Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Avalanche Education. Problem or Solution?

What is intended to be the solution to avalanche incidents is education of the mountaineering public. Making them aware of pre-trip planning, weather and avalanche forecasts and human behavioural issues. Cognitive thinking traps using the popular acronym FACETS is one example of softer "thinking" skills now used as part of the education package.


Parties traveling in familiar terrain made riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. This effect was especially pronounced for parties with substantial experience and training.


Group members want to be accepted by members of their parties. “Accident parties that included females made riskier decisions than parties of all males. The effect was most pronounced in parties with little avalanche training. It is notable that these were precisely the parties in which women were least likely to participate.”


Parties that were highly committed to a goal – a summit, ski slope or an objective in deteriorating weather – made riskier decisions than parties just out for a day. This effect was most pronounced in parties of four or more.


Accident parties often contained a de facto leader – someone who was more experienced, older, or more skilled. Novices were more likely to follow the leader into dangerous situations than when novice groups made decisions by consensus.


Parties took more risks when they were racing a closing window of opportunity, such as competing with another group for first tracks.


When skilled parties meet other people in the backcountry, they are more likely to take risks than parties that are less skilled. This effect was most pronounced in groups with the highest levels of training.

Most of the education to mountaineers is based on avalanche avoidance, a very sound proposition, but every year dozens of avalanche incidents are reported with victims buried, missing for long periods before recovery dead.  Despite superb forecasting and reliable weather data its “plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose” same old same old.

Q. Is there a tendency for avalanche trained folks to have more avalanche accidents not less?

Could it be that certainty is being implied via processes, to an environment where no such thing is possible – ever!  Facilitated by educators such as instructors, guides, and others? Folk leave training courses more educated feeling they have more knowledge and have travel in avalanche terrain a bit more dialled, when in fact it is a false sense of more certainty where none exists?

Q. Is there ever certainty in steep snow covered terrain?

Educators spend a lot of time on bells and whistles during training to imply gaining some degree of certainty when it is quite the reverse that needs reinforcing. I understand the need for bulking out a course to paying guests with the commonly taught bells and whistles of rutsch blocks, column tests and snowpack study, and other investigative stuff. But its not avalanche forecasters they are teaching, its recreational mountaineers and skiers. Most value in these “tests” is a group stopped and talking, communicating concerns and making collective decisions. This pause is often when individual concerns are aired, and leader decisions can be challenged. As the proverb goes “in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. Some knowledge can be better than none in the right head, but ask yourself if it’s the one leading your group, are you being listened to and do you feel happy with where your all at.

That bad feeling from someone in a group can save lives. Speak to any individual survivors of an avalanche incident and a precognition feeling will have occurred to them but often been ignored or supressed.  I think it was Reinhold Messner in “The 7th Grade” who said ignoring these precognition feelings is folly. Its been 35 years since I read the book but this comment stuck as it resonated with events in my own life even then as a survivor of a couple of near misses to me that took friends, although not on the mountains.

Q. Do avalanche safety tools, like the three essentials (beacon, shovel, probe) ABS and Avalung increase risk acceptance?

We humans fail – period. Only when we have checklists and procedures that compensate for our proneness to error can we (to some extent) either prevent the failure or mitigate failures consequences. Safety tools are an essential part of that. If we cannot predictably and 100% reduce the risk, we can at least reduce some of the consequences. Carrying the tools to reduce the consequences should not allow us to increase the risk, but it does. Wearing a helmet skiing you just go faster, having an ABS folk push the envelope and ski sketchier terrain which up to a point they might get away with on a clean runout, but not if there is a terrain trap. Risk appetites go up. 

I listened to a good podcast from Silverton Avalanche school in the San Juans Colorado a few days ago on this. This is an area where we have family connections as my wife’s brother lived there until recently before moving further down the pass to Durango, his wife was secretary to Ouray SAR at one time. The guy from the avalanche school there (it’s the oldest in the USA) gave an example of going to the top of a 32 deg slope with a group e and getting them to dump their beacons, shovels and probes and any ABS within the group, then asking them to ski it. They all threw their teddys out the cot, and yet it should have made no difference. Its either safe to ski or its not. No grey areas.

And for fecks sake, who in their right mind skis a slope in the knowledge that they might need a mouth piece from an Avalung in their thrapple in case their entombed and literally have to breath from the crack of their arse!

 Q. What do we know before we go, and what should we do while we are going?

  • The worst folk to be with are consciously incompetent, or reckless and impulsive. The next worst are ignorant and unconsciously incompetent
  • The best folk such are UIAGM Guides or other mountain professionals who have both an unconscious and conscious competence.
  • For the amateur gaining experience is a process towards the same level of competence as the professionals.

Among the winter mountains we ditch certainty and embrace uncertainty and act accordingly. 

To survive until pensionable age a high level of respect for the mountains while their guest and letting them tell you if your welcome or not that day. Heed what they tell you.

