MOVE, MOVE, MOVE, we pushed forwards in towards the cliff as we were hit by the air blast. Pelted by chunks of snow I wrapped my arms around my head and waited either for the avalanche, or my life, to end…
Moments before I was gearing up at the bottom of the classic ice climb ‘Vermicelli’. I was looking up at pretty much fifty metres of vertical ice. Named after a thin strip of pasta, I could see the resemblance, the narrow smear of ice was aesthetic as well as compelling.
It Sounded Like an Avalanche…
There was a loud crack of trees snapping on the hillside above. Andy and I looked briefly at each other before turning our gaze upwards. It sounded like an avalanche. The sky was still visible fifty metres above, and we shared a split second of calm before the roaring torrent of snow appeared over the cliff.
Our situation was grave, with hundreds of tonnes of snow accelerating towards terminal velocity above us. MOVE, MOVE, MOVE, we pushed forwards in towards the cliff as we were hit by the air blast. We probably only managed a step before being knocked to the ground.
Pelted by chunks of snow I wrapped my arms around my head and waited either for the avalanche, or my life, to end…
The day had started like any other during another two week trip to the Briançon and the Hautes-Alpes department in the Provence-Alpes- Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France.
The conditions were ideal for ice climbing, with just enough snow to feed ice development and continued cold (but not too cold) temperatures for chewy ice. The avalanche hazard scale had been at Category 2 Limité (Moderate in English) for the last two weeks, partly due to the lack of snowfall. Generally it was well bonded and we had been able to climb in many places unconcerned by avalanche risk.
Cascade Ice Climbing
Ice climbing is a little bit different as the lines often follow water courses unsurprisingly, with snow in collecting zones lying on ice rather than snow or bare ground. So while the posted avalanche bulletin is relevant, often ice climbing relies on careful judgement on a route to route basis. As an ice climber you need to think about the overhead hazard all the time.
In France routes have an engagement rating of I-IV which in part give an indication of their seriousness. The home of the ice route ‘Vermicelli’ is a popular area above the village of Ceillac. Immediately next to a ski area, the ice climbing here is really accessible and a correspondingly popular location in the parc régional du Queyras. Most of the routes have low engagement ratings due to their short approaches, bolt belays and easy descents. These are in sharp contrast to the more committing venues inthe Ecrins National Park such as La Grave, Fournel, Freissinieres and the Vallon Du Diable.
Given the stable weather conditions we had been climbing well, and decided to visit Ceillac again having climbed pretty much all of the other more accessible routes such as ‘Les Formes du Chaos’, and ‘Sombre Heros’. An ascent of ‘Vermicelli’ would have allowed us to tick the crag.
The Normalisation of Deviance
The normalisation of deviance was proposed by an American academic Diane Vaughan who investigated the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The normalisation of deviance is often linked to organisational management but can be used to describe any situation where deviations (or even drift) from rules and practicers become the new norm.
These sometimes have devastating consequences, but often further down the line. Especially in the mountains where the absence of a negative outcome frequently reinforces sub optimal behaviour. We operate in a wicked learning environment where the consequences often manifest themselves as a surprise years later.
Your phone beeps when you are driving. You know the score, the temptation to check is immense. Perhaps you do, because after all it could be something important. It looks like a straight and quiet bit of road so you do a quick check. It was something minor, you put the phone down and continue without incident. And here in lies the problem – the lack of any negative consequence reinforces the use of your phone as being ok.
Maybe over time we don’t even consider the risk. It’s ok “i’ve got this”, “this isn’t dangerous” become the thought process. The deviation from the norm with no feedback probably means you do it more frequently. You are caught in a spiral of habit forming behaviour, and then bang!
The Normalisation of Deviance in the mountains
In the mountains the normalisation of deviance is likely to be more subtle, especially given the dynamic nature of the mountain environment. With an absence of rigid rules in the mountains we are left to make judgements which are supported by consensus, accepted practice and even norms that remain uncommunicated. But that doesn’t mean that the consequences are any less significant.
So perhaps think “drift” rather than deviance, but remember the quote in the Challenger Inquiry Report when describing Russian Roulette. In our dynamic environment we are not dealing with a fixed number of variables:
…We don’t even know how many bullets are in the gun.
Back to ‘Vermicelli’ and the avalanche was a surprise. It should not have been, but I had drifted away from the normal behaviour after two weeks of ice climbing (and multiple trips).
Ceillac was well known to me, and was regarded by us all as an “avalanche safe” venue. More than that it was the “go to choice” and was relatively easy to utilise even in challenging conditions. We had been able to climb here before in heavy snowfall using protected stances with bolt belays. We were of course making our choices based on our previous successes.
My experiences here predate smart phones! We checked the Avalanche Bulletin from Metro France when we could, but we relied on a printed copy outside the Tourist Information office. I can’t remember if we looked at the avalanche forecast that morning, but in my mind it was Category 2 Limité (Moderate) and we had been climbing in higher risk conditions at Ceillac before.
Reflecting on it now, I think I read the avalanche forecast, but didn’t process it. How often do you read something, but actually it hasn’t really entered your head?! There had actually been fresh snow overnight on strong winds.
