Sitting In Judgment of Avalanche Accidents


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 21, 2007      

Ron Rash, Aspen Alpine Guides

An interesting issue that Lou brings up from time to time is that of “judging” mountaineering accidents, ostensibly so we can learn from other people’s mistakes. Some folks think he’s too quick on the trigger, others value Lou’s boldness in cutting to the chase. I’m of the latter persuasion — with care.

Every year in Colorado we lose about a half dozen people to avalanches, and many more in North America. More than half of these people die from suffocation. Around a third die of trauma. The word trauma does not really give an accurate description of what can happen to the human body in an avalanche. The body of a victim pounded for three thousand thousand feet over cliff bands is barely recognizable. As for suffocation: I can hardly imagine the struggling panic of trying to find those last particles of air before unconsciousness takes over.

Since I work as a backcountry skiing guide and avalanche instructor, I think about risk management and hazard evaluation constantly. I also realize there are inherent risks that I (and others) can not control. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I realize that I can do my best and something bad could still happen. There is a guide from British Columbia who lost seven clients in an avalanche. By all accounts he was doing nearly everything possible to prevent what happened, short of not going. A guide from Colorado lost one client in an avalanche, in our tricky Colorado snowpack. Lou himself messed up bigtime once. But that’s all I do, wonder — I’ll not judge, but rather try to learn.

As a hedge for my human frailty, I try to instill in my students and clients the ability to question my actions early on. I want them to ask “Why is this slope safe?” “What is different about the snowpack on this aspect compared to where we were just skiing?” “Why are we using this protocol for skiing this slope when we just gang skied the last slope?”

The questions could go on and on. What’s important is for me to answer these questions with sound advice concerning the terrain, snowpack, weather, and human factors.

As avalanche professionals and guides we do not want our students following blindly like sheep behind us. The greatest benefit we can do for them is to empower them to make sound winter backcountry decisions. Sure, our job is sometimes to lead, to be the decision maker who provides all of the risk assessment along with a final word. That’s especially true with novice clients. But even in those situations I continue to explain the reason for our decisions and actions.

I encourage winter back country travelers to look at past avalanche incidents to see what can be learned. A good place to start that process is a series of books called The Snowy Torrents which outline avalanche incidents as way of learning from the mistakes of others. These books take a critical look at all the factors involved from weather history, the snowpack, the terrain the skiers were on, and the human factor.

I would never sit in judgment of my fellow guides or other winter recreationists — but at at the same time learning from their mistakes may save my life or the lives of others. So when an accident happens I start looking at a number of points immediately: What was the avalanche forecast? What was the slope angle? What was their protocol for travel at the time of the incident? What did their snow pit results tell them? What was the weather conditions including temperature, wind speed, and precipitation? How were the clients behaving; we’re they following the guide’s advice and designated route? These six questions are a good place to start, and will lead you to quite a bit of insight and learning.

Much information has come out in the last few years about how the people with the most avalanche education are the ones getting caught most frequently. Hopefully, with continued education and a humble look at every accident we can change that trend.

What do you guys think? How far should we go in dissecting avalanche accidents in the public forum?



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Comments

17 Responses to “Sitting In Judgment of Avalanche Accidents”

  1. Frank November 21st, 2007 10:55 am

    The Snowy Torrents remains what I feel is the most important avalanche book in my library. To really think about the mistakes that others have made and apply that to your own decisions in the backcountry– that can really go a long way. The CAIC and most other forecasting sites have more accident reports. There are also some excellent accounts [url=http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=78225]here[/url]

  2. Randonnee November 21st, 2007 11:22 am

    My views are quite different from the above blog. Therefore I will say at the outset thanks for the discussion and that no attack or offense is intended from my comments.

    What of Professional Standards? What of consequences following Professional malpractice in light of such Professional Standards? If there are no effective Professional Standards and no significant consequences following Professional malpractice, is it, indeed, a Profession?

