A comment on mountain safety

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There’s been a string of tragic accidents on the Scottish mountains this winter. Which is a little strange given how there’s actually been very little snow and fairly mild conditions (climate change I suppose, rather that a steady build up it all comes at once and then melts or avalanches off). A few weeks back two highly experienced climbers died on Ben Hope, while Ben Nevis has now seen three accidents with multiple fatalities, notably a fall off the ledge route and just the last few days three were killed in an avalanche in nearby number 5 gully.

Now inevitably the media position is, oh mountaineering, in particular these adrenaline junkies hanging off of cliffs, its really dangerous and should be banned. Well statistically, climbing is still safer than sports such as cycling, field sports, horse riding or water sports. So if you’re going to ban mountaineering, you’d have to ban these as well presumably. And according to mountain rescue statistics, in 2017, only 51% of call outs were for actual mountaineering related emergencies (although admittedly its usually more a 60/40 split). The rest are for things such as rescuing motorists trapped by snow or general search and rescue.

Another point is that a lot of these accidents have occurred on fairly easy routes. No. 5 gully and the ledge route are Scottish winter grade I or II, which is technically a winter scramble rather than an ice climb (easy climbing or hard walking depending on your point of view). In fact, this I’d argue is the problem, people are equating “easy” with “safe”, but that’s not the way it works.

The Ledge route for example (I’ve been up both of these routes before) is fairly exposed includes an airy scramble along a very narrow section of ridge. A grand day out, if the weather is good and you’ve a good head for heights. But certainly it comes with a certain level of risk, and that risk factor soars in the wrong sort of weather conditions or poor snow, or if the party is simply inexperienced (or poorly equipped). And no. 5 gully tends to accumulate rather a lot of snow and is thus prone to avalanches. It also tends to build up a large cornice on top and on at least one occasion I’ve been up it and we had to climb back down as we couldn’t safely break through the cornice without risking it collapsing on top of us.

Given that there was a “high” avalanche warning in effect on the north of Ben Nevis over the last few days one has to assume the climbers in the most recent accident either didn’t see the forecast. Or, as foreigners, they just weren’t aware that this particular gully is avalanche alley in the wrong sort of weather conditions.

But to be fair, I’ve seen scenarios where quite experienced climbers have gone out in bad conditions and argued, oh we can’t do Tower ridge today, lets do the ledge route or CMD arrete instead, that’s easy. And again, yes they are easy, but that doesn’t make them any safer in bad weather. If you’ve backed off one ridge because you think its unsafe, what magical thinking leads you to believe that another ridge on the same side of the same mountain (just narrower and more exposed!) is somehow immune to these dangers?

And for the record, its actually hillwalkers rather than climbers who are most likely to get into difficulty. Statistically only a tiny fraction of call outs are for climbers (94% hillwalkers, scrambling or climbing the remaining 6%), be it in summer or winter. The vast majority of accidents happen on well marked walking trails in summer (accidents being 3.5 times more likely to occur in summer than in winter). So this magical thinking extends to walkers as much as climbers, with people equating “easy” for “safe“, which isn’t always the case.

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Careful navigation off the summit of Ben Nevis is essential, particularly in winter

Case in point, the pony track up Ben Nevis (otherwise known as “the tourist route”) is probably the most likely spot in the UK for a mountaineering accident. Because while on a sunny summer’s day its a nice easy walk along a wide path (so wide many climbers call it “the motorway”), it can be very different on a bad day. Snow and freezing temperatures on Ben Nevis in summer is not unheard of. While in winter, temperatures can plunge to below -30’C and the snow can be several metres deep (hiding any waypoints or features under deep snow). And the path passes by several large and dangerous gullies as it approaches the summit. Gullies that in winter might be hidden under massive cornices. So careful navigation off its summit is essential (meaning you need to know how to use a map and compass!).

As the saying goes, the mountain doesn’t know you’re experienced. And some of that experience should come with knowing when to go down or not even to bother going up in the first place (or if and when things go south, how to get out of dodge). Hence the golden rule of mountaineering “going to the summit is optional, coming back down is compulsory”.

Not going out

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The great outdoors, Rannoch Moor Scotland, with the mountains of Glencoe in the background

You may, or may not, have heard the story that Penn State university has banned their outdoor recreation club, because its too dangerous for their students to be let out in public. Which from a PR point of view doesn’t exactly send out the right message. Come to Penn state and you’ll be so hopeless at everything you can’t be trusted to go outside.

Let’s be clear this has little to do with “elf & safety”. I cannot help but notice that the American football team, water sports (generally anything involving water carries a certain level of risk), skiing (who tend to be more at risk from avalanches than hikers) and boxing clubs aren’t being closed down, even though some of these would be much more risky. And any contact sports is where we’d expect to see the bulk of injuries to students. Instead this is more a case of “liability avoidance” or what I refer to as Save Ass Policy Schemes or SAPS for short.