But the choice to go to Ceillac wasn’t made on the avalanche forecast, or any other defined criteria. It was made as a “go to choice” and one that had, up to this point worked for us before.
With a step forwards we body swerved possibly the biggest avalanche I have ever seen up close. Pelted with chunks of snow, we lost equipment rather than our lives. The ski area didn’t fare quite so well as the avalanche destroyed trees, crossed the road and a ski piste, luckily with no impact on anybody else. Make no mistake we were lucky!
How can we avoid the Normalisation of Deviance?
Don’t make choices based on previous success.
Try and make plans that build in safer choices rather than accepting risk.
Talk often and be prepared to listen to alternative perspectives of a situation. If you are on your own think about how you might explain your own perspective to a colleague or climbing partner.
Be clear about standards – talk about norms and acceptable practice. Address the elephant in the room (or on the mountain) and define under what situations you would feel like you were letting your colleagues, or the community down. If you are in a domain where professional standards and/or consensus statements exist, remember that they are there to help you do the right thing.
Set an example. If you are an instructor or guide forcing a day in challenging weather or stretching the norms remember it isn’t always the best picture for your clients.
Think about how we describe the situation to others. Do phrases such as “avalanche safe”, “benign”, “you can always get to or do x,y,z” really reflect the dynamic situations in the mountains?
I levelled the wings and pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me. Attentional narrowing meant there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield…
The day had started as a normal but mediocre gliding day over the flat fields of Staffordshire, but as I was having a conversation with the aero-tow pilot the radio burst into life with some talk of thermal lift close to the airfield.
An essential skill of glider flight is the ability to seek out lift to remain airborne, especially given the absence of an engine. Being able to judge conditions is as important for a glider pilot as it is to a mountain guide finding the best snow on a power skiing day.
We decided to launch and after a few checks I was being pulled along the runway behind another aircraft on a long tow rope. The aero-tow was unremarkable and we continued upwards towards 4000 feet with no airspace restrictions. Suddenly, there was a ripple of the wings and we lurched upwards a fraction behind the aircraft in front. The feeling was unmistakable, we had flown into “wave”, orographic lift created by air hitting the mountains of North Wales or Long Mynd and being pushed upwards.
I pulled the hook release three times releasing the rope and the aero-tow aircraft accelerated away in a steep curving descent in preparation for the next task. Pulling the glider around in a 180 degree turn I searched for the invisible crest of the wave that would allow me to surf upwards.
The glider sat suspended silently in the air, there was nothing. I turned 180 again in the hope of feeling the unmistakeable ripple if lift. Again nothing!
This situation is normal in gliding. It was back to my original plan of searching for the thermal lift that had been mentioned over the radio. Soon enough I got some success and the audible beep of the variometer indicated that I was going up, slowly. Thermals are rising bubbles of air, so in an attempt to stay in the rising column I had manoeuvred the glider into a tight spiralling turn.
Round and round I went a couple of knots away from stalling speed, suspended in the rising column of air until the variometer went quiet. Just about maintaining height, I was doing ok. My attention was focused on my airspeed. If I let the speed drop by a couple of knots there would be a good chance the glider would enter a spin. It is raw, technical flying much like leading that just adequately protected pitch on the rock.
The altimeter showed I was maintaining height whenever I gave it a glance, and I was keeping a good lookout for other aircraft as I was drifting, albeit slowly, towards East Midlands Airport.
I was glancing at the map while an insidious and subtle chain of events where rapidly stacking up against me.
Situational Awareness and Attentional Narrowing
The variometer was working fine, it wasn’t making any audible indication of lift because there wasn’t any. There was no loss of height indicated because it was so small. I had dropped out of the rising bubble of air and was slowly sinking.
The altimeter was faulty and the needle had temporarily got stuck indicating that I was maintaining height. Sadly, I wasn’t.
I had lost all situational awareness, my attention was focused on the small cluster of instruments in front of me. I didn’t have a full comprehension of what was happening and I hadn’t yet perceived that I was running out of height. Although the chain of these events were subtle, I was suffering from attentional narrowing. The consequences were however obvious: I was in effect not far away from flying a perfectly good glider into the ground.
Glancing out of the cockpit I looked down for the first time in too long. The world rushed back, I was too low and never before had I seen livestock look so large from the air. Levelling the wings I pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me; there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield.
Aviate – Navigate – Communicate
With my limited experience I had never before seen the airfield at such a shallow glide angle. I had drifted downwind and was too far away. Now too low to fly a normal approach circuit, it was time to use the mantra Aviate – Navigate – Communicate.
Pushing the nose forward to 70 knots I cut through the descending air in an attempt to trade horizontal distance for a bit of height. Then reducing the airspeed I trimmed the glider up to get what marginal gains in performance that I could. My only option was to fly in a straight and direct line back to the airfield. This technique was reserved for competition gliding and glider pilots who were much more experienced than me.
Keying the PTT on the radio I remember the transmission … “Glider Echo Golf Zulu, final glide runway 26”. Some confusion followed as it wasn’t a standard call saying that I had entered a normal right hand downwind leg of a circuit. But I had been spotted and things started to happen on the ground.
