Friday, 22 February 2013

22 Hours Under

Burnett - 22 hours Buried.  Pic courtesy of Hamish MacInnes

A really good summary of this pretty miraculous survival on this web site RECCO Proffessionals

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Tales from the Coffee Shop

Willie Elliot new Glencoe intimately as a shepherd.  Saved many lives by just keeping an eye on  cars, lights and using his "glass" ie stalking telescope

Pre SAIS these boards were at Alltnafeidh, Coire Lochan Lay bye and  Achnambeith. Hamish would  phone Willie Elliot who would update the info based on the avalanche hazard.  Note Sonic Boom - Concorde was flying test flights!
I get out for a walk as off on the sick and make a point of dropping into the coffee shop to meet up with the mountain legend or two that stops in there each day. Sometimes it's very funny with tales of their exploits that are unknown, or last weekend being put in my place when they regale tales of my own less than perfect performances or epics.

The Old Fox. 3 injured from Twisting Gully Avlx

Last Saturday Hamish told a tale to the gathered group about one of my first rescues when I was about 16 or 17.  A climber had fallen off the crux pitch of Clachaig Gully at "The Ramp" which is the pitch immediately after The Great Cave.  Hamish and I arrived at base which was the Clachaig hotel before anyone else, so he said "you better come with me" and off we trotted up the path (steep and tiring if a short walk) to the flat above the cave pitch.  At that time there was a well worn if very steep path/scramble into the base of the pitch and we used this to get in.  Hamish then soloed up the cave pitch and around and I had to follow.  I remember shitting it to this day.  We got to the injured leader who had a broken arm, jaw and leg and was in a lot of pain.  Hamish asked me to look after the casualty while he looked for the biggest tree he could find above and was shouting to the other lads on the path that we would cable way him out from a tree.  

I was handed a little red stuff sack with a "Brooks Airway" and first aid stuff, and told he needed some Omnipon which was in little tube like styrettes in a box.  I remember Hamish telling me to just get the back of his hand and pinch a bit of skin and squeeze the tube - which then promptly exploded backward and I got a splatter of the drug on my face.  The next jab went better and sure enough after half an hour while we set up the ropes he was a bit quieter.  We then had that rope tensioned and back ropes on the ubiquitous MacInnes stretcher which we had pulled across to ferry him out.  This all went well, and we then joined a rope to the one the leaders mate had left which dropped over the cave bit to abseil out. Given that this was about 1973 I had the long hair thing going and sure enough half way down my hair went through the figure of eight.  Hanging by your hair 50ft off the deck with an audience on the gully side and a legend laughing his head off! Hamish took great delight in telling of my squeeling.  So 40 years later it put me back in my box for a second time.  

Righteous justice came the following day when Alex Gillespie and his wife joined us at the table and the topic of the big avalanche of Carn Dearg in 1978 came up.  There had been a big avalanche in Gardyloo with 4 folk injured and on the way in the Wessex crew saw a party on the path hit by this monster that came off the top of the Colando/Arch (I think that's the gully names) and swept them down off the path to the Allt a Mhullin.  Glencoe team arrived by helicopter and we started searching.  I had the obligatory fist fight with a chap called "Alec H" who folk in the know will recognise after he called me a "Glencoe Bastard"  and we took part in what must have been the biggest probe line ever in Scotland on what to this day I think was the biggest avalanche ever seen in Scotland. The righteous justice bit was that Hamish had brought a metal detector and was working a line up the right side of the avalanche marking of points that he was getting a signal.  It was only after digging three holes and looking up the markers that we twigged he had followed the old iron fence line that used to be there! 

One victim was located 100m up the Carn mor Dearg side at a spot where we were dumping our kit each day (4 days of probing). A Locheil OB student sat among the kit and rucksacks and picked up a spare probe and just started poking around and shouted he could feel something springy.  Folk went up and dug and sure enough we had been eating our pieces on top of the last missing victim for 4 days.

The biggest avlx ever in Scotland? Below Carn Dearg Winter 1978

Joking apart though.  We had our first "Pieps" in 1974 for every team member and for those of you who follow "Time Team" the ground radar they use was first developed and tested as an avalanche search device in Glencoe with the inventor and Hamish working on it for two years and successfully finding a buried victim in the Grey Corries in late spring one year. Pre "Pieps" the Skadi was the only beacon around.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Managing Risk in Extreme Environments

Risk management is a three-step process: Think, Plan, Do. But as Duncan Martin explains, what they entail varies enormously:

Before being able to manage risk, a manager must know how much risk is acceptable, and conversely at what stage to cut his or her losses. This appetite for risk is not self-evident. It is a philosophical choice, an issue of comfort with the frequency, severity, uncertainty and correlation of potential events.
Risk management is evaluated and achieved through the simple process of thinking, planning and doing.

