a sleeping bag in case of having to bivouac in extreme weather.  Because the Salvay hut is equipped with beds and blankets and provides overall protection from the elements, you can safely leave a number of additional clothing layers and a sleeping bag behind.  Luxury items, like a camera, come down to your fitness level and overall risk assessment.  My overall pack weight was low and I was feeling good, so I did bring along my camera.

The final factor is to know when it is not safe to continue.  There is always a limit to how much we can take on or are properly prepared to do.  It is not only important to do a full assessment of the task at hand, but also to have the courage to say that you can’t do something safely or to stop when it becomes unsafe to continue.  With some tasks, you may need to chart a new course.  Others may need additional support.  Some will require you to try again from scratch.  Getting to the top of a mountain is just 50 percent of the climb.  With most accidents happening on the way down, it is essential to be ready to turn around if the weather conditions or climbing conditions impart unsatisfactory risk with continuing or your overall energy is not at a level that can support safe climbing both to the summit and down.

We arrived at the 14,692 foot summit of the Matterhorn in the early hours of the morning with great weather and a clear view of the Alps.  I kept my focus on the task at hand until we arrived back at the Hörnli Hut after eight hours and 20 minutes of climbing.  Although the Matterhorn was a difficult climb, I was able to celebrate in style by ordering a cold beer and a large and satisfying rösti.