Meanwhile I started picking fields (and noting obstructions) where I could land a glider. Luckily there were a few options each of which quickly fell away behind as I got closer to the runway threshold. I completed my checks called “finals” and pulled the airbrakes to soften my landing onto the runway.
The landing was soft enough and the glider sat on the tarmac for a few seconds, the gentle breeze holding the wings level and free from the ground. Now stationary, I let the wingtip drop onto the runway and opened the canopy to let the atmosphere of failure and fear dissipate.
Val said nothing. As a really experienced instructor, she shared the silence and like any good coach let me reflect on the events that could have orchestrated our deaths. If there was one saving grace it was that she hadn’t intervened during this pre solo check flight. Clearly the situation wasn’t quite as bad as I felt, but I had learnt some valuable lessons and I wouldn’t be going solo just yet.
Attentional Narrowing – Avalanche on Aonach Mor
Fast forward 15 years and I was about to experience attentional narrowing (also referred to as task fixation) and degraded situational awareness again, this time in the context of an avalanche.
The first day of a week of introductory Scottish winter climbing was a tricky one. The weather was forecast to deteriorate by mid afternoon with significant drifting. Using the gondola at Nevis Range seemed like a good choice to access the snow line and make the most of the days coaching and instructional aims. My two clients were keen and able so accessing the area around Aonach an Nid was straight forward.
We had a productive morning revising snow belays, and safe travel with intelligent use of the terrain to mitigate the avalanche hazard. Moving up and down some rocky ribs, there was some thin windslab just a few centimetres deep that we could avoid by keeping to the rocks.
The weather wasn’t too bad so we decided to head towards the summit plateau, doing a little navigation on the way. Here we were able to look into ‘Easy Gully’ and notice the tell tale signs of new windslab accumulation on the lee side of the corniced edge. We decided together to finish the day by building some emergency snow shelters, a useful skill for anybody to have in the winter mountains.
To deliver such coaching excellence I needed an area of deposition where the snow had accumulated, preferably at a reasonable angle so it was easier to dig into the slope. With this in mind we descended back to the rocky ribs bounding ‘G&T Gully’ that we had used before.
The area looked subtly different, our footsteps obscured during the hour which we were absent. I started to descend, my clients just behind sticking to the rocks. There looked to be some good patches of snow lower down and the windslab was shallow, perhaps only 5cm deep at my feet next to the rock rib. Spotting the next group of rocks I stepped onto the other side of the rock rib and was suddenly up to my waist in fresh snow.
Whoommppff – a split second later and the tension crack appeared near my hips propagating across the slope for a hundred metres or so and out of sight. The snow around me seemed suspended for a second despite breaking into big blocks, but then accelerated away taking me with it.
I managed to stop myself but watched with a fixed stare as the snow slowed but covered the flat bench below me. We were all lucky not to be carried down, in part by careful, habitual route choice.
How can we improve our Situational Awareness in the mountains?
Practice and drill routine tasks to create more bandwidth for the bigger picture.
Minimise distractions, use or request a “sterile cockpit” if you need to. More details can be found in CASM v3.0.
Consider other factors that reduce situational awareness: protect yourself from the elements, avoid fatigue and ensure you and your group are adequately fed.
Most importantly be bothered, and actively look for new information and clues to changing conditions. Communicate these observations often.
As all glider pilots know, avoid being “head down”.
A personal description of the journey to climb the six classic north faces of the alps.
‘The Marine’ opened the conversation quietly but confidently, stating that we should start our alpine climbing career by climbing the six alpine North Faces. I agreed. For the uninitiated, as was I at this point, “the six” include: The Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru, Piz Badile and Cima Grande di Lavaredo.
Not only did I agree, but I suggested that we could easily knock them off easily before we were thirty… “No problem” said ‘the Marine’.
Because of course when you are sixteen, and have done a couple of routes on the grit, being thirty is an inconceivable period of time away. How hard could it possibly be?
The bearded outdoor instructor at the wheel of the van had heard it all before, and I was waiting for the inevitable rolling of the eyes followed by a lecture on learning ones craft, or simply the likelihood that we would kill ourselves. The lecture didn’t come, but instead was replaced by the seemingly innocent yet forensic question of: “Which one are you going to do first?”…
Now this was a problem. ‘The Marine’ and I went way back, in fact we had known each other for the sum total of two days. As we were both sixteen and working at an outdoor centre in our holidays, I knew that he was unlikely to be a marine and more pressingly probably couldn’t name any alpine north faces. I certainly couldn’t name one, so while looking for a crevasse to open up in the foot well of the slightly battered van, the pause gave ‘the Marine’ just enough time to save us from this embarrassment. The Eiger! We will do the Eiger first…
#1 North Face of Petit Dru (Voie Allain)
Six years later and ‘the Marine’ was displaying the most unflattering of his traits: unacceptable levels of smugness. We were at a cold and chilly bivouac on the Dru Rognon situated below the North Face, and it was drizzling with light rain more akin to a Scottish hillside than an alpine face. We had agreed to take a lightweight and committing approach aided by the advice of ‘Our kid’. An elder statesman of the Stockport climbing scene ‘Our kid’ was ready to school us in the ways of light weight alpinism. He had confidently done this by explaining that all we needed was a blizzard bag. Better described as an expensive silver foil sac for transporting accident victims to major trauma centres within the “golden hour”.
