Jan 28, 2018 | A note on team work
Yesterday was a nostalgic day not only for me but for every Polish person there is. The reason is that one of our little heroes, Tomasz Mackiewicz, is dying in Karakorum, and no one can really save him from death at this point. Tomasz disembarked from his one-way ticket journey as a heroin addict fifteen years ago, recovered and went into sports in order to become one of the best amateur, homegrown himalaists of our times. He then became obsessed with a vision of climbing Nanga Parbat in Karakorum (8126 atsl), and took six unsuccessful attempts in a row. One day, the issue was the lack of professional equipment. The other day, the weather has gone nasty so the team was forced to turn around and descend. In any case, he never gave up on the goal. This year, he took the seventh and final attempt, together with a French partner, Elisabeth Revol. However, on the high altitudes, due to exhaustion and low oxygen levels, he caught a high-altitude sickness and snow blindness. Therefore, he had no choice but to stay in the tent at over 7,200atsl and wait for help. And now, since the weather broke down and he is too high into the mountain, the rescue team cannot really reach him anymore. Yesterday, there was still a glimpse of hope – the rescue team, composed of two wonderful climbers, Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki, trespassed over 1,200 meter-high wall of ice in the darkness in as little as eight hours. They found Tomasz’ partner, Elisabeth, and escorted her down the mountain. However, while Revol was found at 6,000 atsl, Tomasz’ position is much higher, around 7,200 atsl, and it is pretty much impossible to get to him at this point. This is why, sadly, the rescue team had to give up on any wishes to still find him and bring him home. He is now doomed to stay there forever.
Himalaism is a very controversial sport. According to the common point of view, himalaists are egocentric creatures addicted to the sense of personal achievement, who tend to ignore the feelings of family and friends in the name of adrenaline rush. And, the adrenaline rush which you can only get while facing death on a daily basis, is incomparable with any other. Tomasz has also orphaned two kids right now and harmed every around him. I am not as opinionated about himalaism as most people though, probably because I had a few chances of getting a few little adrenaline shots in the mountains myself. And, I can point to good long term consequences of these few moments of success. First of all, hiking teaches you to take distance from everyday life, and stop caring about imaginary problems that were consuming 60% of your energy before. But also, it teaches you a lot about your own limits, about yourself, about trusting others. Virtually no success is ever possible in the mountains without working in a team. Yesterday’s rescue action was just an example of perfect coordination between society, government, an international team of climbers and a few embassies. On Friday, the families from Tomasz and Elisabeth have appealed for financial support – so that Pakistanian rescue helicopters can transport a team of climbers luckily just residing at the base camp of K2 to Nanga Parbat, and start a rescue mission. In around one hour, the whole amount of 50,000 EUR necessary to take up the mission was collected through public donation websites. Then, the rescue mission was prepared and on Saturday morning, for climbers were picked up from K2 and transported to Nanga together with heavy equipment. Because of thin air and awful weather, typically, helicopters cannot land higher than around 5,000 atsl in high mountains. For this reason, the team was deployed at 4,800 atsl. Then, two quickest climbers, Bielecki and Urubko, went into a climbing rage with light equipment, and made history by climbing over 1,200 m uphill on ice in the night, in as little as a few hours. The other two crew members, Jarek Botor and Piotr Tomala, were following slow on the back, carrying the heavy equipment with them. The embassies were figuring out the reception of climbers at the local hospital in Islamabad at the same time. Revol was successfully found and shipped downhill at the speed of light and in the current weather conditions, nothing else could be done to rescue Tomasz. It was all a blitz, perfectly executed mission, with well-divided tasks and good communication on the lines. The four rescue team members had to stray away from their own way and resign from the plans of hiking K2 this winter in order to be able to launch the rescue mission. And, there was no question there; when the K2 team leader, Krzysztof Wielicki, asked the participants about the possibility of going on the rescue mission to Nanga Parbat, everyone raised their hands immediately.
In himalaism, coordination and partnership is the key, as it decides about human life. I get the impression that overlooking these qualities casts a shadow on many other professions though. Science is, unfortunately, one of these overlooked areas. Science is still individualistic, and there is no deeper sense of teamwork. Working in teams is that one competence never taught on the professional courses – unlike scientific writing, presentation skills, selling yourself, negotiating with your supervisor, time management, grant writing, writing rebuttal letters, etc. There is just no sense of mutual responsibility and coordination in a team, as not enough attention is put into growing these qualities in young researchers. If you notice your coworkers that you need to speed up the process of wrapping up a manuscript because your contract is ending and you are running out of time, they look at you like you were an idiot or a ghost. Most likely, they will not even answer your email, let alone go off from their way and help you with the urgent questions besides their working hours in order to make you proceed. I see people constantly blocking each other from making progress, by delaying or completely ignoring the job that needs to be done. There is no synergy between people whatsoever – which is a nightmare given that, doing the scientific work very much resembles hiking in a sense that what you are trying to do, is nothing else than reaching some destination through some new, undiscovered route. Wouldn’t it be an idea to put more focus on the collaborative attitude then? I am not talking about giving credit in the form of an achievement token which you can put in your CV but rather, developing the right attitude in the process of becoming a scientist. It should be a part of the scientist’s backbone to react to their colleagues’ questions and queries – rather than an unwanted duty which you push to the very back of your to-do list, and then, once the time comes, execute with a deep sigh. Yes, academics are overworked, but lack of synergy (rather than lack of responsiveness) is one of the main reasons for this. Could it be that one day, researchers just freely collaborate without a cold calculation of the input versus output ratios? Today, in times of Twitter, cloud computing and open-access datasets, my level of optimism are slowly growing. Yet, the biggest change always needs to happen in your mind, and there is no way around this. If I ever happen to have my own research group, the first thing I would do would be shipping all the people to some middle-size range of mountains (so that they do not die, but at the same time, they get a sense of what a cold night and a lack of shower mean) to let them hike together. Should do.