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.

12 Comments. Leave new

Great response Ed. Mostly good calls and sound experience from what can be gathered from the film and your comments imo, very few bad calls. Ignore the guide – making a buck week in week out from climbing neccesatates avoiding a hell of a lot of risk – and a hell of a lot of fun. That’s not why most of us climb is it?
From being in similar situations all I can recommend to anyone reading is –
1. keep a reserve of a good source of rapid-acting energy for bugging out of shit situations, lots of gels/candies etc.
2. drugs – a mix of caffeine powder and the highest strength codeine and paracetomol you can find, combined with adreneline and necessity, can get you through a lot of pain.

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Most importantly, you reminded me how much I like Arcade Fire. Nice one.

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Thanks Ed for posting this and your thoughtful assessment from which we all can learn. Heal up soon! M.

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Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. I can’t provide much to the conversation except in relation to the treatment of Ed’s injuries. As an experienced paramedic, based on what has been shared in the discussion and what I saw in the video, the climbers seemed to have made the right call. A proper assessment and treatment of the climbers injuries would have required exposing both the injured ankle and leg. This would cause unnecessary pain, further expose the injuries to the weather (Ed already damaged nerves due to the cold, taking off clothing would have made things worse. Trauma patients should be kept warm if possible), and would have resulted in a significant delay of Ed receiving definitive care (in this case advanced pain management and surgery). Climbing/skiing boots do a good enough job splinting ankles for the time being; they’re designed to support the ankle. And as far as examining the leg injury, Ed could feel what was going on and could adequately asses the injury based on functionality. Exposing the injury is vital to providing proper care; however, no wilderness first aid kit I’ve ever seen has the supplies necessary to provide that care. Most are stuffed with things that are all but useless in any real emergency. Therefore, exposing the injury in a situation like this (where the victim is lucid, far from definitive care, and exposed to rough weather) would have done more harm than good. Finally, medicine is always about risk vs. benefit. In this case, the benefit of rapidly reaching definitive care far outweighed the risk of any aggravation to either injury, and there was little to be gained by examining the injuries. If you can’t treat it , why start cutting/taking cloths off in that weather?

Hopefully your heal quickly Ed, and thanks for taking part in a discussion we can all learn from!

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Thanks Ben for sharing your expertise. It’s positive comments/advice like that toward the two climbers that actually help with the education of the others reading/watching :)

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I’d like to thank Will for the post and Ed for his words and video. One thing I would like to touch on is a couple simple forms for extraction that could have been beneficial. The rope, in a mountaineer’s coil can be split in half and worn similarly to a backpack with your victims legs through the loops, and carried somewhat fairly comfortably and easily. Also, using a tarp, or something similar can be used to drag someone out, especially through the snow. It’s also good to decrease exposure when wrapping them up inside.

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Just wanted to add: this past summer I took a fall & badly sprained my ankle and fractured my tibia / talus. I was wearing tennis shoes and when I landed my ankle immediately swelled. We could have taken the time to set / splint etc. but all I wanted to do was get to the trail-head as fast as possible. Taking the time to set and splint would have meant 30+ minutes of agony and at the time endorphins were my friend and my way home. Maybe if I had taken the time to sit down and properly splint my leg with an axe or whatever I wouldn’t still be gimping around 3 months later – or maybe that would have meant that halfway down the endorphins would have worn off & I would have gone into shock when it started raining.

Lots of maybes… all I know is that if you have an accident in the mountains and you can walk or crawl & you want to get home – then start moving.

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Climbing Accident Analyse « The Human Factors Experience
November 29, 2011 2:41 am

[...] Two American alpinists film themselves after having a serious accident while iceclimbing in Wyoming. Very impressive footage (warning: profanity and graphic images) that shows how these buddies perform a solid self rescue. Professional iceclimber Will Gadd posted analysed the accident and added some words of one of the involved climbers. You can read the discussion on his website. [...]

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After tossing this around my head for a few days, there is still a key problem to me in the mindset of the climbers. As Gary said in the previous topic, “these guys are your everyday ‘accident waiting to happen’ in the mountains.” Granted, when we say “these guys” it implies that this can’t possibly happen to “me;” which is not true. However, Gary does have a good point. What I would like to see is more a focus on the decision making process that committed the climbing team into an unacceptable risk.