Admittedly, being a mountaineer and a bit of an outdoorsy type myself, it has to be said that the risks involved with such activities are difficult to quantify, as is often the case with many adventure sports. A route that some would find suicidally dangerous (e.g. the Cullin ridge on Skye), experienced climbers will do while wearing boxing gloves and roller blades….or riding a bicycle. Similarly even the most experienced climber in the world would be putting himself at an unnecessary risk if he went up certain routes in the wrong kind of weather (the guides on Skye won’t go up the aforementioned Cullin ridge in bad weather, its just too dangerous).

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One person’s inaccessible pinnacle is another person’s Sunday morning bike ride

So context is very important. Indeed this is kind of an important life lesson mountaineering teaches you, how to manage risk. Which, can be a useful thing to put on one’s CV or cover letter. But clearly the SAPS in Penn State are too dumb (or scared) to understand that. I bet employers will be queuing around the block to hire these graduates after they hear of this!

I would note that said SAPS are probably reacting to parental pressure. US universities are increasingly having to deal with not so much “helicopter parents”, but what are referred too as “snow plough parents” who expect every possible obstacle to their little darling to be swept out of his or her way. I’ve seen several situations where students stuck with a course that they didn’t like simply because their parents insisted. And when he got caught cheating, it turned out that this was the parents idea. That is kind of what universities are having to deal with right now.

You could argue the most insulting thing you could say to a mountaineer is to call him “experienced”. Because often you learn from your mistakes (so when I say I’m an “experienced” mountaineer, that means I’ve “extended the trip” or “explored alternative routes” on a few occasions). The trick with student clubs is to create a safe environment for people to learn without putting them in danger.

In Scotland we have a pretty good system set up in which the university clubs and the various mountaineering organisations (the mountain rescue teams, guides & instructors, RAF/RN rescue, McOS, BMC, SMC, etc.) arrange various safety courses towards the beginning of term. There’s events in early autumn (just a few weeks into the 1st semester) focusing on general mountaineering safety with further courses run in January/February focusing on winter mountaineering skills (just about the same time the snow’s started to accumulate). This allows new recruits to clubs to pick up the necessary skills pretty early. The clubs also tend to ease people into it, taking them on easier routes first, so they can learn some sense…rather than taking them straight up Tower ridge on Freshers week.

And this is the thing, far from improving the safety of students by shutting down this club, instead Penn state is putting them at risk. The reason for all the courses in Scotland I mentioned earlier is a little statistically anomaly. University clubs rarely get into trouble (given all the precautions they take and the fact they tend to be pretty well equipped). However, students in general are involved in a very high proportion of mountaineering accidents.

So by removing this “safe space” in which students can learn good practice, Penn State is arguably putting its student’s at risk. I won’t be surprised if, irony of ironies, they are sued in a few years time after a student gets into difficulty after being denied access to safety equipment and denied the opportunity to learn safety skills by the university.

Of course I’m going to guess America being America there’s probably a gun club in Penn State and I’m going to assume that there’s no way they’ll get banned (as nobody in senior management would want to pick a fight with the NRA). And given that Pennsylvania is an open carry state, that they ain’t going to say a word about anyone carrying a gun on campus.

Well there’s the solution, change the name of the Outing club to the Outing Gun Club. They carry on as normal, just always carry guns around while doing it (you don’t have to shoot, or go hunting or anything, just carry guns while muttering about your 2nd amendment rights). In addition use NRA style language to get out of answering any pesky questions from uni admin e.g. “Where are we going this weekend? That sound’s like an attempt to run a background check. Deep state! Deep state!”. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

But either way, this sends out all the wrong messages. It suggests the uni doesn’t trust its own students. In which case why should any employer consider hiring them? People accuse millennial of being “snowflakes”. Yet when they try to do anything remotely adventurous, they get told not to do it. If you don’t let people learn how to manage risks, they’ll either never try anything adventurous, or worse, go out and do something incredibly reckless and foolhardy. Which hardly sounds like the sort of life skills a university wants to encourage in its students.

Life and Death on Everest

I wrote this post sometime ago regarding the recent film “Everest”. It charts the tale of the 1996 disaster, which say twelve climbers killed on the upper slopes of the mountain, with several survivors left severely frostbitten.

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The upper slopes and South East Ridge of Everest

That morning two teams of clients, led by guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had set out for the summit with their clients in tow. Initially the weather had been good, but several factors led to critical delays. Most notably there had been a failure to place fixed ropes higher up on the mountain, a crucial factor given the limited climbing experience of many of the clients. Some of the worse delays occurred high on the peak just below the South Summit. This is a subsidiary top to Everest about 500 vertical feet below the summit proper. However prior to gaining the summit one has to cross a heavily corniced ridge from the south summit to reach the infamous Hilary step (the most technically difficult part of the climb, just a stone’s throw below the summit proper).