Now, ‘The Marine’ wasn’t intending on finishing his route in a helicopter, so had packed a lightweight down sleeping bag instead. Removed with a flourish, the sight of this luxury sleeping equipment was met with a round of expletives from ‘Our kid’, a man who liked the finer things in life. Separated from his Audi collection and Italian Barolo, he was just keen to get on with it.
The morning came and after a sluggish start we witnessed maximum commitment from ‘Our Kid’ as he set off into the gloom. The cloud had quickly cleared and we were rewarded with pitch after pitch of honest and burly climbing in cracks. Climbing in mountaineering boots was logical and in many cases easier, according to ‘Our Kid’ at least.
Later that afternoon we reached the Quartz ledges after some mixed climbing with verglas and much brushing away of hail from ledges. We bivouacked here at the top of what was the Bonatti Pillar. A timely reminder that geological time does include the now, when thousands on tonnes of granite had parted company with the mountain the year before.
#2 North Face Cima Grande di Lavaredo (Voie Comici)
The following year and the growth of budget airlines gave an ideal opportunity to engage in weekend alpinism. Could we climb a classic north face in a weekend? Stationary on the M1 with time ticking away to make our flight from East Midlands Airport, climbing a north face looked, frankly, unlikely.
There was little team cohesiveness in evidence as ‘The surfer’ explained why we would be totally justified in using the hard shoulder. ‘Dobby’ was resigned to the idea of not doing any climbing anyway, and ‘PK’s’ brother was in the police, so the analysis was that it would probably be ok. The discussion continued as the traffic cleared and we were on our way to ‘PK’s’ alternative stag do at least…
We woke early at our car park bivouac, shrouded in mist and drizzle but decided to walk in to the base of the route. The weather cleared and I led off on the first section. The climbing was reminiscent of Stoney Middleton, with slightly disposable rock of a temporary but familiar nature. In fact, the climbing was fantastic, at times powerful but never overwhelming, quickly leading us upwards.
‘The surfer’ took over for the top section just in time for the dripping wet chimneys of the upper section. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem on any other route, but polished wet limestone in the Dolomites, well, that was different. Luckily, ‘The surfer’ held it together and we emerged out onto a sizeable snow patch on the ‘Ringband’, a horizontal ledge system just below the summit. This would have been interesting enough if it wasn’t for the late afternoon thunderstorm that we were now centre stage to. We confidently traversed the ledge system looking for the first of a series of abseil anchors.
‘The marines’ advice was ringing in my head, “Just traverse around and find the abseil chains, they are dead obvious”. “All you need is a pair of speedos”. This was ‘The marines’ second most unflattering traits: unacceptable levels of gross understatement. Searching for the small abseil chain was of course like looking for a needle in a haystack, but luckily we eventually stumbled on it and started our descent.
Lower down the descent route became harder to follow in the fading daylight and the inevitable happened. We had to sit it out on a ledge and wait for daylight, our small LED head torches just simply weren’t up to the job. The rest of the descent was obvious at first light, and we made our way easily down and straight to the airport. It turns out you can do a North Face in a weekend, just!
#3 North Face of the Piz Badile (Voie Cassin)
We were a third of the way up the smooth granite slabs on the North Face of the Piz Badile, and the storm had just arrived with full force. Hail bounced off the slabs and we could hear the distant rumble of thunder. I looked at the ‘Wee Grey Man’ and the ‘Wee Grey Man’ looked at me.
The ‘Wee Grey Man’ grunted and we both knew what had to be done, there was only one thing to do and that was retreat to escape the torrents of water and hail coming down the slabs. Abseil after wet abseil, down we went and escaped the face.
A couple of days later we returned in better conditions, shuffling around the early season snow patches with care, mindful of the tragedy here a couple of years before. This time our enemy was other parties rather than the weather, and we jostled for position early on positioning ourselves for the pitches ahead.
After an initial stiff pull to get started, pitch after pitch of good quality rock took us steadily upwards. The exit cracks lived up to their reputation of being steady but largely unprotected. Fine for those who have served a gritstone apprenticeship.
Like many before and since we decided to descend the North Ridge of the Piz Badile by abseil. Another seminal experience then it comes to continually throwing the ropes on rock slabs.
#4 North Face of the Eiger (1938 Route)
Starting up the narrow ice filled gully at the bottom of the face, I saw a light high up to my right. Twisting my head to get a better view and puzzling for a while, I realised that it was the famous Stollenjoch or gallery window. It was at this point that I truly comprehended the size of the face that we had just started to climb.
‘Waljit’ and I had bumped into each other while staying in Kenton Cool’s flat in Chamonix. The “house of psyche” as it was known to many, was an excellent base, but sadly located in the concrete hell that is Chamonix Sud. Many of the buildings would be more at home in the post apocalyptic nuclear winter than Europe’s most famous mountain resort. But luckily, with news of good conditions in Switzerland it was time to make our escape.