Groupthink — as climbing partners that have a good track record between us, we’re always on the same page and don’t need to question decisions; (or as a lesser experienced follower, or as two experienced guides working together, for some unrelated examples)

Confirmation bias — since what we have seen is acceptably safe, everything else hereafter is also safe.

Just knowing what is above you is but one piece of information showing us only a part of an objective hazard; which we can do quite easily. But, then leads us to be dismissive, and we become more prone to lose situational awareness. To me, the climbing team clearly lost situational awareness moving from the difficult ice terrain and into easier snow travel.

Dale Atkins makes a good point in his avy research, always assume things are unsafe and effort to disprove this assumption any time you venture into terrain problems. If you can’t disprove this, then you may possibly be moving into an unacceptable risk.

There are probably some other points along the way that can also be offered, but this probably does help in talking about a climbing team mindset in difficult alpine terrain.

Other item:

Technical climbers beat themselves up way too much on buddy-rescue to the point that asking for rescue aid seems immediately dismissed. Granted, in this case, climbers had mental capacity and could self-extricate, fine. Even though it sucked ass (which a formal rescue does also). Rescue is totally warranted for technical climbers when a situation like this occurs.

I don’t know the charge for rescue potential in this situation. In general, the U.S. doesn’t support a policy of rescue charge in the back-country; which does indeed affect the decision for people to ask for help in the mountains, especially when they desperately need it.

The PLB is a an effective location tool when used properly. Use it and also effort to make your situation more tenable. The rescue community as a whole is here to help. Get resources moving in place while the climbing team is working their terrain safety problem. If your partner starts deteriorating, you will have wanted to have started the notification process hours earlier.

In my mind, climbers are normal people having normal jobs and families, etc. Family wants their loved ones back safe and in the hospital. I believe Will offered a good point in his ice climbing book (off the top of my head): When something happens, I want my wilderness experience over with as soon as possible. Good advice.

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I think splinting would have made it much easier to move on flat ground. I have broken my ankle in the mountains and done the same crawl/squirm/hop through snow. Splinting with an ice axe (two actually) took about 10 minutes and got a significant amount of weight off the ankle and allowed me to walk with a hobble which was way faster than crawling.

Removing the boot would have been a major mistake in my opinion. As you say, it provides some stability and pressure on the injury. And if it came off, the swelling might not allow it to go back on.

Good luck on your recovery. Casts are the worst.

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Congrats to Ed and Brice for getting down and out safely.

I was in a similar accident and your video brought back painful memories. LOL I should have not surfed the web when I should have been working! Oooops.

If I can offer one thing, don’t ignore your recovery program. My accident happened in the summer and I didn’t do a good enough job at healing (i.e. do my physio consistently, got back in shape, took time to get over the trauma, etc. ) because I wanted to Ice climb the following fall/winter.

By doing that I put myself at risk and that of my partner because I was in no shape to climb anything but a stair master.

So give yourself the time you need to get 100% physically and mentally. Climbs will always be there.

All the very best in your recovery.

PS: I still climb, all the body parts work (for the most part) so you’ll be back at it soon. Do take care.

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Just in regards, to the ti block simul-climbing. Good to see there was some thought put into this technique afterwards and good to recognise the dangers in it with this type of device. Glad you weren’t using one.

I’ve never simul climbed, but using a toothed device in this situation doesn’t make any sense to me. The Petzl Ascender shears the sheath of the rope at roughly 4KN that’s a lot of force, both on the body and on the system. Toothed devices aren’t designed to be used in dynamic situations, and in a situation such as simul climbing where potentially large forces from a fall, or in this situation forces applied by an avalanch could have resulted in a more serious outcome. The Petzl Shunt slips at 2 to 3KN depending on rope diameter and single or double rope use (which has no dynamic slip in tests), maybe a more suitable piece of equipment in this situation?

Maybe someone else has experience with this technique. I guess simul climbing in itself is risky business so maybe the adoption of equipment used outside of it’s intended purpose is part of the game? However my experience is toothed ascenders and shock loading is bad hockey.

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