We do not conquer the mountains we travel among them, and when we get avalanched its on us for not listening and not seeing. An avalanche course may be an important tool along the way, but so is understanding your Johari window

Monday, 23 November 2020

Hamish the Legend

A recollection of Hamish from an article by Gary Latter in "Climber" magazine 10 years ago celebrating his 80th Birthday. It was sent to me to comment on and add to before print having given Gary, a few tales of the old fox. Gary was himself a member of the team for a few years mid 1980's when he lived locally.

I have added some personal input and a collage of pictures with some additional text but Gary's article is a good summary of an exceptional life, a legend which some of us had the privilege to be a small part of with GMRT, on film escapades, or knowing him as a neighbour in the village of Glencoe.

Born in Gatehouse of Fleet, in Dumfries and Galloway on 7 July 1930, Hamish was brought up in Greenock, where his father had an engineering business. At age 14 in 1945, Hamish noticed “a bloke lived nearby, chap called Bill Hargreaves” would go off climbing on his motorbike at weekends. Hamish asked if he could join him and  was introduced to the hills.

Hamish has made his name in many different ways: climber, adventurer, mountain rescuer, designer, film & safety work, writer and photographer. He climbed both at home and abroad with many of the great names of the latter half of 20th century mountaineering, including John Cunningham, Chris Bonington, Ian Clough, Tom Patey, Kenny Spence, Allen Fyffe, Ian Nicholson, Yvon Chouinard, Dougal Haston, Don Whillans, Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, Paul
Nunn and Martin Boysen. 

Hitching out to the Alps at the age of 17, he recalls jam coming off the wartime ration book just as he reached Dover. Exploration and adventure have been at the core of most of his exploits over the years. Whether its searching for gold on the remote west coast of South Island New Zealand, or Inca gold in South America; searching for the Yeti in the foothills of the Himalaya, or climbing the vegetated and wildly otherworldly  tepui of Roraima deep in the jungle of Guyana, fighting off scorpions, bird-eating spiders and bushmaster snakes en route - he’s been there and lived to tell the tale!

Known by some as “the old fox of Glencoe”, Hamish has lived in the glen for over half a century, first moving to the small whitewashed cottage Allt-na-Ruigh, above the meeting of the Three Waters in 1959. He then moved further down the glen to the National Trust owned Achnacon in 1970, later building his own place, on the back road between the village and the Clachaig in 1998.

The old fox sporting a Mary Poppins look on some alpine film set

National Service for 19 months at the age of 17 was “quite a pivotal experience”as he was posted to Austria. Here, on the steep limestone walls of the Kaisergebirge, he acquired a taste for pegging from the Austrians. His attraction for pegging back home in Scotland later earned him the nickname “MacPiton”, with routes like Porcupine Wall on The Cobbler, Engineer’s Crack on the Buachaille, many routes throughout the Skye Cuillin, including Creag Dhu Grooves, and the long sustained Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis. 

Although particularly known for his long and pioneering involvement in mountain rescue and mountain safety, early on in his climbing career, Hamish was also on the receiving end of rescues. In January 1951, whilst attempting the first winter ascent of Raven’s Gully on the Buachaille with Creagh Dhu members Charlie Vigano and John Cullen, Hamish was leading on a 160’ rope (quite a long rope at the time), when the rope jammed (it was also dark by this point). Unable to free it or descend, he untied and continued, but reached an impasse 10 feet from the top. Bridged across the iced-up chimney, he braced himself for a long night, dressed in just jeans and a thin shirt underneath his anorak. His rucksack with warm clothing was with his mates down below, who fared much better, being dressed in heavy motorcycle jackets. Luckily fellow Creagh Dhu member Bill Smith was driving up the road and spotted their headtorch lights and, along with others, including Jimmy Marshall, eventually dropped a top-rope down to him and extracted him in the early hours. “I thought I’d had it, I was so bloody cold.”

The second instance occurred in the French Alps. The teenage Hamish had an arrangement with the famous French guide Lionel Terray (first ascent of Makalu and author of the wonderful Conquistadors of the Useless). As route finding was difficult, Hamish had an arrangement with Terray, where he would solo a suitable distance behind Terray and his client. On a traverse of the Grande Charmoz, the pair had made a 40’ abseil from a situ nylon sling on a bollard. Hamish threaded his rope and proceeded to follow suit, only for the sling to break as soon as he weighted it. On impacting the small ledge at the base, his knees were driven up into his eye sockets, temporarily blinding him. Luckily he didn’t go any further down the remaining 600’ drop to the glacier. Another famous Swiss guide, Raymond Lambert was nearby, and the pair effected a rescue.

Climbing Achievements
1951: 4 routes on The Cobbler in the company of two of the finest climbers in the
country at the time, Creagh Dhu members John Cunningham and Bill Smith,
including the fine Gladiator’s Groove (HVS) and wildly exposed Whither
Wether (VS)

1952: Peasants’s Passage, Wappenshaw Wall on the Rannoch Wall, and
Bludger’s Route on Slime Wall with Pat Walsh, later combined into the classic
Bludger’s Revelation.

