Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
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Accident Analysis Archive - February 2002


ANAM Comment - Group Dynamics
Flint Lakes, BC - Avalanche
Mt Hood - Avalanche, Oregon State University students

ANAM Comment - Group Dynamics - I've been reading the 2001 edition of "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" bit by bit but have, for the most part, only gotten through Alaska. Most of the Alaska reports are from Denali, and one thing seems to strike me as being prevalent. Which is poor teamwork - group dynamics which are flawed from the start, poor decision making (in some cases clouded by letting a non-team member tag along) and allowing individual goal-orientation to interfere with the best interests of the group as a whole. Denali is a big mountain, and teams must function together for longer time periods than on many other climbs. But many of the lessons still apply to other situations - they just become clearer when retrospectively looking at a bigger climb. Some people are inherently better team players than others, but all of us have probably been better at some times and in some groups than others. I suspect that most of us can use reminders and new points to consider regarding this aspect of climbing. So I would recommend this section of the book as a good thing to read and reflect on.

Flint Lakes, BC - Avalanche

Just the other day three skiers were killed skiing out of the Flint Lakes lodge in the Kootenays. This is a "fly in for the week" hut (i.e. it is not heliskiing as some initial reports indicated.) I'm still adding information to the avalanche center web file as I compose this newsletter. What's interesting is not the physical composition of the snowpack but what was and was not done to mitigate the risk. Some reports claim that the group was doing everything they should have done, such as digging snowpits and having rescue gear. Other reports indicate that the hazard for the region was rated as Considerable and that it was suspected that steep slopes in this area would be skier-triggered. The group was apparently warned of this, and in fact three of the eight stayed in the hut for the afternoon after skiing lower angle terrain close to the hut. But the other five ventured out to try some steeper terrain.

The key point here is that snow-pits are not a first line of defense against getting caught. They are a tool which can be useful at times but the first defense is choosing terrain and routes appropriate for
conditions. A hazard of "Considerable" means skier triggered avalanches are probable - large steep slopes are not a good choice under this level of hazard. Another key to mitigating the risk is to expose only one person at a time to the hazard. In this case they were reportedly going "single file" or "one at a time" but obviously they were not getting out of the danger area one at a time. The slide was triggered by the fourth skier and came down on three others below.

As for carrying rescue gear, it should be a given. However, the track record of using it successfully is mixed. In large slides with deep burials (which was the result in this case) the record is poor. In more
manageable situations it is somewhat better and improving with the advent of newer technology. In addition to considering the risk of a slide it is important to consider the potential consequences. On large slopes the rescue gear may be of little use, or even on small slopes which are terrain traps. In other cases you may decide that the consequences are likely to be manageable even if unpleasant.

A couple of these folks were apparently qualified as "trip leaders" by the Mountaineers in Washington and had some significant level of training. I still see a lot of training which emphasizes snowpits over terrain selection and trip planning. This seems to be most common in the Northwest. The irony of this is that snowpits in the Northwest tend, on the average, to be fairly uninteresting. In a maritime climate most avalanches are from new snow. The slide this group was caught in sounds like it may have been deeper, which is not uncommon in snowpacks further east. Students I've worked with who had their initial training in drier climates such as Utah and Colorado seem to have a healthier respect for the importance of terrain and planning even though they have most likely seen more interesting snowpits with very clear persistent older weak layers. Again, just a general observation of the type there are always exceptions to.

Moving onto another incident with somewhat of a similar lesson...

Mt Hood - Avalanche, Oregon State University students

It has been reported to me through a couple of channels that a couple students from Oregon State University attempted to climb the Cooper Spur on Mt Hood in December and were caught in an avalanche. Apparently they were able to walk away, which is very lucky given the situation and the terrain. The normal fall line takes an immediate path over the cliff bands ringing the Eliot Glacier and most falls are fatal. In this case, from what I understand, one of the climbers was carried down as much as a thousand feet (although this is easy to overestimate) and buried, but not too deeply to get themselves out of it. After coming to rest without going all the way over the cliffs to the glacier, which was probably very lucky.

While I don't know if these folks dug a snow pit or not the lesson is the same as above regarding terrain and planning. The obvious question is what they were doing on this route at this time to begin with. December was a month of heavy snowfall. Aside from what fell close to the time of this attempt there had been very heavy accumulations in late November. Climbing up from below, on an avalanche slope, means that snowpit data from above (i.e. the starting zone) is not available. The consequences of a fall on the Cooper Spur are well known and well documented, in most cases rescue equipment would be a moot point. Along with the consequences of falls the nature of the avalanche risk is also well known and well documented. The aspect with respect to the prevailing winds and the slope angles are both ideal for producing avalanches. (As well as the aspect with respect to the sun in the spring, but that was very likely not an issue in December.)

This incident, like so many others, occurred to people with some training. One of the two had taken some amount of training through the university, the other most likely had at least informal training. Whatever training they had between them does not appear to have conveyed the importance of planning and route selection. (In fact, one of these two also made an epic climb of Cathedral Ridge after a heavy spring snowfall - requiring slogging through the heavy snow and descending the south side in late afternoon on a day which the climbers report called dangerous. Rumor has it that along the way they also had a close call with a crevasse, in their party of two. Good planning and decision making are useful beyond just avalanche safety, that's just the context it is most often being taught in.)



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