Thoughts from Ed (Avalanche survivor)

November 26, 2011
Will Gadd

I privately emailed Ed, one of the people in the video I wrote about last week, and asked if he would like to post his thoughts here. He sent the words below; I think they are interesting, and appreciate him taking the time to share his thinking. May all who respond please do so with the same spirit as he wrote in with, thanks.

Again, while I think these guys did make some errors, pretty much every climber I know has made the same or worse errors. I definitely have. But I have seldom seen such a solid self-rescue effort; they cleaned up their own problem. This discussion is part of the path forward for anyone who really climbs and thinks about climbing, not just talks about climbing. Thanks to Ed for furthering the discussion.

-Will Gadd

Ed’s words below to the end:

First, I want to thank Will for engaging in a thoughtful discussion
about our experiences with the intent of improving safety practices in
the mountains.  Too often on the internet, in my opinion, people
resort to hyperbole and point-scoring instead of genuinely trying to
improve the way we all do things.  I am the first to admit that I am
not an infallible alpinist.  I am young, I’ve made mistakes, and will
unfortunately make some more again, but my number one priority is
proactively finding ways to avoid those errors and/or mitigate their
consequences.  I take accidents and potential accidents very
seriously.  Those who know me will confirm this, I believe. There is
no romance in almost dying.

The interesting thing about our most recent climb is that I do not
believe we made many errors; in fact, I believe the sum of what we did
right far out weighs what we did wrong.  However, we did make one,
major mistake: we did not a have a candid discussion before the climb
about how we would react to potential risks, namely encountering
unstable snowpack once high on the route.  I believe our extensive
experience climbing together led us to think we would automatically be
on the same page.  That assumption, however, kept us from engaging in
a challenging conversation that could have, although did not guarantee
to have, prevented the slide.  If I had one recommendation to others
it would be this:  take the time to talk about risk before and during
each climb, even if you think you are on the same page, or you think
its unwarranted.  Thinking proactively about what’s around the corner
can save your life.  (NOTE: I am not implying that Brice made a poor
decision that I would have avoided.  He is the only one that saw the
quality of the snowpack, so none of us can really make a judgment on
the matter, and I thoroughly trust his decision making abilities.)

As further explanation, here are my thoughts on some of the issues
that have been raised (I’ll try not to engage simply in a self-defense
- that’s not the point – learning is):

- Weather, wind, and snowpack.  We had checked NOAA and were aware of
the fact that the winds were going to be gusty.  We were pleasantly
surprised (as I say in the video) to find even better weather than was
forecasted.  Winds never gusted much over 30mph.  That’s good news
summer or winter for WY and is not an automatic indicator to ‘head
back home’.  As for snowpack, Brice had also scouted out our route 6
times the previous winter and this was the lowest amount of snowfall
he had encountered.  That does not guarantee snowpack stability but
its a useful indicator.  We were also able to examine the snow at the
base of the climb that was of a similar aspect and slope to the
snowfield above our route and found no unstable layers as we dug the
platform I would belay from.  Of course there are other variables,
but, once again, all the ones that were available to us were ‘a go’.
The wind-borne snow was a concern and slabs can form no matter how
little snow there is, but wind does not always equate to dangerous avy
terrain everywhere.  If the wind is loading in one place it is
scouring somewhere else.  Assuming that wind causes every surface to
be unstable is misguided.  I’m not saying wind is desirable, but one
should avoid making overly simplistic judgments.  I can’t count the
number of wind scoured slopes that I have skied that were sucky to ski
but reduced the avy danger to nil.  In the end, sometimes there is no
way to detect slope instability until you can touch and feel it.

- Knowing what’s above you.  I really, really liked Will’s comments on
this and think I will make them my own if he is ok with that.  As I
said, Brice had scouted out this area multiple times, so we were aware
of the terrain, but had no way of knowing exactly how much snow was
between the cliff bands or how stable it was.  I am not fundamentally
opposed to climbing a route that has a snow band across it, but I will
avoid routes from now on that naturally funnel the above snow and
about which I have limited beta.

- Emergency communications.  Once again, I really liked Will’s
comments here.  I can’t tell you how many people have been most
impressed by us ‘not relying on others’. The first thing I tell them
is “I would have accepted help immediately if I could have gotten it”.
I think many folks are often misguided in their ‘wilderness
self-reliance ethic’. The difference in my mind is not putting
yourself in a position that you cannot reasonably get yourself out of.
That is a far cry from purposely limiting your ability to receive
help.    I used to think SPOTs were only useful for soloing, but I’ve
gotten a first hand lesson on how limited the capabilities of just two
guys are.  I think I will buy a SPOT.  Ironically, in this case, a
SPOT wouldn’t have gotten us out any faster, but its a safety net that
is worth having.

- Simul-climbing and ti-blocks:  I’ve used ti-blocks when
simul-climbing in the past, but I’ve reserved it for rock routes.
Both of us had one on our harnesses on this occasion but we decided
not to use them.  Interestingly, (and I can’t claim to have thought
this fully through beforehand) the ti-block could very well have
killed me if he had used it.  When the avalanche broke, we had just
begun simul-climbing.  Because I was not attached to the anchor, we
fell with the snow then (relatively) slowly came to a stop.  If I had
still been attached directly to the anchor when the snow hit me, it
would have probably snapped my spine in half and blown my rib cage
apart because there would have been no way of dynamically dissipating
the forces. Similarly, but to a lesser degree, I believe a ti-block
would have had the same effect of holding me in place as the snow hit
me at a million miles an hour (hyperbole).  Perhaps a lesson learned
is to avoid using ti-blocks on avy terrain.  Thoughts, Will?

- Rappel: This one was a judgment call.  Rappelling under my own power
was the simplest, safest, and quickest way to get down (I wasn’t
timing it but I think we were off the climb in under 30min).   I had
my rappelling prussik on my harness but I chose not to use it.
Perhaps I was too anxious to get out of there and should have taken
the time to use it, but I was very lucid and never felt in danger of
losing control.  In my opinion, its a personal choice.  For added
safety Brice held the rope ends for the trickier, first rappel
providing a back-up in case something did go wrong.

- Splinting and First Aid:  Although I only have a WFA (not a WFR)
certificate, I strongly believe my actions in this case were
appropriate.  Splinting would not have helped.  The boot provided a
decent, preexisting splint to the ankle.  Strapping a backpack or ice
tool onto my ankle would have been incredibly painful with its added
weight and bulk as I crawled along.  Frankly, there was only one real
option to improving the situation and that was fixing the dislocated
ankle.  Maybe you are all way more badass than me, but I wasn’t
willing to sit down in the snow, take off my boot, and have Brice yank
on my ankle until things popped back into place.  I wasn’t confident
enough in what was wrong internally to take such drastic measures.  As
for my knee, I did a quick self-evaluation:  I was bleeding slowly but
not profusely and it didn’t hurt.  Those facts quickly bumped it down
the triage chart.  Taking the time to elevate would have delayed
treatment to the time-sensative issues in my left ankle and wouldn’t
have gotten me any closer to the trailhead.  I lost relatively very
little blood.  It was the right call.

I apologize for how lengthy my comments are.  People rarely describe
me as ‘concise’ but I hope it helps explain our thought process and
some of the details that were not included in the video.  My hope, in
writing this, is to further the discussion about how we can all do
better in the mountains.  Brice and I made good calls and bad calls.
Hopefully this discussion makes more people self-critical and safety
conscious – I know its a trait I will continue to work on.  As I sit
here nursing my injuries, that seems to be the most important thing.