Different individuals, and different groups, have different preferences. Some people enjoy mountain climbing, comfortable with the knowledge that they are hanging from their fingertips high above the ground from a small crack in a wet rock face. Others prefer the safer comforts of gardening. Each is an example of risk appetite.
"Critically, risk aversion does not necessarily make you safer."
In the financial world, risk appetite simplifies to how much money an organisation is prepared to lose before it cuts its losses. In life and death situations, it is the frequency with which a certain event results in death – the frequency and severity of fatal terrorist attacks in London, say.  In some cases it is defined externally. For example, on North Sea oil rigs it is defined through legislation. Events that cause death more than once in 10,000 years are not tolerable, and rig operators must mitigate the risk of any event with odds worse than this.

There are two parts to risk planning: a strategic plan that matches resources and risks; and a tactical plan that assesses all the risks faced and details the response to each one. The first part is the big picture. If, for example, you have decided that the frequency, severity and uncertainty of suicide bombings in London is too great, the big picture is that you need to change your life and move out of London, incurring whatever costs this requires.
"Anyone who fails to manage risk in an extreme environment tends not to last too long."
For organizations, the big picture has to dovetail with the overall business strategy. For example, although low-cost airlines need to be cheap, they cannot afford to cut corners on safety. Valujet discovered this when it was forced to ditch its brand following a catastrophic crash in 1996. Similarly, although the high command of the US Army Rangers recognizes that they operate in very dangerous, potentially fatal environments, they have adopted a policy of 'no man left behind'. This helps to ensure that in combat, Rangers are less likely to surrender or retreat. Consequently, airlines spend a lot on safety, and armies spend a lot on search and rescue capabilities.

The next stage is detailed planning. First, identify all the risks, all the things that might go wrong. Then assess and compare them to see which ones are the most likely and the most damaging. Finally, set out what to do, who is going to do it and how much it will cost. California’s state-wide disaster planning process is an excellent template for responding to extreme events, perhaps because of the high frequency of all manner of major incidents there – earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, landslides, oil spills – you name it. State law specifies the extent of mutual aid between local communities, and requires each community to appoint a state-certified emergency manager. Each emergency manager creates a detailed disaster management and recovery plan for his or her local community, reflecting local issues and needs. These plans are audited by state inspectors and rolled up into a state-wide plan. The plan is then passed into the state budgeting process to obtain the necessary resources.

Critically, risk aversion does not necessarily make you safer. Many people or communities express a low-risk enthusiasm but baulk at the expense of reducing their risk to match their appetite. They simply hope that the rare event doesn’t happen. However, in the end, even rare events occur. The results of mismatching risk appetite and resources were devastatingly demonstrated recently as Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans.

Conversely, a large risk appetite is not the same thing as recklessness. A counterintuitive aspect of risk management in extreme environments is that although the individuals concerned are very comfortable with risk, they come across in conversation as somewhat risk averse. While they accept risk in the sense that ‘everyone dies sometime’, they work hard to eliminate or mitigate tangible risks as far as they can.

Anyone who fails to manage risk in an extreme environment tends not to last too long. One former UK Special Forces officer relates the following episode:
"We were in the back of the Land Rover, expecting contact [battle] any minute. Everyone was quiet, going through the plan in their heads, controlling their fear – except for one bloke at the back, who was mouthing off. He hadn’t been in a fight before and I guess this was his way of compensating. I decided that the first thing I would do when we got out of the Land Rover was hit him in the head with my rifle butt. He was too dangerous; I couldn’t accept the risk that he posed to the operation." Gareth Owen, the head of security at Save the Children, is pithier. "Mavericks don’t last," he says.

'Doing' is a combination of activities. Before an event, 'doing' means being prepared. This consists of recruiting, training and rehearsing response teams; acquiring and positioning the appropriate equipment, communications systems and budget; and ensuring that both the public and the response teams know how to react effectively. After an event, 'doing' means keeping your wits about you while implementing the tactical plan, managing the inevitable and unexpected events that crop up, and if possible, collecting data on the experience.
"In the financial world, risk appetite simplifies to how much money an organisation is prepared to lose before it cuts its losses."
Once the epidemic has broken out or the earthquake has hit, the key is not to panic. Colin Sharples, a former Red Arrow acrobatic pilot and now head of training and industry affairs at Britannia Airways, observes that instinctively "your mind freezes for about ten seconds in an emergency. Then it reboots". Frozen individuals cannot help themselves or others.

To counter this instinct, pilots are required go through a continuous and demanding training programme in flight simulators which "covers all known scenarios, with the more critical ones, for example engine fires, covered every six months. Pilots who do not pass the test have to retrain". Most extreme environments have similar training programmes, albeit usually without the fancy hardware. As Davy Gunn of Glencoe Mountain Rescue puts it: "Our training is to climb steep mountains in bad weather, because that’s what we do."