We had arrived at the Eigergletscher station the evening before, and tried to find the hostel only to be met by an irate Swiss chap whose opening line was “same old story, same old sh**!”. Sheepishly we realised that we were in the wrong place and he gestured for us to jump into the back of a truck, before driving us to the hostel. We had of course come to climb the classic 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger, and his face suggested that he was tired of meeting walking corpses (or maybe just Brits).
At about three the following morning we set off under the face on crisp neve and snow ice, making fast progress to the bottom of the face. Here we realised that we had started in the wrong place, taking a bad line in the dark though the featureless terraces at the bottom of the face. Without a word being spoken, we both knew that we could little afford any more school boy errors like this; it was time to get going.
‘Waljit’ soon reached the belay and we took the rope off, opting to solo as far as possible up the face. The conditions were excellent with good squeaky placements allowing fast progress through the complex terraces and walls. The hazy early morning light started creeping up the face as we reached the Shattered Pillar; a couple of short mixed walls taking us to the Stollenjoch. Here we roped up with our single 9mm rope and had a quick break.
It was unique being on a face with so much history. I was now looking across the ledge system that Toni Kurtz’s rescuers traversed during what later became one of the most famous rescue attempts in history. For us I was quietly hoping for a more mundane ascent.
Moving together, we traversed into the bottom of the Difficult Crack using bare hands on cold limestone. ‘Waljit’ set off upwards making the precarious moves on small edges, still wearing crampons he pulled out of sight. The rope inched out but then a shout of “Safe” indicated the end of the difficulties; for ‘Waljit’ at least. Following, I was surprised to find that there were very few pitons on this pitch, another timely reminder that we were a long way from Chamonix’s over pegged cracks.
Continuing upwards along neve covered terraces we soon reached the Hinterstoisser Traverse and a new static rope disappearing over what can only be described as a stomach churning abyss. Suspecting that this was a new rope put in by British Mountain Guides, during the filming of ‘The Beckoning Silence’, ‘Waljit’ happily “aped” across. Following the call of “Safe” I pulled across only to be rewarded with a badly frayed rope, which looked like it had been hit by stonefall. After a few expletives we were able to pull into the sanctuary of the Swallows Nest and consider our options for negotiating the terrain ahead. Opting to stay on the rope we moved together across the ‘1st Icefield’ and up to the base of the Ice Hose.
By now, despite never climbing with each other before, we had a good feel for each other’s abilities and were swinging the leads to match our strengths. It was my turn now to start up the Ice Hose which was a couple of metres short of actually being fully formed. A few thin mixed moves on small limestone holds allowed me to get a tool into the ice, and run the rope out to a belay. I shouted down that I had got “only one ice screw left” and then eyed the 50 metre drop with two inadequate ice screws interrupting the clean sweep of the rope. Cursing our minimal rack I set to work drilling an abolokov anchor and threading a sling, a much better option that a single screw belay.
After two further pitches we set foot on the ‘2nd Icefield’ and silently untied from the rope. Quietly, we both knew that soloing in the good conditions was the best option, exposing ourselves to the risk of stone fall for a much smaller period. Standing on this icefield nearly 1000m above Kleine Scheidegg, the whole situation seemed very serious. This worry soon evaporated as I made fast progress upwards, until close to the rocks, at the tope left hand side of the giant icefield. Here I built a belay and watched ‘Waljit’ climb across towards me.
Back on the rope, a couple of tricky mixed pitches took us to the open snow slope below the Flat Iron and the sinister Death Bivouac.
“Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep”. My alarm woke me from what seemed like about ten minutes sleep. It was four in the morning and time to get moving again. We packed our things and moved off, acutely aware that the hard climbing was to come. Over the 3rd icefield and into the ramp the pitches were pleasant Scottish IV, leading us upwards towards the main event. Here we were soon slowed down by the Waterfall Pitch. This heavily verglassed horror show sports some impressive downward pointing pegs, which have obviously taken some punishment. ‘Waljit’ led slowly off, taking his time to find good protection in the verglassed rock. Some elaborate bridging soon resulted in an all or nothing lunge for the top; he was up.
I followed, being immediately struck by the exposure, it was like bridging up a corner poised above the edge of the world. Luckily this is not an experience that I have felt before or since. From here the climbing became easier but much more serious. I ran the rope out up the continuation of the ramp, chipping small placements in the verglass. The rope hung uselessly down to the belay about 25 metres away; I kept chipping. Moving upwards again I was rewarded with an in-situ peg; barely enough to reduce my heartbeat I pressed on before the angled eased into another icefield.
‘Waljit’ followed without incident and we made our way up to the start of the Traverse of the Gods. Here more brain jellying exposure lapped at our heels as we shuffled across the traverse and into the relative sanctuary of the White Spider. Above, sunlight was bathing the rocks of the Exit Chimneys, an occasional crack giving away the presence of small rock falls.
We moved together, picking out the better snow ice and heading into the bottom of the Exit Chimneys. From here I moved on upwards climbing steady mixed ground to reach the base of the Quartz Crack. The pitch looked hard with a big off-width crack and a blank slab to the left. With some words of encouragement from below, I moved up the first mixed pitches with ease, and placed an ice screw in the base of the crack. Pressing on, I found myself in a constricted position with my crampon points on small edges. My confidence and strength was wavering.