February 1953: Agag’s Groove (VII, 6), Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and
Raven’s Gully (V, 5)

Late fifties instructing work for the Mountaineering Association (the predecessor of the BMC) in the Skye Cuillin saw the opening up of many good rock routes, including such well-trodden modern classics as Vulcan Wall (HVS) and Creagh Dhu Grooves (E3) both with some aid, on Sron na Ciche’s Eastern Buttress, and the fine Grand Diedre (VS), over the back of the ridge in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda, all climbed with Ian Clough.

February 1957: Zero Gully (V, 4) on Ben Nevis with Aberdonians Tom Patey & Graham Nicol. This was Hamish’s seventh attempt at the much sought-after line, having arrived via the Carn Mor Dearg arete from Steall Hut in Glen Nevis, on learning that other teams were showing an interest.

April 1959: Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis with Ian Clough, which came in for much criticism at the time due to its extensive use of aid, though it would be two decades and numerous attempts by several of the top climbers of the day before it was finally freed by Mick Fowler in 1977.

February 1965: First winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, with Davie Crabb,
Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. North Face of Pik Schurouski in the Caucasus was an outstanding route with 2 bivvys, with Paul Nunn and Chris Woodall. (Still unrepeated!) The Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering, which operated from 1964-74, over the years employed many of the best climbers in the country at the time, including Ian Clough, Jim McCartney, Allan Fyffe, Kenny Spence, Dave Knowles, and Ian Nicholson.

Glencoe-based guide and rescue team member Paul Moores‘One of my first impressionable moments of Hamish - he used to keep an immaculate garden at Achnacon. I went round to visit him. He wasn’t in the house, but I eventually found him in his garage, working on the huge V12 engine of his E-type jaguar. Hamish had his finger trapped under the cylinder head, and I managed to rig up a rope on a beam and winch it off. When asked what he would have done had I not shown up: “Well, I knew the postman was coming tomorrow.”’ ‘Hamish used to hold an annual party, usually in the Summer, with loads of folk from all over. He would make these huge trifles – at least 6 washing up bowls. Mike Begg, the producer of BBC Outdoor Broadcasts was there, with his then girlfriend, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Hamish, in his fifties, was going out with Betsy Brantley, an American actress in her twenties, whom he met while overseeing the safety on the Hollywood film Five Days One Summer. While the party was in full swing, a police car pulled, up with lights and sirens blaring. “We’ve got a complaint.” The local bobbies soon took of their caps and joined the party. Later on, some of the partygoers got all the empty cans and bottles and loaded them into the back of the police range rover. After the party the bobbies walked back along the road, two of their colleagues returning in the morning to collect the vehicle.'

Paul and another local rescue team member, Hugh McNicol arrived at Achnacon on a blisteringly hot midsummers day and asked if they could swim in his pools (in the adjacent River Coe). Although never really a drinker (usually a half cider at best), Hamish used to make vast quantities of his own Silver Birch sap wine. Hamish set a table and 3 deck chairs up and opened a gallon flagon of his homemade brew, and got “completely and utterly miraculous”, then later made ‘dinner’ which was ‘eventful’ to say the least, including all the peas exploding from the microwave. Later, Paul’s wife Ros drove them all up the glen to the Kingshouse where they continued drinking. Hamish was supposed to be filming the next day, with the helicopter pilot buzzing the house, hovering outside his bedroom in an attempt to rouse him from his slumber. Hamish has never drunk since.

Glencoe local and stalwart rescue team member for many years Davy Gunn“If I had a camera in my early climbing and rescue years, one picture I wish I had taken was that of Hamish in Glen Etive beside an abandoned min-van. We had gallon cans of beans in our old WW2 rescue truck as sustenance, and lacking a plate and spoon there he was sitting on a rock beside the river with his iconic cap on, eating cold beans out of a mini headlight glass with a big dirty channel peg. That image will always stay locked into my brain as the epitome of a hard man climber picture. Yet behind that picture is a gentleman.” “Hamish is a tough customer. Cold doesn’t seem to bother him and he has always been immensely strong.” “As a young sixteen year old mad keen on climbing, Hamish took me and another local lad Ronnie Rodgers under his wing. As the youngest, as long as I tagged along on rescues not getting in the way and helping a bit, then odd bits of gear would arrive from “Fishers of Keswick” (pre Nevisport) or Typhoo’s (Tiso’s), ordered for me by Hamish to encourage me for my labours.”

GMRT Founder and Leader. Below Twisting Gully 1983

Peter Debbage:

February 1969: ‘I booked onto a Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering course. Was told that we wouldn’t meet the great man as he was never there. And so it proved. For the first two days we were dragged up various things by Ian Clough and Jim McCartney and no sign of him. On the evening of the second day this tall weather beaten man appears with a ‘presence’. Apparently he did this. He got the others to suss out the better climbers and collared them for the third day. We were leading HVS at the time, which was a respectable grade in those days. Pointing to me and my two mates, he said “You, you and you, come with me tomorrow.” And then he disappeared. Panting up behind him in an open  necked shirt and sports jacket (at between minus 5 and 10). “What are we doing today, Hamish?” “Och I fancy yon wee gully up there” he uttered. “What grade is it Hamish?” “Och how the hell should I know laddie – it’s never been done before” he retorted. For the next 3 days we were dragged up a series of desperate new routes by Hamish. I have never forgotten that and it remains one of the outstanding experiences of my climbing career.’