    It is continually fascinating to me that so-called avalanche Professional groups excuse their Member’s failure that resulted in damage to property, injury and death of those entrusted to their Professional protection. Similarly fascinating is what I read in the literature and on the web that amounts to pals or groupies of Professionals excusing the failure, the glaring Professional malpractice, and then vociferously defending the individual whose failure resulted in the deaths of others! In my view, these behaviors may be attributed to some dysfunctional social fabric within the ski and avalanche business and community.

    My words and ideas should speak for themselves. However, I will add that I have in the past worked as a fulltime paid avalanche Professional, holding the ultimate responsibility that would allow thousands of skiers to recreate on hundreds of active avalanche paths. My current interest in the avalanche problem centers in staying alive on avalanche terrain while I randonnee ski. Last season I exposed myself and companions to avalanche terrain while randonnee skiing more than 80 days, and 51 of those days included powder skiing on avalanche terrain.

    The phenomenon, the mysterious, the unknown aspect of avalanche hazard evaluation is but a small part. In my view, that aspect is small enough to be controlled within cautious sound judgment, evaluation, and proper disciplined behavior. There should be few accidents and hardly any deaths to individuals under the guidance of trained avalanche Professionals.

  3. carl November 21st, 2007 12:03 pm

    Without knowing how many times a given set of factors produced no avalanche how can we hope to learn anything from when a give set of factors produce an avalanche? If a person knowingly acknowledges the risk, and accepts it, then gets hurt in an avalanche what is their to learn? The Snowy Torrents is great for creating narratives but not knowledge.

    Randonee. You assume the goal of all participants is 100% safety. It’s not. Because of this a bad result is not inherently the result of malpractice.

  4. Joel November 21st, 2007 12:29 pm

    I feel completely factual and not personal in saying that I do judge others and myself from decisions and the process of arriving at them while in avalanche terrain. When I (non-avy pro) or an avalanche Professional make a mistake, it should be judged. How else do you come to the realization that a mistake has been made without judgment? A poor decision (with no intentional malice) doesn’t ascertain a bad person. We all make mistakes, which have consequences. I agree with the blog that the point is to learn from the mistakes. However, to learn, one must judge. I also most definitely hold a Professional to a higher standard, and would agree with Randonnee that avalanche Professionals should be held accountable for their mistakes.

  5. Lou November 21st, 2007 12:56 pm

    Guys, I think a lot of this is semantics, that Ron is trying to say that one can judge but most do so with their perspective of learning and receiving value that helps others, rather than finger pointing. It’s a tricky subject but indeed perfect for blogging!

  6. Ron Rash November 21st, 2007 2:06 pm

    Every accident, every avalanche incident is unique to that particular incident. When Outward Bound or the National Outdoor Leadership School has a fatality on a course they have an independent investigation of the accident. The investigative committee is generally made up of a National Forest Service representative, a representative from one of the other wilderness schools, and possibly a guide service representative say from Exum or one of the other large guide services. Their goal is not laying blame, though they may happen as an end result, they will be looking at all possible reasons for the incident as a learning tool for the possible prevention of future similar incidents. As a guide and guide owner I encourage such independent investigations. I can not honestly investigate a fatality in my own company with out tremendous bias. I need that independent investigation as an educational tool to move my company forward and to help others avoid a similar incident.

  7. Tom G November 21st, 2007 3:32 pm

    This is good blog, and discussion material. I think we should go as far as we can in dissecting avalanche accident FACTS in the public forum. We certainly can see what the avy forecast was, what the weather and snowpack were, what the terrain is, etc. In a fatal accident what we can never know is what was the mindset of the individual, why did they make the choices they did and behave the way they did. I don’t think there is much benefit in speculating about these issues, but there is certainly something to be learned from the facts that can be gathered. For this reason, avy accident reports should be as detailed as possible. To me, the most useful and interesting reports are the ones from accidents where everyone survived. In these cases we can learn more about the “human factors” that are increasingly being recognized as being so critical. Often it seems that in these cases those involved are more willing to reflect on what occured. Unfortunately, the “near misses” often go unreported. It’s up to all of us who ski in the backcountry to share our expieriences for the benefit of all. Who dosen’t want to be able to ski more safely in the backcountry? By sharing, and analyzing, we can learn to travel more safely in the mountains.