Anderl Heckmair had been here before on the first ascent, with small wet snow avalanches funnelling down on him. Here he had drunk half a phial of “heart drops” supplied by Dr Belart in Grindelwald. There was no drug based assistance for us.
I backed off. The two figures that we had seen soloing across the Spider were now chambering past ‘Waljit’ on his belay stance. The inevitable question of “Mind if we come past?” drifted up on the slight breeze. This was clearly a rhetorical question as they were actually coming past, and had their crampon points hooked into the karabiners of the belay to prove it.
The two Grindelwald Mountain Guides announced that they had started at 0400 in the morning with a lavish breakfast at Kleine Scheidegg and were doing the face in a day.
Obviously, being Swiss they were superbly efficient; climbing the pitch easily by swinging to the right, and pulling on some hidden fixed rope. Cursing my blinkered British ethics I quickly followed. We were both now tired and moved slowly and deliberately on the tricky mixed traverse to the bottom of the final cracks. Here the climbing was technically easy, but the water worn limestone with no gear was no crowd pleaser. ‘Waljit’, moved off and I watched the rope swinging upwards with no runners in sight. Another sideways glance at the peg belay did nothing to add to my confidence.
 Roger Schali and Hanspeter Hug later knocked two hours off the record (for a conventional climbing pair) by climbing the face in 8hrs in October 2007. Schali later returned on the 28th Jan 2008 to climb the face in an astonishing 6hrs 50min!
‘Waljit’ found another in-situ peg belay and we just led through, delicately scraping our way upwards still wearing crampons.
I hoped I wasn’t verbalising what I was thinking: Don’t blow it, don’t blow it. Think of the shame of killing yourself on a VD pitch…The angle eased and we plodded up the final snow field and onto the famous Mittellegi Ridge. Moving along this we found a small ledge and rigged a traverse line to allow us to stay clipped in on the narrow crest. We rewarded ourselves with half a mug of herbal tea, and tucked the now empty gas canister away. As the sun was setting, I looked across to the huge shadow cast by perhaps one of the most infamous north faces in Europe. We had done it.
#5 North Face of the Grandes Jorasses (Eperon Croz)
Fast forward to 2014 and I got the chance to join Rich Cross and David Horwood for an ascent of the Croz Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. Conditions weren’t perfect but an early storm in September gave us the conditions for an ascent.
After a bivouac on the glacier we climbed the route and descended into Italy over a long day. Our pace was limited slightly by my pre-production crampon which fell to bits half way up. Now this is Chamonix, so the first option would have been a long winch out by helicopter followed by a selfie in the back of an EC145 and beers in the evening for me. But one look at Crossy, and I tied what was left of my crampon together with a small sling. Clearly he is not the sort of guy that welcomes rotary assistance when climbing north faces…
A lengthy and more mundane ascend followed combined with some interesting abseiling down into Italy. Eperon Croz video here… https://vimeo.com/107092979
#6 North Face of the Matterhorn
Fast forward to 2021 and I am trying to climbing the remaining north face before I am fifty. The question is, am I a completer finisher?…
Guides, Instructors and leaders operating in the UK in avalanche terrain frequently travel in groups, but yet there remains very little research into the ‘Non Technical Skills’ required to mitigate avalanche terrain.
CASM is a proposed Human Factors group tool which is based on Crew Resource Management (CRM) training from the aviation sector, an inevitably well-researched safety critical industry. In addition, established research into avalanche incidents and the applied psychology of Human Factors in safety critical industries has also formed the basis of CASM.
CASM stands for Communication, Alter Command Gradient, Situational Awareness and Minimise Disruption. Many guides, instructors and leaders will already carry out some of the practices that these headings aim to capture. There is no intention to negate those behaviours or propose CASM as a single option, it is a Human Factors group tool that can be used alongside others, or in conjunction with decision making frameworks such as Be Avalanche Aware (BAA).
It is hoped that CASM can be used alongside other established technical skills to reduce the risk of unintended “heuristic traps” or group affects. The ultimate aim being the safe conduct of a mountaineering or skiing day.
CASM v3.0 – Video
Communication is arguably the non-technical skill from which all the other headings flow, in fact it is an essential element of all the others listed. Communication is regarded as critical for groups to perform effectively in winter snow sports (Trempler 2008, Zweifel 2014) and in aviation (CAA 2016). The ultimate aim here is to establish and maintain lines of communication between members of the group, and also between the leader and the group and vice versa. Discussion of the avalanche hazard is useful, along with the mantra of “saying what you see”.
Communication should be CLEAR – Contextual, Logically structured, Essential, Ambiguity-free and Resonating (Zweifel 2014). In pressured situations structured communication may be useful such as SBAR and/or NITS brief (Hearns 2019 and Jackson 2021). SBAR – Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendations.
As a leader communicating using a logical structure demonstrates the legitimacy of authority due to competence. i.e. you have thought about your work and presented it in a rational and organised manner. The use of technical language of mountaineering/skiing is useful to establish credibility and trust (Ginnet 2019).
