K2: Against All Odds

Author-K2: Against All Odds

On 31 July 2008, 32 experienced climbers from seven expeditions began their final ascent of K2, one of the world’s most dangerous mountains. Eleven of the climbers would not return. This case traces the story of one of the most tragic climbing disasters in history, tracking what happened hour by hour to present the facts in their ‘raw state’ as reported by survivors.

Students are asked not to apportion blame, but to analyse the concept of ‘mindfulness’: the ability to see the big picture while simultaneously concentrating on single, operational issues and dealing with personal concerns. The authors, Elmar Kutsch, Cranfield University School of Management, UK, and Markus Hällgren, Umeå School of Business and Economics, Sweden, argue that leaders should create organisational mindfulness in the form of awareness, preparedness, readiness and responsiveness to ensure the best chance of avoiding crises. Elmar discusses writing the case and the particular challenges involved in focusing on the K2 tragedy. 

Mindfulness

Much current debate revolves around the concept of mindfulness: organisational mindfulness and mindful organising. Mindfulness is a mental appreciation and evaluation of the environment as opposed to mindlessness where consistency of action and compliance with a simple assessment leads to following a chosen plan until it has run its course. The events at K2 in 2008 provide a unique opportunity to examine the potential of organisational mindfulness.

Raw insights

K2: Against All Odds

Eleven people died within 36 hours. The events received a great deal of media coverage and the surviving climbers were confronted at times with unwanted attention. Our interviews with survivors were delicate, and we made sure to convey that we were not looking for a root cause. Even though some had lost their friends, they welcomed us with open arms because our aim was not to write another book ‘dramatising’ the events but to create a case to provide their own ‘raw’ insights, uncut and in all their richness straight from the horse’s mouth. We could not have written it without their accounts and, in order to be as authentic as possible, we let the interview data speak for itself.

Background material

The written case can only include so much. We aimed to write up a ‘timeline’ of the events that took place in 2008, but also wanted to offer more background material, if desired. The website visualises K2, and provides additional information, including a climbing history of the mountain. 

The material on the website is interactive to help set the scene, while the written case provides in-depth insights into the events in a more traditional format.

However, it’s important to note that getting too ‘close’ to the context may draw attention away from what is important in the case. This case is not about climbing K2, but mindfulness. Therefore, at times it will be preferable not to consult the website. Our experience shows, though, that the website does enable a greater appreciation of the complexity and risk involved in climbing K2.

Engaging students

Students engage with a case that is atypical and extreme in nature. ‘Extremes’ do seem to attract our attention, and in this case, the extreme not only relates to changes in circumstances, but also to the context of climbing one of the most treacherous mountains in the world. This makes it exciting to read, but also encourages students to consider it within a management context. Careful moderation is necessary, however, to acknowledge the limitations of the case. Managers are unlikely to go snow-blind, for example, or to suffer high altitude sickness.

Teaching objectives

K2: Against All Odds The key objective to convey is that individual mindfulness needs to be translated into a ‘bigger picture’ of synchronised organisation. In a nutshell, individual mindfulness, on its own, does not work or is at least limited in an environment where people depend on each other. A ‘synchroniser’ – a leader – is necessary to align individual mindfulness. This case illustrates a lack of this type of leadership. As a result, at K2 (as in many non-hazardous commercial environments) people worked in isolation and leaders imposed ‘alignment’ of individual mindfulness through compliance with set rules and procedures.

Case details

K2: Against All Odds
Elmar Kutsch
Cranfield University School of Management, UK
Markus Hällgren
Umeå School of Business and Economics, Umeå University, Sweden
Ref 414-001-1
Also available:
Teaching note
Ref 414-001-8

About the authors

Elmar Kutsch is a Lecturer in Project Management at Cranfield University School of Management, UK.
e elmar.kutsch@cranfield.ac.uk

Markus Hällgren is a Senior Lecturer at Umeå School of Business and Economics, Umeå University, Sweden

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