    With regard to professional guides, I think their actions should be scrutinized at the highest level. A guide holds themselves out as being a pro, as having special knowledge above and beyond the average person. Why would we pay for their services otherwise? Of course we should be more critical of their actions when they make mistakes. Unfortunately our legal environment makes it difficult for a professional to openly discuss their actions. Death is always difficult to discuss, but given the value that can be gained we must have these discussions. Our discussion must be respectful and not speculative, but we can make thoughtful consideration of the events that have occured while remaining respectful. Unfortunately it seems that often web based discussion loses the elements of respect and thoughtfulness, and this de-values the entire exchange.

  8. Eric Steig November 21st, 2007 3:38 pm

    There is a very good precedent for how to respectfully analyze accidents so that everyone learns something, but no one gets “dissed”.
    Sea Kayaker magazine’s “Safety” section. Here’s an example.

    http://www.seakayakermag.com/2007/June07/Triangle01.htm

    Matt Broze’s book compiling such articles on this “Deep Trouble” is really good, and worth reading. Something similar should (perhaps does?) exist for the backcountry skiing community.

  9. Andrew November 21st, 2007 3:54 pm

    I thought Ron’s article was good and agree with it. Having been involved with some avalanche fatalities, I think it is important to discuss them so others can avoid the same mistakes, even if it means public ridicule and threats of malpractice from others.

    A cruel fact of avalanche accidents is that they are so easy to understand in retrospect, but so hard to predict. The only proven way to avoid them is to sit in the shade of a tree on a warm, sandy beach.

  10. Lou November 22nd, 2007 6:47 am

    All you guys, thanks! Amazing insightful commentary! You’ve really got me thinking about how to blog accidents in a respectful but still useful manner.

    And Rando, keep it coming, your points are indeed well taken.

  11. Randonnee November 22nd, 2007 11:28 am

    Yeah, Lou, don’t encourage me (joke : )})!

    It is a little tricky in this blog discussion to discern the topic as sociology or avalanche science. My interest focuses on the avalanche science, and that may be a mixed bag for some, good and bad. I refer to the sociological aspects only because as I see them as an impediment to clear and rational evaluation and discussion of the avalanche problem. One discusses the facts in my view and those should speak for themselves. The method (other than the scientific method), the feelings, the social norms for discussion, are another topic. In discussing the facts the purpose is not to negatively or positively characterize an individual’s actions. The facts are terrain, weather, snowpack, actions, results. Those facts are then compared to established norms of analysis and behavior. To qualify some verbage, I will say that unless one intends to become entrained in an avalanche, then avalanche entrainment is what I refer to as “failure” on the part of the decision maker.

    As a new Patroller (decades ago now) I practically memorized the Snowy Torrents. To this day, those incidents and every incident that I study since contribute to my decision making on avalanche terrain. There are common facts throughout all accident reports, the obvious one being the conscious choice to enter avalanche terrain (with some exceptions, of course). Another common aspect is would include behavior e.g. the position of a group above another on an avalanche path as occurred with Beglinger and RMI and others, or the common error of ignoring signs such as adjacent avalanche activity, weather effects, or ignoring the local avlanche hazard forecasting authority stating a certain level of hazard may exist, etc.

    My experience and observation derives the conclusion that there is little independent thought in the tiny inbred world of avalanche professionals in the US, and perhaps Canada (based on my reading only). There are only a few entities in the US offering employment in the avalanche field, so the tendency is perhaps to be on guard so as not to express something that may harm possible future employment prospects in the tiny avalanche community. In light of this, how incisive and critical is any investigation of an avalanche accident?

    The obvious case in point was the Beglinger SME incident with the seven fatalities. Since the quality of summer skiing last summer was poor in my view and held little interest for me, I spent some extra time surfing around reading what is posted, forums and newspaper articles about the above. Based on that reading, my views were enhanced. In the end I read no meaningful conclusions by the Professional authority or RCMP. The impression that I formed was that the investigating Professonal organization was so weak in conveying any summary or opinion that the legal authorities had virtually no good information to consider. As a result, the situation “moved on;” SME business is brisk and legions of groupies (who may be fearful in regard to their own abilities?) viciferously defend Beglinger, the selling of transceivers capable of multiple-burial rescue is enhanced (!), there is increased public discussion of and surrender to the “unknown” phenomena that got Beglinger so it may get me so just accept that (I do not agree), and somehow exposing numerous persons to avalanche burial in backcountry travel is moving toward becoming a norm!