Alter Command Gradient
The aim here is to flatten any hierarchy between the leader and the group. Although leaders will have established legitimate authority having been engaged to carry out their role, they need to balance the tasks as a group. In affect a leader is building a relationship by saying that although they have overall responsibility for the enterprise but members of the group can take on some of that responsibility as well. This is particularly important to create a situation where the leader is not relied on entirely without question, especially if they have made an error.
A frequent briefing for off piste skiing in avalanche terrain is a good example:
“Any avalanche observations or snow conditions that you think might help out, I would really appreciate having my attention drawn to it. I will be keeping a good lookout as well, but there is always the potential for me to miss things”.
This simple statement is an example of disavowing perfection, by sharing a personal shortcoming e.g. everybody can be looking in the wrong direction, you demonstrate that you are not only human but can deal with you own vulnerabilities (Ginnet 2019, McKenna 2019).
Nobody feels comfortable in a group where the leader is always right. With a flatter hierarchy you empower people to speak up if they are uncomfortable or concerned.
Situational Awareness is a broad concept which simply means having an idea of what is going on, but also being able to project into the future and anticipate what may happen next. A common term in aviation, it is a broad catch all. For us in the mountains we can strive to achieve a shared mental model for the day, and anticipate what may lie over the horizon. Start by having a plan (and contingencies).
Watch for the cues of loss of Situational Awareness (CAA 2016): Ambiguity, fixation, confusion, not prioritising the task, “being head down”, and being unable to resolve discrepancies.
Manage the factors which reduce awareness (Zacharias 2019) such as wellness, fatigue and distraction.
Focus on tasks that enhance safety. The perception of danger requires focus and attention. Chatting, texting and checking social media at the wrong time can detract from the environment and decision making.
The term “sterile cockpit” is used to describe any period of time when crews or groups should not be disturbed except for matters critical to the safety. Additionally, leaders should focus on their essential operational activities (Pollitt 2021).
At key places during your day you may request not to be disturbed by anybody while decision making, and it is a two-way street, don’t disturb others. As such you might plan to call for a sterile cockpit at certain points in the day, or alternatively foster all group members to request it if they are stretched or distracted (Hearns 2019).
Be Avalanche Aware, Snow and Avalanche Foundation for Scotland / Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
Jackson D, 2021, [Personal communication], Mountain CRM, Case Study: Take-Off with contamination on the wings prevented by cabin crew.
The aim of the survey is to gain better understanding of how published avalanche reports and the avalanche service is used and understood by climbers, hillwalkers, skiers and snowboarders engaging in activities in the winter mountains and hills. The survey is being conducted by Dr Philip Ebert & Dr David Comerford of the Behavioural Science Centre at the University of Stirling in consultation with Mark Diggins SAIS.
The survey should take approximately 20min to complete and your answers will remain anonymous.
“Your support and time with the survey would be greatly appreciated and will SAIS to develop and improve the information provided”. Mark Diggins SAIS coordinator, 1 March 2021.
A few days ago I shared the exciting news that Mountain Assurance is preparing to launch a short online course entitled ‘Mountain CRM’. This short course in Crew Resource Management and human factors in avalanche terrain will be a mix of written material, short lectures and audio interviews.
What is CRM?
But the obvious question is: what is CRM? Like any good three letter acronym it can mean different things to different people. In the context of human factors we are talking about ‘Crew Resource Management’, a term first used in aviation.
CRM training courses were introduced to mitigate the affects of heuristics and other human factors, but have since grown to encompass many ‘non technical skills’.
For leaders, instructors and mountain guides working in the winter mountains, CRM behaviours and non technical skills can be used alongside existing decision making frameworks such as ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ (BAA).
The winter mountains may not be your work place, but some of the behaviours and non technical skills will almost certainly be relevant to lots of recreational user groups in the mountains.
An introduction to ‘Crew Resource Management’ and ‘Human Factors’ in Avalanche Terrain
A generic definition of CRM might be the training of the cognitive and social skills needed to support technical training in order to optimise safe and efficient operations.
Work (or recreation) in avalanche terrain requires exactly that. The use of cognitive and social skills to better cope with uncertainty. We are not pre-hospital doctors or pilots but our observations and decisions are made in dynamic mountain environments with the potential for signifiant consequences.
Although we are arguably working in a low tech environment, in contrast to a modern flight deck, CRM has a place in any environment which relies on humans in the system.
Mountain CRM is an opportunity to “train your brain for avalanche terrain”.
What you will learn…
✔️ Enhance your awareness of human factors and human fallibility
✔️ Develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to mitigate errors and manage risk
✔️ How to prevent and manage group errors
✔️ To use CRM knowledge as an outdoor professional, to balance making a living with safety
✔️ Integrate CRM knowledge, skills and attributes to shift the culture of the outdoor professional sector and help prevent incidents in avalanche terrain
Human Factors – “it’s all about the Human Factor, init [sic]”
For many winter sports enthusiasts the acronym of FACETS will need little introduction, especially for those who have undertaken any avalanche training. Interest in Human Factors among winter sports enthusiasts, has rocketed in recent years. It is an in vogue subject.