Chris Bonington:

Recollections of Chris Bonington’s first encounters and climbing exploits with  Hamish are well covered in Bonington’s first autobiography ‘I Choose to Climb”; from their first meeting in on the Buachaille, when 18 year old Chris was staying with members of the Climbers Club at Lagangarbh. “Hamish handed over to us ‘gnomie’ (Gordon McIntosh) who was the slowest climber there ever was, and as a team of three, we climbed behind Hamish and Kerr MacPhail on the first winter ascent of Agag’s Groove (VII, 6) on the Rannoch Wall.” Chris was climbing in Clinker nails, Hamish in Tricounis (another type of nailed boots), with straight picked axes. Chris stayed on, and later that week Hamish and Chris made the first winter ascents of Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and Raven’s Gully (V, 5) on consecutive days, the latter in “pretty manky condition”, Hamish having to remove his boots to lead the last two pitches in his socks. 

Both Agag’s and Crowberry were well ahead of their time – the precursor of the modern snowed up rock routes now commonplace – definitely routes in the modern idiom. Chris recalls: “It was an amazing privilege to be climbing with one of the best all round mountaineers in Britain at the time, on my very first ever winter season.” Later, in 1957 Hamish wrote to Chris, asking “how about climbing in the Alps.” They attempted the North Face of the Eiger, which would have been Bonington’s first ever alpine route (talk about being thrown in at the deep end!), but the weather turned on their first day, and they retreated in the dark. Moving to Chamonix, they set off to do the Walker Spur, but got lost on the glacier, and ended up climbing a new route on the Auguille du Tacul instead. Chris also went on to say “Two, no three of my greatest influences in climbing have all been Scots – Hamish, Tom Patey and Dougal Haston.” “ When I think of Hamish, it is with a mixture of respect, friendship and enjoyment – he has an incredibly broad interest and passion, he’s hyper strong, and also a super designer – he is one of the very, very great characters of British mountaineering.”


First all metal ice axe, in 1947– dubbed ‘The Message’ by the Creagh Dhu, later manufactured in the sixties by Massey (of Massey Ferguson tractor manufacturers), hence the early taglines “as strong as tractors”. Pivotal in the advancement of modern technical winter climbing, was a fortuitous meeting with visiting Americans Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tomkins in February 1970 at the Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe, where Chouinard unveiled his curved pick ice axe. The next morning, MacInnes had produced dropped pick axe – the prototype of the ‘terrodactyl’, so called by Ian Clough when he first saw the aggressive looking snout. Although there were informal rescues in the glen, carried out by the local shepherds such as the Elliot’s and any climbers who were around; Hamish started the team in 1959, (the year he moved to Glencoe), primarily in order to raise funds for equipment. The first aluminium MacInnes stretcher was produced in 1961. This innovative design has undergone continuous development and refinements throughout its many incarnations, with the latest Mark 7 version utilising composite materials and titanium. Various versions of these are used by rescue teams, the military and police forces throughout the world.
Hamish & Yvonne Chouinard

Author of 23 books, including the innovative 2 volume Scottish Climbs’
selective guide, which was the first guide to make extensive use of photo diagrams, though the quirky use of alpine grades for rock routes (and adjective grades for Winter routes!) never quite caught on. His ‘International Mountain Rescue Handbook’ has become the definitive textbook on the subject, and been constantly in print since its release in 1972. Several have been translated into numerous languages.


Worked as either climbing cameraman or safety consultant on hundreds of documentaries and films, including the live outside broadcast spectaculars of the Old Man of Hoy, Gogarth and Freakout and Spacewalk, in addition to producing several of his own tourist-orientated DVDs, narrated by either Sean Connery (who met on Five Days One Summer), or Michael Palin (met on Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail), both remaining good friends. Film work includes looking after safety on the Clint Eastwood Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Eiger Sanction’, and working with Robert De Niro on ‘The Mission’.

“I don’t join anything unless I can’t possibly avoid it, not even climbing clubs.” In addition to being founder and team leader of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, also founded Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA), honorary member of Scottish Mountaineering Club and ex President of the Alpine Climbing Group. Mainly in recognition of his great contribution to mountaineering and mountain safety worldwide, Hamish has received many honours from outwith the mountaineering world, including M.B.E and O.B.E., a Doctorate from Glasgow University and honorary degrees from four other Scottish universities. He was awarded the ‘Great Scot Award’ in 2000, inducted into the ‘Scottish Sports Hall of Fame’ in 2003, and awarded the inaugural ‘Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture’ in 2009.

