First Avalanche Course of the Season, and first Avalanche Accident

It’s a somber coincidence that during the first day of this season’s Eastern Mountain Sports Schools Avalanche Course season we would have our first avalanche accident of the season occur on Mount Washington. Hours after finishing our first day of mixed classroom and companion rescue field sessions a Mountain Rescue Service call-out informed me there had been two people caught in an avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine. Over the next couple of days details would emerge as to what happened. Much has already been covered by the mainstream media. Some of that coverage can be found here:

While I originally wanted to blog about how this first avalanche course went, I can’t stop thinking about this accident (and the likely future accidents this season) and want to spend my efforts addressing a couple of issues I struggle with.

How can we, as a climbing community, raise the collective bar as to what is responsible travel in the mountains?

This is not a new issue. Mount Washington has a long (perhaps the longest) history in the US of being under-estimated and deadly. Read the book “Not Without Peril” if you are interested in some of the more illustrious stories of mishaps on the mountain.

It would be tough to argue that any other mountain sees more un-skilled travelers on a yearly basis with little “mountain sense”. Some of the reasons for this are obvious; it’s relatively low elevation and accessibility to a huge portion of the US population. Other reasons are more subtle. It’s clear that hikers/climbers push on in adverse conditions when they would not on any other mountain, instead relying on the closed summit buildings and weather observers, and the closed auto road, to provide a margin of safety that might allow them to still bag the summit (but then need help getting back down).

What frustrates me is the amount of education available to the general public that seems to get ignored on a daily basis. Detailed mountain weather forecasts, professional avalanche bulletins, trail information specialists, qualified guide services… all at our finger tips but often not taken into consideration for a climb on this mountain that has seen so many accidents.

Before I go further and people start thinking I am just wagging my finger I recently read, and shared, a great blog post on “Changing the Culture of Shame“. The message is when we, the climbing community, play “Monday morning quarterback” and start saying “That would never happen to us they were reckless, etc. etc.” we discourage the victims from taking ownership of their ordeal, sharing their experience, and helping other’s learn from their mistakes. I agree with this sentiment to a point, by I also think complete absolution from blatant mistakes inhibits the same potential positive outcomes of an accident.

In reading all the reports on this accident in the various regional news papers and watching video blogs a common theme presented itself. The media often romanticizes these victims in their stories. Some of the titles would probably elicit a hometown hero’s welcome. A few media outlets, especially the local ones, were more accurate in their stories;

“The hikers triggered an avalanche” vrs  “The hikers were caught in an avalanche”.

There’s a big difference in these two statement in terms of responsibility, but avalanche awareness (or lack of) wasn’t the root cause of this accident. Lack of general mountain sense was.

The group split up due to impending darkness and lack of headlamps. They did not have map & compass (and by inference the ability to use them). While not a major contributing factor they had inadequate footwear and traction for climbing Mount Washington this time of year. The media has been referring to them as “hikers” instead of “climbers”, to the approval of many vocal online climbing forums, but this is an issue of semantics. Basically they were somewhat prepared (ice axe, goggles, proper clothing), but lacking “essentials”, navigation skills, team work, communication, “mountain sense”.

Whether we call them hikers or climbers it doesn’t matter. They were woefully under-prepared and made bad decisions recognizable by the vast majority of the climbing community. But I’m not sure what the best way to reduce the amount of these type accidents. My gut tells me we are in for a tough winter with already 5 Mountain Rescue Service calls before the New Year; we are well ahead of average. Every year our avalanche accidents seem to increase.

I’ve changed my previous opinion that charging for rescues can be an effective deterrent. Education, it seems should be the best option. Education has increased driver safety, lowered STD transmission, reduced teen-pregnancy and drug use, it should be able to help keep us safer in the mountains. But there is a resistance to education in the mountains. It’s ironic, as there are more guide services, independent guides, outdoor education programs, online resources, climbing clubs, etc. than there has ever been. Yet the overall culture is not changing fast enough. Everyone, from the victims, the rescuers, the media, and fellow climbers, need to ask themselves how they can help shift the balance to a more responsible use of the mountains. The answer for each will undoubtedly be different, but important.

The photos from this weekend’s avalanche course:

Avalanche Course info and dates for the rest of the season are here:

As the last hours of 2013 are upon us take a quick inventory of your skill set in the mountains. What do you need to brush up on? What resolutions can you make for a productive, safe, fun 2014 climbing/skiing season?

Thanks for reading, please subscribe at the top right if you’d like to follow the progression of avalanche courses I’ll be facilitating this season.

Happy New Year!

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