By the very nature of my work, I charge for adventure, I have no problem admitting that. I charge to give people a taste of what it is like to live a lifestyle I have followed for over 18 years. I use all those skills I have learnt, often the hard way to help people I work with climb harder and safer than before they met me. I generally specialise in summer rock climbing and mountain skills but a couple of years back I got my Winter ML award.
Ever since I have struggled to come to term with using this award, mainly because I don’t want to travel up to Scotland for three months of the year to work. Meaning that I really don’t have the experience to make the types of judgements that I have seen my friends and colleagues making everyday when they work up there. Instead I use the award in Wales, where I am much more confident with the local conditions.
The consequences of poor judgement in winter are more than apparent to me as several years ago a good friend was killed alongside his client on Buchialle Etive Mor, on one of the worst days for avalanches in recent history. Although arguably we are in an Annus horribilis for winter mountaineering tragedies at the moment.
The knee jerk reaction in the main stream media, provoked me to write a piece that is appearing in Climber magazine called ‘Dying to Climb’, and I’d like to think my opinion is slightly more educated than some of the journo hacks that offered theirs in the days following these human tragedies. I am motivated to write this piece based on a report hidden in a local Aberdeen newspaper, about another avalanche that in my instructor circles would be called a near miss, as despite 12 people being involved only three received minor injuries.
The incident happened on Friday and involved what I can only presume to be experienced and qualified winter instructors or leader, given where the group were based. As such it seems rather extraordinary as this is the second major avalanche incident this company has had this year. Although I do believe the first was nothing more than a tragic accident, as their activity was taking place on a safe area and one of their clients happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when another group arguably in a less safe place set off a slide that engulf their client.
Friday’s incident could well be different, as it illustrates to me the ethical dilemma that many outdoor instructors face from time to time. We take people’s money and promise an adventure and then have to deal with the weather. This weekend in Wales I had two enquiries to take people up Snowdon. Looking outside my window on Friday and it was apparent that a blizzard condition and heavy drifting was occurring from above 300m. I turned down the work mainly because I believed that the conditions meant that it would be unsafe to attempt to walk up Snowdon, in one of the cases it took me a long time to convince the prospective client that heading into the hills was a bad idea.
At the same time a friend was walking off their winter ML in the Cairngorms (less than a mile from the incident), they reach the Ski area car park which had been block to vehicles for several days and had to continue navigating in whiteout conditions down the ‘road’. It was in these condition that Fridays avalanche incident happen, the avalanche forecast had many slope aspects where the risk was Cat 3. Although put that into the actual weather on the day and the risk was potentially higher than forecast due to increased snowfall and the high winds (Avalanche Forecast are just a prediction of conditions based on the weather forecast and observation of conditions the day before, if the weather forecast is wrong so is the avalanche forecast).
Which brings into question why go out? It is a growing issue in the financially tight times, where there is little slack in anyones bank to turn down or cancel work due to conditions. Disappointing clients as an independent business is both a horrible and expensive thing to do. However the decision is mine and mine alone, and I will prefer to bare the cost than take a risk. What happens when your employer expects you to head out come hell or high water because they potentially can’t afford to cancel courses?
There are too few details on this latest incident to make any judgements, however given the conditions that day, then was the incident reasonably foreseeable? The six biggest factors in Scottish avalanches according to the SAIS are:
TOP SIX FACTORS
- Visible avalanche activity. If you see avalanche activity on a slope where you intend to go, go somewhere else.
- New snow build-up. More than 2 cm/hr may produce unstable conditions. More than 30cm continuous build-up is regarded as very hazardous. 90% OF ALL AVALANCHES OCCUR DURING SNOWSTORMS.
- Slab lying on ice or neve, with or without aggravating factors such as thaw.
- Discontinuity between layers, usually caused by loose graupel pellets or airspace.
- Sudden temperature rise. The nearer this brings the snow temperature to 0 degrees C, the higher the hazard, even if thaw does not occur.
- Feels unsafe. The “seat of the pants” feeling of the experienced observer deserves respect.
The also add “90% OF ALL AVALANCHES INVOLVING HUMAN SUBJECTS ARE TRIGGERED BY THEIR VICTIMS”
If you like by taking cash and promising adventure are instructors and outdoor business falling into one of the heuristic traps we can warn people about when training them in winter skills, that is apparent in incidents not related to professional instructors, whereby a person travelling up from the South of England is going to head out into the hills come hell or high water?
I would be really interested to read something put together by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, Mountain Rescue or the company involved on the lessons learnt from not just this incident but the others this winter. Sadly businesses will prefer to keep these incidents ‘in house’ to limit the associated ‘bad press’, rather than share those lessons learnt by them or others. The SAIS or Mountain Rescue organisations will probably say it is not within their remit to pass comment. Instead it is often left up to a coroner in the case of fatalities, whose lack of a deeper understanding of these incidents means perhaps they are not the best people to be to draw anything other than a legal conclusion.
Occasionally the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres, make good reports into industry near misses, but these reports are limited only to centres that sit on this panel. So other instructors and centre potentially miss the oppotunity to learn from others mistakes and stop them from happening needlessly again and again.
In mainstream industry there is something call Heinrich’s Ratio, that says for every fatality there is around 27 serious accidents and 300 near misses, of those 88% were accounted for by human error. I you only learn from the 28 serious incidents you miss over 300 other learning opportunities. So do we need a way to allow anonymous reporting of incidents in the outdoor industry and even beyond that to a more recreational level? Or to put it another way given the press surrounding the recent events, do we as an adventure tourism sector need to tidy up our shop before the government wades in to do it for us?