Having a blether sitting on Tom Patey's old GP surgery chair

Monday, 16 November 2020

Up at "the V". A tale of courage and empathy

Back in the day – I think it was winter 84 about late January. We had moved from Achindarroch Duror to our present family home in Glencoe in August the previous year.  I was in a tied forestry house before the move but still that winter working a winch and with a felling team. It was a good winter and hard cold conditions and I had already been out on the hill doing something that day as I remember being tired.

About 19.30 in the evening the phone goes, its Willie Elliot phoning from Achnambeith. He is wondering if I fancy a walk up the path across the A82 from his house, the path that comes down from the Aonach Eagach. There is a faint light he can see.  He says its very dim and he has seen other brighter lights earlier so its likely to be a dropped headtorch running out of battery, but its irking him as he is sure it moved just a bit. “Have a wee walk up Davy and take a radio and let me know when you have it and are back down, ok”. Fiona runs me up to the end of the Clachaig road and up the hill I wander. Willie had just put out a radio call to say I was on my way up to have a look. Wull Thompson said he would come up behind me to keep me company. As is often the case team members fancying some exercise also decide to come along for the social, and so Pete Harrop said he would wander up too.

I wander up, with Wull not far behind to where the path goes right and where a prominent gully with a small side branch forms a waterfall which Willie and Walter call “the V”. The shepherds often have their own local descriptions of features they use as markers for the gathering of the sheep. I cannot see the light, so Willie guides me in by radio to above the waterfall and then up the snow filled gully. The snow is hard but takes a boot edge.

Looking up to above the waterfall and top part where the accident occurred high above a scree patch

After about 45 minutes up the path then 300 feet up the gully I find the light, only its attached to the head of a young boy of about twelve who has got himself in a bivi bag wrapped up warm. Not what I expected. A quick chat and exam reveal’s both lower legs broken, and he is worried about his dad who is higher up the gully.  Wull is a minute away and I call for a full team call out and wait for him, and get some more info from the lad. It seems his Dad prepared him well should anything ever happen on their adventures as he tells me he has done everything his dad told him to do. Get spare clothes on, get in a bivi bag, and put a light on and flash it. Only the flash bit was missing, and to be fair the headtorch was failing and dim. No LED lights and long-lasting Duracell then. He also mentions he is from Taynuilt so local. It seems his dad was in front descending the gully when he slipped and lost control going out of site down the gully. The young lad tried to follow his line of fall then slipped and fell and remembers passing his dad in the gully and tells me his dad is bleeding, can I go help him. Considering his injuries, the lad is stoical and does not complain of much pain although he must have been in a lot.

Wull arrives and as the snow above is about winter II and there is short pitch, I put on my fancy bronze Chouinard rigid crampons which were probably not that long off my feet from climbing earlier, with Wull following just behind. After about 200 feet I find his dad who has sadly succumbed to his many injuries hung up in a steep narrowing.  That the young lad had not only fallen the same distance, but even further and flown over the top of his dad and survived is something of a miracle. Pete Harrop is now with the lad and Pete who is great rescuer and a real gent is the right guy at the right time with a calm soothing manner talking to the lad and reassuring him while the rest of the team arrive. Wull and I come down to help package the lad and wait for a second stretcher and more manpower so we can go back up to get his dad. This we did and despite a bit of difficulty we get the poor man in a bag on the stretcher and lowered down then out the side onto the descent path. We can go a bit faster as the front party have a lad in some pain and so their journey down requires more care. The young lad goes off to the Belford and his poor dad with the police to Glen Nevis mortuary. Willie is quite moved by the young lad’s plight and his courage when we fill him in on the details. Willie saved his life. Had he not seen the light then the outcome might have been so different. But then both Willie and Walter have saved many lives not only directly on the hill, but also with a keen eye and sense of when something isn’t right, maybe a car parked a bit long, a light high up, or talking us rescuers along the sides of the Aonach Eagach or Aonach Dubh in the dark by radio, following faint sheep tracks and going into places where sheep and humans alike get stuck.

We all go home with our own thoughts that night and as best we can bury the emotions of this rescue among the detritus of past ones. A few weeks pass then I get a letter from the lads mum to thank the team for its work that night, and a special thanks to Willie who had written her a beautiful letter saying how proud she should be of her son, for his courage and how proud his dad would be of how he conducted himself despite the pain and everything he endured that night. She was quite moved by this and emphasised how much the letter meant to her.  Willie writing to her has always stuck with me, and I believe she also wrote to him to thank him for writing, although I am not sure she realised he saved her sons life.

Maybe this is just another rescue tale, but to me its recall prompts that I was fortunate to be a part of a team of folk where empathy and compassion were of equal value to technical expertise, and that the folk the mountains took, and the victims were thought about by the men and women, like Willie. I am sure this remains the same, although sadly the shepherds and stalkers, true mountain men hefted to their glens, are fewer and further between now, which is a great shame.