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From the South Summit, the ridge and approach to the Hilary Step

The end result of these delays was that a significant number of climbers ended up stuck high on the mountain, gradually burning into their precious reserves of oxygen, within sight of the summit. The situation was made worse by the presence of a inexperienced Taiwanese team (whom the film fails to include at all) who added to the delay (indeed one of the Taiwanese had died the night before further down the mountain). Hence when the turn around time of 14:00 came, very few actually went down (indeed neither Rob Hall nor Fischer had actually reached the summit by that stage!). Many saw no reason why they should turn back so close to the summit, given that the weather was still fine. However failing to turn around by this time meant it was unlikely they would reach camp IV down on the South col before dark (and likely after their oxygen supplies had run out).

The guides also did little to dissuade their clients, perhaps because both of them had members of the media in their teams (climbing journalist Jon Krakauer on Hall’s team, socialite Sandy Pittman on Fischer’s team). Its probable the guides were reluctant to turn clients around for fear of looking bad for the cameras. And in such good conditions, it would have seemed a bit overly cautious. Also in the case of Rob Hall he was particularly taken up with getting client Doug Hansen to the summit. Rob had previously turned him around at the South summit the year before and was probably reluctant to do so again.

What happens next is a matter of conjecture, depending on whose story you believe, as there have been several accounts and the two people who could answer all these questions – Hall and Scott, died on the mountain. Indeed, this is part of the problem when reading any account of this story, one of the effects of high altitude hypoxia is it impairs brain activity. Its a bit like being drunk, but not in a good way. Imagine the worse hangover you’ve ever had, sit in an ice bath, then have a friend fire a sandblaster in your face and you’ve a pretty good idea what its like being on Everest at 29,000 feet. So all of these accounts is a bit like a group of friends waking up the morning after some mad party trying to figure out how they ended up in a strange apartment, hugging a traffic cone in a strange bed next to some guy called Crutch.

By way of example, there is the actions of Rob’s second in command, guide Andy Harris. While waiting above the Hilary step (to descend) Krakauer asked Andy to temporarily turn off his gas to conserve it for the trip back down. However, Andy instead cranked it to full, leading to the American running out of gas completely. Later on the South summit, while switching bottle’s Andy Harris seemed to be under the impression that all the gas cylinders stashed there were empty. Krakauer, Mike Groom (another guide on Rob’s team) and others in the team all found their oxygen working fine. With hindsight we have to conclude that Andy’s strange behaviour indicates he was probably in the grip of high altitude hypoxia (which is probable if his oxygen wasn’t working properly). And that he needed to descend immediately before he became more of a liability than a help. However it simply didn’t occur to anyone at the time (given their minds was also impaired by lack of oxygen) to do this.

The film itself paints a fairly neutral line, not really taking sides. But in summary, a storm below in. This made the already difficult job of descending off the mountain, all the harder. Indeed for those higher up on the hills any movement became impossible. Its believed that prior to the storm Doug had collapsed from exhaustion somewhere above the Hilary step. Rob had managed to lower his client down the step, but could not move him across the treacherous ridge. At some point Andy Harris had shown up and attempted to assist. It is believed that at some point during the storm, both Andy and Doug fell to their deaths off the ridge (either together or individually, Rob Hall never clarified what exactly happened in his radio calls before he died), leaving Rob Hall trapped alone just below the South summit.

Further down, Scott Fischer and his teams Sidar (lead Sherpa) Lopsang were trapped. The guide had placed a heavy work load on himself, weakening him. With Scott now immobilised, the Sherpa to abandon Fischer along with a Taiwanese climber (Makulu Gau) high on the mountain. Further down still a large group of clients and guides from both teams had managed to get off the slope proper, but the high winds and white out made it impossible for them to reach the tents, forcing them to stay out in the high winds and extreme cold. This resulted in frostbite to almost all those exposed and the death of client Yasuko Namba and Beck Weathers being “left for dead” with severe frostbite (he would later stumble into camp under his own power the next day…only to be left for dead again, when his tent blew down in a storm the following night!).

One of the key bones of contention is between Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev and Jon Krakauer. The journalist would criticise the decision of the Russian guide to climb without oxygen that day. While Anatoli had climbed Everest without oxygen on previous occasions, several other experienced guides (who had themselves summit without oxygen in the past) felt that this wasn’t a good idea when guiding clients, as it left a guide weakened and unable to help much. Also (a crucial factor given the delays that morning) climbing without oxygen reduced the amount of time Anatoli could remain “on station” (as you are more vulnerable to not just altitude sickness, but also hypothermia and brain impairing hypoxia), forcing him to practically run down the hill ahead of his clients. Hence when the radio started crackling with word of Scott in trouble, Anatoli was already down at Camp IV.

