"Safety Soapbox" Archive - May 2002
It's easy, and common, to just get into climbing and keep progressing
without thinking about what skills you might need. The skills you'll
want to work on acquiring will depend on the type of climbing you want
to do and where you want to do it. But in addition to the movement skills
and the proper use of basic equipment there are other things which it
might be a good idea to learn about.
Here is a list of a few things that come to mind, but I'd encourage
you to make up your own list and to prioritize according to the kind
of climbing you do. Then begin to take the appropriate classes as your
time and budget allow. No matter how long you've climbed there is always
more to learn, and if you've been through your list once then review
it, re-prioritize it, and seek out more in-depth instruction than you
had time for on your first pass.
This is more than First Aid but in reality less than EMT work. First
Aid fills in the brief period of time between something happening
and the response of somebody with medical training and equipment.
In the wilderness this time isn't so brief and you may need to assess
the injuries or illness in more detail yourself. You'll have to decide
whether to seek outside help or self-evacuate. And you may need to
attend to an injured or ill person for some significant amount of
time. A Wilderness First Aid course is a minimum and is not really
sufficient to do all of the above. A Wilderness First Responder course
is considered the standard. Some continue on to get Wilderness EMT
training, although your ability to actually do much at this level
will be hindered by a lack of equipment and supplies anyway.
In about 25 years or so of climbing and other mountain recreation
I've needed these skills twice (neither was while guiding).
In one case a friend had taken a serious fall and had multiple trauma
injuries. It was necessary to stabilize the situation (which was exposed
to further falls as well as falling rocks from above), assess the
injuries, and take care of him overnight until a technical short-line
helicopter evacuation was possible the next day. In the other case
I was injured myself by falling rocks and it was necessary for us
to self-evacuate ourselves out of the immediately threatened area
before shock precluded it. Then we had to asses the injuries, stabilize
our situation (stopping bleeding etc), and finally to obtain an outside
evacuation without unnecessarily calling it a life-threatening
There are various forms of self-rescue and a variety of techniques
that may be necessary. On glaciers you may need to get yourself out
of a crevasse, or help haul out a partner who can't get out on their
own. On a rock climb you may need to handle a leader fall resulting
in injuries. In a developed area you may only need the basic skills
required to stabilize the situation, free yourself from the system,
and go for additional help. In a more remote setting you may need to
assist your partner up or down a route, maybe in its entirety or maybe
as far as a good solid ledge where you can take care of the most immediate
needs and then go for help yourself. Every situation is different which
is why it's a good idea not to learn certain methods by rote memorization
but to build a set of skills and techniques which you understand.
These are skills I've never needed to use in a true emergency situation.
I hope I never do, but if something happens in one of the remote regions
I like to travel to there are very good odds that I'll be able to
handle it as well as anyone could.
In mountaineering it is only a matter of time until you find yourself
in a howling white-out having to get someplace. The skills that first
come to mind are usually map and compass skills, but there are numerous
other ways of finding your way around as well. Being able to use a
map, compass and altimeter in any combination to help you find your
way is a great advantage. As is the ability to "read the terrain".
This is a skill I've used many times in varying conditions. Descending
Mt Hood is a classic example, and a fairly easy one. That can be done
with a compass alone although an altimeter is useful. Finding the
way out from the Middle Sister area in early spring is also a place
where good navigation can prevent problems. Descending to trailhead
level too far south of Pole Creek leaves you with an unpleasant and/or
lengthy trip to the trailhead. An altimeter alone can help prevent
this. I think the worst conditions I've traveled in were during a
trip across the Snaefells Peninsula in Iceland, where the winds were
so strong I could only travel with them and the blowing snow was thick
I couldn't see anything.
Avalanche Safety Skills
If you're going to be traveling in mountainous terrain in winter
then you should have some background in assessing the hazard, avoiding
risks which are greater than you really care to take, and handling
the burial of somebody in your group if necessary. This involves a
lot more than digging a snowpit here and there, and you should learn
from somebody with enough knowledge and first hand experience to do
more than rehash to you the technicalities which were taught to them.
It's a complicated subject but you can learn to get to the bottom
These are skills I use all the time, other than handing a burial.
I've never had to do that. However, I've been very lucky on two occasions
when I was very close to being carried through the trees or swept
off an ice climb. Most of the professionals I know have had close
calls. While they are very knowledgeable they also spend a lot of
time in avalanche terrain, and none of us can assess the hazard with
absolute certainty. Anyone who has no first hand stories to share
hasn't spent lots of time traveling in an area with an avalanche prone
snowpack, no matter how much formal education they may have. And what
this means for you is that you can expect to have close calls as well,
even after learning what you can. But hopefully you won't have many
and you'll be able to manage the risk as well as any consequences.
Just as most of the professionals I know have been able to.
These are just a few of the skills which come to mind. Give some thought
to the type of climbing you do and where you do it. Then make your own
list, and begin to acquire the skills you need as time and money permit.
Of course this may help your partners as much as it helps you (or more).
So encourage them to do the same thing. I don't like skiing or winter
climbing with people who haven't invested in an avalanche course and
safety equipment, and on some trips I won't even consider it. Things
like self-rescue are harder to expect, but I certainly prefer to climb
with people who have some rescue skills as well as some wilderness medical