Willie Elliot

Pete Harrop just right of centre

Wull on the right
Pete Weir Centre and Huan Findlay left. Coming out of Stob Coire nam Beith 1974

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Certainty and Avalanches

Recco Training at Glencoe Mountain
 Nevis Range and Glencoe Professional Ski Patrols

Forecasting and local avalanche risk assessment is about prediction based on past and future weather forecasts, therefore it will always be uncertain and a game of probability, especially when an area forecast is to be applied more locally. Local topographic effects and slight weather variations will make a difference. As a local example there may be a difference between the Glencoe Mountain ski area weather and snowpack at the East end of Glencoe, and the Ballachulish Horseshoe circuit at the West end. Interpretation and application of forecast information to a trip will always be a process of increasing or decreasing uncertainty. Its never certain. That's why a degree of flexibility in decisions and dynamic risk assessment is essential during a day out in the mountains. Conditions might be quite different to what you thought and plans need revised. Mountaineers and skiers who reach pensionable age have become good observer's of small and subtle weather and snow pack detail and possess a spatial awareness while being very respectful of the mountains journeying among them. Its not required to achieve an objective some days, and quite enough to listen to what the mountains are saying to you. This may be go home, or it might be todays the day, so get the rope/ski's on and fill your boots.

For skiers, if you couple big uncertainty with risk homeostasis from airbags, carrying the three avalanche rescue essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and thinking that's enough then have a ponder that its a recipe for feeding the white room spin cycle if you don't stop and think.

The top graphic is pretty obvious. Its pretty certain that natural and human triggered avalanches are predicted above 650m on N to SE aspects and a localised risk present below this altitude from NW through South. Most folk with a brain will avoid the areas above 500m (allow a bit of leeway!) as RED is the colour of danger (obvious!) and will choose to go to safer aspects which in the above is green, which as a colour also maybe falsely gives the assurance of greater certainty. Things become less certain on yellow and very uncertain at orange. This uncertainty is where the risks are, and things become even more uncertain when the risks are localised. Yellow the probability of getting caught is less but still uncertain, stick a localised considerable orange strip in there and you have a mine field of uncertainty lying in wait for you to cross. You can't see the mines but can guess using the wind direction and slope shape as as to where hot spots of weakness might be (a guess - all be it can be an intuitive one but still a guess!) but you have to be very uncertain as you just don't know for sure. Descending on ski's from above and you will likely be going too fast and not see the danger until your in the spin cycle and it's too late.

How do you mange or minimise risk if you have to travel on these aspects or choose to ski them? Well you don't manage the risk with any degree of certainty as you just don't know for sure where weak spots are, and you will for sure not know the true propagation risk from a trigger. You can't minimise what you don't know - so uncertainty!  And yet graphically on the above for the inexperienced person there is a temptation to look at these localised hot spots in the rose and think "I can avoid them" surely I will recognise these weak areas and can ski/walk/climb around them. 

So my take on why it is that most folk get whacked when the risk is considerable or localised, is that being outdoor optimists (as we all are), and perhaps having got knackered climbing up a mountain or skinning into a valley, or maybe having a bluebird pow day, folk get used to that risk level as it's used the most representing the most common and therefore familiar conditions that occur for long periods.  And yet that risk level has the most uncertainty and therefore is the most dangerous for the winter sports person. Make sense?

I suppose if you were to roughly put a % chance of probability on the European avalanche scale you could say that:

Black 100% chance of getting whacked while either minding your own business in Galtur or being suicidal in Tignes

Red   98% chance of getting whacked on an aspect with that high level of risk and the Scottish equivalent of Black sometimes (apart from Gaick Lodge our main roads and villages are not in avalanche run out zones so Black does not apply)

Orange  the big problem (to me) be it slices of tray bake sized considerable, or isolated hot spot. If the rose is all orange then in my view its just the same as red but less obvious. You have a very high chance of getting whacked. Stick some localised Orange risk in among yellow then it becomes 50/50 and that's still scary uncertainty as folk think they can recognise the danger hot spots and avoid them. Maybe they can, but then maybe not. A low angled slope day for me, well away from run out areas. The more times you roll the dice in the orange/considerable risk zone then the more chance you won't be needing your old age pension. 50/50 isn't odds, its worse than Russian Roulette!

Yellow maybe a 40% of getting away with it, but victim triggered death is still very likely if you hit a hot spot and it propagates into something big,  or even if smaller and its above a terrain trap.

Green well either its the best of Scottish neve and you should be climbing with the tools in blue skies, or get the lawn mower out in February.  If its the best of Scottish neve and its a sunless aspect then watch out next time it snows as there's could to be something growing on the top surface like hoar or faceting that will give a higher risk when it snows next.

Piss or get off the pot
The above Americanism is pretty appropriate. Only one thing is for sure, we can only manage uncertainty up to a point. We live in a chaotic universe, bad things happen to good people and as mountain folks a lot of good things happen to good people as a reward for getting out there. I think we have to accept that the line between the best day skiing of your life and getting taken out by a slide is pretty close if you want to ride the powder days on higher angled slopes.  If you don't accept that then take up another sport.  We can reduce risk by managing uncertainty and reduce consequences by equipment and terrain choices, but in the end avalanche prediction and avoidance will never be 100% accurate. I am told knitting is pretty safe if you prefer a more sedate pastime with an easier risk assessment.

