Tough Enough

November 25, 2011
Will Gadd

The video below (and linked Mixed Climbing Avalanche here, still figuring out WordPress) is really interesting. There aren’t that many videos of self-rescues done in the mountains. As I watched it I had some thoughts of course, but the main thing is that there are some good points to ponder in my own climbing and perhaps for others as well.

I don’t think these guys did a tremendous amount wrong. In fact, they did enough things right that they both lived–I have personally done far more wrong in the mountains, but had the good luck not to get called on it at the time. Many, many of us have made worse errors but just had, as my bud Barry Blanchard says, “Good luck when we needed it.” Ed, the injured climber, and Brice, the falling leader, did one thing amazingly well: they decided they are going to get the fuck off the mountain and live. Which they did; people have died with far lesser injuries. When I read of someone getting slung off a peak for a sprained ankle I think of guys like these: They cleaned up their own mess, well done, and anybody who wants to tear strips off of them had better be made of tougher material. That is unlikely.

I offer the following with full respect to the climbers; many people would not have done as well, including me at many points in my climbing career. I’ve been taking these guiding classes, and had some of my own weaknesses exposed, including rescue systems for my partners.

A few notes:

-I’m no avalanche expert, but there’s obviously a shitload of wind transported snow blowing around. “Serious wind”  is how it’s described in the video. Wind transported snow is often a big problem in the mountains. I once watched a healthy-sized avalanche scatter a dozen or so Chamonix guides and 20 or 30 clients on a perfectly blue day with high winds and a few cm of fresh snow from the night before. The guides were teaching ice/glacier clinics on a glacier below a roughly 500 foot cliff with a deposition zone above it. Snow built up overhead on the slope continuously, but the classes below were unaware of the hazard. I too didn’t know any better, I’d just climbed one of the  classic hard routes under the same wind-transported snow slope and then walked across it, but it wasn’t loaded up yet enough to rip… We were high and across the small valley on another route when enough snow finally collected to release. We watched it all in slow-motion horror as the guides and clients ran for what they thought was their lives under the blue-bird sky… In the end some packs were lost but no lives, but that moment taught me to respect the power of wind-transported snow–it’s not just an “annoyance.” Anyhow, you can see the transport clearly in the video (in the air and with the spindrift) and it’s no surprise that a something finally releases on the leader. They are simul-climbing when it does blow.

-I have very few hard rules in ice/mountaineering, but I try to never to climb ice/mixed terrain when it’s raining, and to never to climb/ski/whatever in the winter when I can’t see the terrain over my head. I’ll push the “not seeing” rule when the consequences are low (I’m in the woods and confident I’m not threatened by anything over head), but not in alpine terrain. These rules have saved my life once or twice over the years for sure. These guys clearly can’t see much, but are going up. Often being “tough” does not end well in the mountains. When there is a lot of spindrift, wind and general chaos in the air I often get scared and run away. But there are all these tales in the magazines and on the internet about “pushing upward into storms.” Not good.

-I don’t think the leader put a Ti-block on his rope before he fell off. I like doing this, prevents the leader from going for a huge fall if the second blows it, or has an avi situation or whatever. I think the “wall of snow” hit the second before the leader was even done falling; a Ti-block might have really helped reduce the second’s injuries. Or it might not, but I think a Ti-block on the rope is a good idea if you’re already simul-climbing and pushing safety boundaries.

-The guy on rappel (Ed) doesn’t seem to have had his leg splinted at all after the accident, or much of a first-aid effort done. Maybe not the time and place for it, and he’s a tough bastard, but a splint would have been really good. It’s also unclear if his quadricep injury was at all evaluated or treated. Fortunately it wasn’t immediately life-threating, but it would have been good to know what was going on a little more I think.

-Why doesn’t Brice back Ed up with a Fireman’s belay  (hold the ends snug) as Ed raps? Ed is a tough SOB, but it would have been prudent given Ed’s injuries. Or a prussik backup on Ed’s rope at least. A fireman’s backup would have been really ideal I think. Again, Ed is a tough SOB so all good, but I’m always looking for a bit more margin in the mountains. I backed up some friends last weekend as we rappelled through a small but forceful waterfall in Maui; it didn’t slow us down any, and it was prudent.

-Why doesn’t Ed’s partner rap with Ed on his back? That would keep Ed’s foot off the rock, and prevent a lot of pain for Ed.

-As the death crawl/crawl to life commences Ed’s leg still doesn’t appear to be splinted at all. This is just excruciating to watch…

-Was there any potential for emergency communications via radio, sat phone, SPOT, etc? If Ed’s injuries were just a bit worse emergency coms could have been very, very important. I do not head out into the mountains now without a Spot or a Sat phone, it’s just not worth it. I have yet to see a mountain accident scene where the victim said, “No, please don’t call for help, it’s against my wilderness ethic.” Like it or not the technology is there, and many of my friends are alive today because they had the means to communicate. A SPOT is only $100 right now, and the new DeLorme device looks cool when it goes public.

In any accident or intense situation there are almost always many things everyone involved would do differently. In this case Ed and Brice lived, and their video gives all of us an excellent opportunity to think about our own systems and approach to the mountains. What is our true knowledge level? Would we do anything differently?

Thanks to Ed and Brice for the video, and a beer or two is on me if I see you guys out there!