In addition to providing direct experience of extreme conditions, such training also increases skill levels to the point where difficult activities become routine, even reflexive. Together, the experience and the training allows team members to create some ‘breathing space’ with respect to the immediate danger. This breathing space ensures that team members can play their part and in addition preserve some spare mental capacity to cope with unexpected events.
The importance of this ‘breathing space’ reflex reflects a truth about many extreme situations: they don’t usually start out that way. Rather, a ‘chain of misfortune’ builds up where one bad thing builds on another, and the situation turns from bad to critical to catastrophic. First, something bad happens. For example, a patient reports with novel symptoms and doesn’t respond to treatment. Then the person dies then one of his or her caregivers dies too. Then one of his or her relatives ends up in hospital with the same symptoms, and so on. A team with ‘breathing space’ can interrupt this chain by solving the problems at source as they arise, allowing them no time to compound. For example, a cautious but curious infectious disease consultant might isolate the patient and implement strict patient/physician contact precautions before the infection is able to spread.

Once the situation has returned to normal, risk managers must close the loop and evaluate their response. Using information collected centrally and participants’ own experience, each part of the plan is evaluated against its original intention. This debrief can be formal or informal, depending on what works best. Sometimes it might even be public, such as the Cullen enquiry into the disastrous Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform fire in 1989, which cost 165 lives.
"Once the situation has returned to normal, risk managers must close the loop and evaluate their response."
Where performance was bad, the group must question whether the cause was local – training, procedures and equipment – or strategic. Perhaps the situation was riskier than the organization was able to afford or tolerate. These conclusions feed into the next round of thinking and planning.

Thinking, planning and doing are usually group activities. Group structures vary from place to place, but usually there is a community at risk and an authority that manages that risk. In addition, there are usually various levels of authority, operating in a hierarchy. The upper levels of the hierarchy, such as national or provincial governments, dictate standards and maintain surplus people, equipment and money.

The lower levels, such as cities or national parks, comply with the standards so they can call on these extra resources if they cannot cope by themselves. For example, city and state disaster management plans in the US must comply with US Federal guidelines if the city or state wants the option of asking for Federal assistance in an emergency. Since each level maintains both plans and response capacity, thinking, planning and doing takes place at all levels of the group. This creates major challenges in coordination.

Managing Risk in Extreme Environments, by Duncan Martin, hardback, 192 pages, £29.99, published by Kogan Page,

Monday, 11 February 2013

Windslab Ignorance - The Bad Old Days

In the bad old days we didn't wear helmets, carry transceivers shovels and probes, and avalanches happened to other silly people. Well, not quite, but on reflection the general awareness was poor and even a small slide like this would have been discussed over the wine in the chalet with the 4 course meal and probably just dismissed as one of those odd things.  I have been at these types of meal - but on the working side as a ski instructor with Fiona when we worked in the business. And I admitt to doing some off piste stuff with her and groups which now fill me with the heebe geebees that I did it! Really though, going back 20+ years ago we all were a lot less avalanche aware - all of us!

Anyway have a chuckle at this near miss in Verbier from an unknown chalet party. What is interesting and lucky for this geezer is that it popped (the slab dropped, propogated and released) after he was into safer ground and it didnt bring in anything from the sides so was localised.  It could easilly have hung until the next person was just onto it then dropped.  Big enough to kill you!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Special Offers on Avlx Kit

BCA Package Complete £355
Tracker 2 Beacon £260
B1 Ext Shovel £45
Stealth Probe 240 £50

ARVA Package Complete £267
Evo  3+ Beacon £185
Ovo Light Shovel ££45
Pro 2.4 Probe £42

Ortovox Package Complete with 3+ £260  (with Zoom £237)
3+ Beacon £205
(Ortovox “Zoom” £177)
Economic 2 Shovel £28
Economic 240 Probe £32

The Ortovox "Zoom" offer at £177 or £237 for the three essentials is the best value available. No single item orders on shovels and probes, i.e ordering one probe (I will order individual Beacons though) Payment Net pro forma. Give me a call as this seasons stocks are being run down.

Landmines and Avalanches

A lad on uk.climbing doesn’t quite understand the circles in the avalanche forecast and how to apply them to the avalanche risk so it made me ponder. My take is to think of them as featherweight landmines blown by the wind, lurking in the eddies, the colour of them is the sensitivity of the pressure plate to you the trigger. If there are enough of them the explosion will propagate setting of others, or if the surrounding slope is weak enough then it will slide with it. 