Avalanche Types and Uncertainty
Some types of avalanche are more predictable i.e "certain" and some less so and some types of avalanche risk can be more easily seen in tests and observations. The ones that concern us the most are of course the least predictable with the greatest uncertainty so require extreme caution due to uncertainty. You might think wind slab/storm slab the one that kills the most folk should be "Extra Caution". But, if you think about it you can work out in advance: 

  • Aspects that might be affected from a weather forecast, and very importantly observed wind direction 
  • Angle of slope based on contours, precipitation type and deposition 
  • Altitude, and what the precipitation is and its likely rate of deposition 
  • Anchored to based on summer knowledge of your ski patrol/local area, or previous avalanche forecasts that mention temperature rises and surface or deeper instabilities.

Wet snow release triggering a weakly anchored slope

Powerful wet snow glide avalanche that takes everything in its path. Buachaille Etive above Lagangarbh. You don't want to be in here if its raining during a thaw and after a big snowfall.

Persistent slab, skier triggered slab March 30th 2013 Glencoe Mountain Ski Area - Fatal

Avalanche Avoidance and Companion Rescue Practice. There are up to eight independent beacons that transmit a signal at the international standard for avalanche transceivers of 457kHz are  buried in up to 4m of snow at Glencoe Mountain ski resort, conditions permitting

Phillip Rankin, Dr Ian Maclaren, Peter Weir and Paul Moors at the opening of Glencoe Mountain Transceiver training park.
Hamish MacInnes who officially opened the park
In collaboration with Anatom who supplied a wired starter training system to get things going in 2011. Glencoe Mountain Resort provided a piece of snow sure land, help from the staff and some financial help to start the training park 4 years ago.  The original park was opened by Hamish MacInnes the famous mountaineer and rescuer. Winter 2015 money raised by Clachaig Inn at their annual winter series of mountain safety lectures at the hotel provided funding for the new wireless avalanche search training system in place this winter. The hotels owner is a member of Glencoe Mountain Rescue and a friend of both his and Davy Gunn’s (Chris Bell) was lost in an avalanche in Glencoe in 2013 where 4 people lost their lives in one avalanche. The original wired system is now in use at a training park at Glenshee ski centre and it’s hoped to raise funds to get a similar and more effective wireless system in place there. As at Glencoe, the one at Glenshee provides an accessible training venue for local mountain rescue teams, mountaineering groups and off piste and touring skiers.

Practising digging effectively, a crucial 
and often overlooked part of avalanche rescue
The general public has free access to use the training systems which stays out all winter. All they have to do is check in with the Glencoe Mountain staff or  ski patrol to see if it’s already in use that day. Each of the eight buried beacons also has a RECCO reflector inside so that mountain rescue and ski patrol can practise using this alternative search system as well as transceivers. 

Organised rescue teams use RECCO which is harmonic radar that can also be used from a helicopter. RECCO is a standard search tool by mountain rescue in Europe. Three Scottish mountain rescue teams, and threes ski patrol's use it. No search and rescue helicopters have adopted it in the UK for avalanche rescue to date but the hand held can be used from a helicopter with an adaptor system from a 3rd party manufacturer. I have one here in Glencoe as I am also the UK trainer for Recco.

The training park beacons are buried deeply in the snow so that searching for them proves difficult, simulating searching a real avalanche for a victim.  As it’s wireless there are no wires to degrade or get cut by shovels as folk dig, and different avalanche burial scenarios can be created from single to multiple victim burials by alternating which buried beacons are transmitting from a control box. When a victim/beacon is found by a searcher, contact with the buried beacon by a snow probe sends a signal back to the control box confirming a success.
I sell avalanche safety equipment. The 3+ is an excellent choice for skiers and also has a Recco strip inside. A discount and some free training to local skiers and climbers who purchase from me. £220 for a 3+ for info email crankitupgear@aol.com

Every skier going off piste or touring in the mountains should carry three essential items. A transceiver to be located or locate a buried companion, a collapsible snow probe to confirm the victim’s location and a strong aluminium shovel to dig them out quickly. I sell Ortovox shovels and probes and can recommend the Alu240 and Beast shovel to complement the 3+ transceiver or for a pro user the pro alu III shovel and 280 carbon probe. email for details 

Glencoe ski patrol practising in the park
Recovery of buried companions in an avalanche is time critical with a 90% survival if victims are located and dug out within less than 15 minutes. After this time survival is very poor, therefore practise in locating and digging is critical. One of the training beacons is inside a resuscitation mannequin so that digging it out is like excavating a real victim and some care is required. The park importantly provides an opportunity for ski patrol to talk to those practising and emphasise the importance of avoiding avalanche terrain by interpreting the area avalanche forecast and local weather effects and therefore make wise and safe choices avoiding avalanche terrain for the day.

The enthusiasm and support by Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and his staff by providing snow sure land, tending to the park and investing in its upkeep is tremendous. A particular mention of thanks to Glencoe Ski Patroller Keith Hill who is always on hand to give sound advice to skiers and boarders and who maintains the park.