In the Russian’s defence, he pointed out that climbing without oxygen lulls people into a false sense of security, leading one to climb too high, too fast and beyond what is safe. Indeed it is worth pointing out that the point where all the climbers trapped that night’s condition went from just plain bad to life threatening was generally when their gas ran out. Anatoli’s decision to descent quickly also put him in a position to attempt a rescue of those trapped on the south col, once the weather abated somewhat. Some argue that this justifies his decision, however I’d point out that this was more blind luck. Had the climbers been further up the ridge (rather than a 200m horizontal walk away), he’d have been unable to reach them, would not have been able to make any more than a single trip and would have more than likely become a casualty himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer himself points out, luck had a big part to play in these events. Had the storm struck just an hour later, its possible everyone would have made it down okay. However had it struck an hour earlier, the death toll would have been much higher (probably taking out Krakauer and most of the other survivors too).

Of course one cannot mention the 1996 Everest disaster without the daring actions of Colonel Madan “K. C.” Khatri Chhetri. With great difficulty Beck Weathers and Makulu Gau had been hustled and herded down the mountain as far as camp II by the combined effort of several climbing teams (notably the IMAX team led by Ed Viesturs). However, getting them any lower down would be next to impossible, given that it would involve passing through the notorious Kumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the route up Everest.

Thus it was decided to risk a daring rescue. While helicopters have flown much higher since then (the French claim to have gotten one to perform a powered touch and go on the summit in 2005) at the time the service ceiling of most helicopters was no higher than 16,000 ft (barely enough to make base camp!).

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The Helicopter rescue from Camp II, taken by Araceli Segarra (climbing with the IMAX team)

So the Nepali pilot was operating his machine well outside its flight envelope, in a valley where his French made AS350 B2 would have been battered by wind vortices in far from ideal flying conditions. Yet not only did the Colonel manage to land and take off in such conditions, he did so twice, picking up each of the two climbers individually (his helicopter had been stripped to the bone as it was, seats removed, co-pilot left back at base camp, barely enough fuel to get him there and back, hence he could only take them down one at a time) before flying them both to Kathmandu.

In the wake of the disaster many questioned the wisdom of guiding inexperienced climbers to the summit of high peaks. Others pointed out that most of the victims were the guides themselves and questioned the sanity of anyone attempting such a dangerous climb. Jon Krakauer even went so far as to suggest banning the use of oxygen on the mountain completely (somewhat ironic given his criticism of Anatoli!). Obviously, quite apart from the issue of how one would enforce such a ban (what are you going to do, put a Nepali soldier up on the south col with a metal detector and an x-ray machine?), statistically guided expeditions tend to have a much lower accident rate than those tackling the mountain according to more traditional lines. While it has to be said that a heavy toil from such teams is borne by the Sherpa’s, who ultimately take on most of the risks, the fact is that the death rate for guided teams is at worst 1 in 10 (likely more like 1:14 for all, but closer to 1:10 for Sherpa’s) while its roughly 1 in 4 for those climbing without oxygen.

Thus if you wanted to make Everest safer, you’d require everyone to climb as part of a larger team, with oxygen, following a single fixed line all the way from base camp to the top. Indeed, one need only look to the other side of the mountain for proof of that. At the very same time a team of Indian climbers were attempting to summit from the Tibetan side of the mountain. Three of them (two had turned back earlier) died at various points during the night. And over he proceeding weeks that summer several more climbers would die, almost all of them part of non-guided traditional expeditions.

So has anything changed since 1996? Certainly one thing did, people started to respect the idea of a rigid turn around time. Few clients need to be told and those who refuse are assumed to be in the grip of high altitude hypoxia and practically subject to a citizens arrest by their guides. But aside from that if anything things have gotten worse. The thirty or so going for the summit that day would now be considered a quiet day by Everest standards in the high season. Two years in a row, there have been mass casualties on the South side. While one can put this down to an element of bad luck, the fact is that a high mountain like Everest is a shooting gallery and the more people you throw at it, the more people will become casualties. Its worth noting that the death rate on Everest makes climbing it more dangerous than flying into space on the space shuttle.

Ultimately one has to watch this film and question why anyone would want to climb Everest. After all, there are plenty of far nicer and far more challenging mountains in Nepal that don’t have the same lethality (Ama Dablam, Jongsong Peak, Lingtren, Dhaulagiri or Cho Oyu). Far from being impressed by someone who claimed to have climbed Everest, I’d question why they went to all that trouble and risk just for some bragging rights.