When a slice or aspect of the SAIS “wagon wheel” is all orange or red then you would avoid that slope –wouldn’t you?  If you think there are mines in there, you must choose your path carefully or play Russian Roulette with God. It’s not less dangerous just because its moderate just less obvious and it's just a question of load/pressure to reach the trigger point.  If the visibility is bad, or you are crap at navigating and/or make a poor route choice if tired then BOOM!

Reports such as the above showing circles or areas of "considerable" risk within a moderate NW to E is the sort of thing that it's easy to become complacment about as its a common feature of the Scottish winter. You might very obviously if you have any sense stay well clear of the West to South East apsects but wander into a high risk situation on descent on the NW to East aspects.  The majority of avalanche incidents in Europe occur in these moderate to considerable forecast days as they occur most frequently and folk become complacent (the familiarity heuristic) and that's why route choice approaching a climb and thinking about descent options prior to leaving and during a trip as wind and weather change should become part of your thinking.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Groupthink and Risk Taking

Joint Services Instructor in a deep test pit in Northern Norway
Out of action for the foreseeable future due to what could be a prolapsed disc or what used to be called a "slipped disc"  leg weakness and terrific hot pain down into my knee so lots of analgesia and no sleep but plenty of time to look at forums and think about the weather, especially as the house is moving in the wind which must be gusting 80 mph +. MRI scan to come at some point, but not much other than put up with it seems to be the way.  Here's todays Tramadol fueled musings on risky behaviour and groups.

Two separate avalanche incidents in the Cairngorms at the weekend, thankfully with no loss of life but lower limb fractures (ouch!) and quite a bit of forum chat on transceivers, snow pits, safe travel and some mention of "Heuristic Traps" Link to Ian McCammons excellent article just click here. A very good read. My only comment is that as a term it's getting a bit hackneyed as its thrown at everything where a (questionable?) decision is made in avalanche terrain. An aid to learning or discovery, heuristic methods are about trial and error problem solving, relying on lateral thinking, applying common sense and learning from experience. It's way too simplistic to apply 20:20 hindsight to an avalanche event and apply one of MacCammons common traps as a cause when its a bit more complicated.  I am often at staff meetings at work or discussions where the comment "oh a classic heuristic" is made during a discussion when say someone has been reported as being avalanched off a slope they know well.  We should enhance our foresight so we don't get into a position of risk or danger and apply this as the heuristic process before the event. Everything seems obvious in hindsight - because it is.  it's just not so obvious when in real time.

One of the crucial aspects of this foresight is how we act in groups.  In psychology "Groupthink" or "Risky Shift" behaviour is well known in groups and most of us will be aware that we have given in to it or even encouraged it. I strongly believe that in avalanche incidents in Scotland this group think or risky shift has become the biggest education issue and maybe why we see large group incidents or group events as occur ed in the Cairngorms on Saturday when two separate groups were avalanched. Much has been made of the quick response from folk training in the corrie who helped.  And good on them. What I am about to say is not a reflection on these helper folks choices, as I am sure they stayed in safe terrain.  The  "however" bit though is that just by being there and numbers increase with lots of MRT's training, and groups under instruction, then a larger "Group think" takes place. Groups less experienced or not under instruction maybe feel safe, what McCammon labels  as Social Facilitation.  I would call this a  "risky shift" .  It's often this way in the climbing and skiing honey pots such as the Northern Corries where folk gather. Aonach Mor or ScRL in Glencoe are other places.  Even if the waggon wheel of death shows Red on these slope aspects, they are still the places to be seen by the instructor masses who are now at the height of their annual gatherings with paying students. These are the places instructors are familiar with, and therefore where less experienced folk feel safer with an apparent safety in numbers. They maybe went their when they were on a course as well. Group thinking on a large scale perhaps.

Better minds than mine have already written about risky shift and here's an excellent article on it The Risky Shift Phenomenon and Avalanches. This kind of stuff has been getting applied to avalanche instructor training for a while by AAA.  Do current winter mountain training schemes  include enough if anything on this sort of thing?  I put this as a question, as I am certainly not in a position to know, and maybe it is already covered. What I do know is that there is nothing that can change the pretty piss poor odds if buried and that pretty universally all of us involved in avalanche education are trying to jump forward and get to "no rescue".

No matter what we do, mountains and people are unpredictable.  As a a keen off the piste skier I have to accept that luck is also in there as well, as on good snow days I am first in the que and having gone through the forecasts, stability tests you are only left with how the snow feels under you ski's and gut instincts. Sometimes it's a very subtle thing where in the morning it feels wrong, and by afternoon the snow "feels" safe.  I don't know how the feck that would stand up in court! I also know its taken 40 years and I still can't always be sure it all won't go tits up one day. I also know that it pays to voice your opinion when in a group, and make your own choice, not getting swept along by the group and it's most vocal leader. Beware Risky Shift!