Killin Mountain Rescue and a group of Freeride skiers using the training park

Don't get buried! But if you do you want to be searchable 
and found FAST!
Recco is another important part of the organised rescue strategy. Education and avalanche avoidance is primary, being found early by companions if it goes wrong is vital and prior practice makes this work. Organised rescue requires a triple response: Dogs, Recco and Probe Lines. Until now Scotland has only been able to apply two of the three unlike alpine rescue avalanche search where for years all three have been used. Survival is time critical. Much has been made of trauma being the main factor in poor survival in Scottish avalanches. Largely based on a few tragic avalanche incidents where trauma has been the dominant factor.

These anecdotal observations and opinions make easy it to forget the victims where triple"H"syndrome has been the killer of which there have been many over the last decades. Anecdote though is not enough, and there is no data from coronial studies in Scotland to support the Trauma versus Triple H debate. See a previous blog on this http://crankitupgear.blogspot.com/2016/12/triple-h-or-trauma-in-scottish.html

One thing is sure, being searchable and getting found quickly increases survival. Some Scottish MR teams already have Recco as part of their search strategy (Tayside, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT's) and Glencoe and Nevis Range Ski Patrol. I can imagine nothing worse than a victim recovery delayed because a search team did not have a detector and the victim is found to have either a Recco reflector or a harmonic like a mobile phone on them. Recco is of course for "organised rescue". Everyone including Recco and the clothing manufacturers endorse the view that not getting avalanched through education and training is better than needing any search devices which may be too late. However, in the real world shit still happens and unless someone is "searchable" a rescuer cannot find them readily even if the poor victim has bottomed out of the survival curve. 

We should not forget Robert Burnett's remarkable 22 hour survival in the Southern Cairngorms. All victims surely deserve the benefit of the doubt and rescuers throwing all resources at an attempt for a live recovery.
Burnett - 22 hours Buried.  Pic courtesy of Hamish MacInnes
A really good summary of this pretty miraculous survival on this web site 

I sell these reflectors for £25 each. If you have an Ortovox Transceiver then since 2018 one is already built into the beacon as a backup

As "off piste" and "Backcountry" skiing grows in popularity there is every reason to imagine that being more searchable can save lives. Nothing can replace education and prevention, or fast effective companion rescue with transceiver, shovel and probe, but as ski patrols and MR teams take up Recco and the reflectors can be bought and carried then the chance of getting found alive by organised rescue if on scene quickly increases. Recco reflectors may be particularly useful to mountaineers who do not generally carry an avalanche transceiver

I would recommend two reflectors to mountaineers, One front top and one back bottom in a pocket. Recco detection is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by enlightened Scottish rescuers adopting alpine best practice. I have both the helmet and ski reflectors and very small ones to put in a pocket for sale at crankitupgear@aol.com

How does a Recco Reflector work?

  • Professional rescuers can quickly pinpoint a buried reflector-equipped person’s precise location using harmonic radar. Often quicker than a transceiver.
  • This two-part system consists of a RECCO R9 detector used by professional rescue groups, and RECCO reflectors that are attached to clothing, helmets, protection gear, and boots worn by skiers, mountaineers and riders and other outdoor users.

  • When used in conjunction with a RECCO Detector, the reflector's diode mixer acts as a harmonic generator to produce multiples of the frequencies received from the detectors.

  • The returned signal is translated into an audio tone whose volume is proportional to the returned signal, and by means of volume control, a trained rescue operator can literally go straight to the buried reflector once a signal is detected.

  • It is a non-powered device meaning that it never needs to be switched on, will never lose signal strength and needs no batteries to function. It is maintenance free and has a virtually unlimited life.

  • In total more than 900+ search & rescue organizations in the world endorse it.

The Recco Rescue System is different from Avalanche Transceivers because its a small band-aid size sticky transponder which is not powered, the reflector can be applied to your boots or helmet, the Recco detector does not contain any antennas and cannot be picked up by an avalanche beacon, the Recco detector has a range of over 200 metres which professional mountain rescue teams can pick up in the case of an avalanche.

Due to it not being a passive device the reflector will not lose signal strength and no battery to malfunction. 

The hand held R9  Recco detector is the size and weight of a hard back book and easy for rescuers to get to the scene and to search with.

The underslung Recco SAR pod picture right. Searches 200x200m in a minute and the above Austrian crew had just recovered a victim found with it. Based at these sites:

  • Switzerland – Zermatt, Sion
  • Italy – Aosta, Bozen, Trento
  • Austria  – Hohenems, Innsbruck, Linz, Graz
  • Norway – Alesund, Hastad, 
  • Sweden – Ostersund 
  • Canada – Snohomish Helicopter Rescue Team, Snohomish, WA
  • United States – Alpine Helicopters, Canmore AB

Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector
Glencoe Ski Patrol doing a precautionary combined 457mhz transceiver search and Recco harmonic search on the "Fly Paper". The R9 detector searches both, and at close range can find many other harmonic devices such as mobile phones.