    The above reference to RMI (Rainier) is about the incident as I recall in which a Guide led a rope team into a chute above another Guided party below, causing a small wet-loose avalanche that swept the lower team off of a cliff. The news coverage and analysis seemed to focus on the rescue, the helicopters on the scene, the drama of a rope team hanging by a rope. Especially entertaining was a reference to an “expert” 19 year-old Guide. The fact that the Guide stepped into the chute above another rope team and caused a small wet-loose avalanche was hardly examined in pubilc. There was lots of discussion of the hazards of mountaineering, acceptance of risk, and the unknown phenomena-type ideas. It seemed all so much fluff and bs when there was a simple act, an error, commited by a Professional that initiated the fatal incident.

    Such dynamics as discussed above cause the topic to be unclear and hinder clear incisive evaluation and clear acceptance of responsibility by Professionals.

  12. Matt Kinney November 22nd, 2007 5:53 pm

    Thank Ron for an excellent write up. Good stuff. Fact is most avy fatalities happen for the same few reasons, so in many case its easy to point to the cause(s) within a short time following an incident with sometimes scant info. Its like a broken record. We are not really learning from other’s mistakes, but seeing the repeat of common mistakes that have killed guides and rec skiers in the past.

  13. Eddie B November 23rd, 2007 4:19 pm

    The bottom line is that there are different places and times where professional ski guiding should not exist. Avalanche terrain in Colorados continental snowpack should never be guided or skiied in winter. It is interesting that Lou would encourage the self-promoting of yahoos like yahoos like chris davenport. When this guy finally gets his well deserved spanking from the mountains for his unforgivible exploitation , red bull and Lou are both gonna feel terrible.I guarantee that Lou doesn’t ski avalanche terrain in winter in Colorado in the backcountry after the mountains whooped up on him. All the avalanche experts are dead.

  14. George T January 6th, 2008 8:19 pm

    Ron and Lou are right…we need to learn from mistakes so that we are safer and don’t repeat these mistakes.
    Ron states, “What’s important is for me to answer these questions with sound advice concerning the terrain, snowpack, weather, and human factors.”
    Lou advocates learning from mistakes.
    Eddie’s comments are negative and therefore suspect… mean people suck!

  15. Amy Ross November 5th, 2009 5:04 pm

    Hey guys,

    This may not be the best place for what I want but I have been reading wildsnow for quite some time now (started by having to read it for product and industry knowledge when working in a backcountry ski shop but now I read it for fun and in this instance to help with my schoolwork) I am a student at Thompson Rivers Unniversity studying Adventure Sport Toursim and have been assigned to write an 8-10 page paper on unquailified guides in the toursim industy. I had planned to find two case studies as a basis for my report; one where something went wrong and the guide was quailfied and how that resulted and then another on a situation when the guide was unquailifed and what rammifications came of that. Trouble is I can’t seem to find a single case study let alone two…..I thought that this website might help me connect with people in the industry that may have links or information that I could use!

    If you think you have anything that can remotely help me in relation to underqualified guides I would love to hear it or see a link.

    Thanks So much!

    Amy

  16. Lou November 5th, 2009 5:45 pm

    Amy, you’re up against the wall of silence that exists in many industries. The only route I’d think would work for your research would be to contact a number of less than satisfied clients. But then, any industry has unhappy customers, so even that would be a difficult way to get accurate info.

    The thing is, while I and others here are willing to conjecture about culpability in backcountry accidents, we’re uncomfortable making outright accusations because we were not there on the scene so we only know part of the story.

    Guides who read this, was that diplomatic enough (grin)?

  17. Amy Ross November 5th, 2009 6:45 pm

    Thanks Lou, not so much asking for you to judge more for resources/links. I want to look into how things play out legally when backed by an organisation like acmg and when you are not….

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