Here lies the problem, in our search for answers we are applying concepts from other sectors with little understanding of Human Factors (HF) as a scientific discipline. We have an early awareness of Human Factors, but the application of HF is far from understood in a snow sports context.
What are Human Factors (HF)?
Human factors and ergonomics (commonly referred to as human factors) is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest. Source: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering. Wickens, Gordon, Liu, 1997.
HF is clearly a broad area with its basis in various areas. Stephen Shorrock summarises it well as ‘Human Factors’ emerged from many disciplines, with none dominating completely. Human Performance is related primarily to psychology, physiology, and sports science, with psychology dominating industrial applications. Source: Human Factors and Human Performance is there a difference?
Human Factors (HF) in Avalanche
So what about Human Factors in avalanche terrain, snow sports and mountaineering? Historically our understanding has been framed by heuristics and the work of Ian McCammon in the early 2000’s. McCammon researched avalanche incidents and identified six human factors that were significant factors in avalanche incidents.
Ian McCammon proposed the main human factors (effectively heuristics) that may influence decisions as: Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity and Social Facilitation. These factors form the acronym FACETS. For more details on this from Avalanche Canada.
Heuristics are simply short cuts to decision making which allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Very simply they are “rules of thumb”. Frequently these work in our favour, but sometimes result in error. Also referred to as cognitive bias, there are many at work.
More recently the Cognitive Bias codex proposed 180+ cognitive biases. The reality is that the situation is more complicated than the six general influences listed in FACETS.
Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications – FACETS
Quite rightly this seminal work has seen the widespread adoption of the FACETS acronym worldwide, from avalanche training courses to introductory winter skills. But it remains a broad brush stroke approach to a much bigger and nuanced subject, the reality is it’s complicated!
The bulk of this blog post was written after a conversation with Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada at the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS) conference in autumn 2019. Why? Because we both speculated that despite an increased awareness of FACETS that there hadn’t been a significant change in behaviour in the field. I should point out that’s an opinion, but we should perhaps ask what’s going on?
I would recommend reading it, and then reading it again!
Jerry Johnson: Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm
In rethinking heuristic traps, Johnson reviews McCammons work which has been widely adopted over more than 15 years.
He points out that the initial research was conducted into avalanche incidents alone, and while that may identify the root cause of incidents fails to take account of the wins. As such incidents (or accidents) might not be the best window into decision making on the ground.
This builds on Laura Maguire’s lecture Maguire, L. (2020). Cognition in the wild: Supporting avalanche professionals through cognitive systems engineering . Canadian Avalanche Association Spring Conference which is available below.
Human Factors is a broad term and at a practical level we should be talking about the application of non technical skills by mountaineers and skiers.
I think that non technical skills for skiers and mountaineers include: situational awareness, decision-making, teamwork and communication, leadership and task management and the application of these skills in the winter environment. Understanding decision making is likely only by adopting a systems approach to our “wicked learning environment”.
As a Mountain Guide and instructor I am focussed on the practical application of these skills on the mountain, I am no psychologist. Even if people understand and recognize human factors, indications are this knowledge does not effectively change behaviour in the field. If there is any chance of affecting these behaviours it is through a consistent and solid planning process that, hopefully, produces a trip plan that keeps people out of situations where human factors might have a negative influence! [Avalanche Canada].
Johnson is arguably on point with the final section of his abstract: We end with a discussion, and a call to action to the avalanche research community, of how we could move towards resolution of these weaknesses and add value to prior work on human factor research. Our aim is not to disparage the seminal, paradigm shifting work by McCammon, but rather draw attention to how it has been operationalized and how the industry needs to move beyond this paradigm to see further gains in our understanding of avalanche fatalities.
To climb Mont Blanc remains one of the great accessible challenges in the Chamonix Mont Blanc Massif for climbers and alpinists. Standing on the highest summit (4810m) around and looking across the Italian plains, along the alpine arc and below to the smaller chains of Les Aravis and Chablais is a seminal experience.
But we are faced with a mountain under pressure from visitors and continually degrading conditions due to climate change. Year after year Mont Blanc is becoming a riskier proposition.
In recent years, I have climbed (and guided) Mont Blanc on a handful of occasions choosing to make attempts early and late in the season to avoid the heat waves, and crowds of the high season. More recently, at the high of the season I have decided to avoid it altogether.
We all have to decide the level of risk we are prepared to tolerate, and this approach has always seemed logical for some guides in an attempt to reduce the cumulative risk of making multiple ascents.
The reality is that limits in hut space and availability due to crowding puts significant pressure on guides and independent climbers to attempt the mountain on schedules that wouldn’t be their first choice. The result is an incremental mission creep towards narrower margins of safety, and judgements on the ground taken on smaller and smaller criteria.
The Inconvenient Truth
A new project initiated and led by the Petzl Foundation, arguably places my own previous strategy in doubt. These independently led projects have centred around the Goûter Couloir some times simply referred to as “The Death Couloir”. No sensationalism is required here though, with this intimidating location and its immediate surroundings being responsible for an average of 3.7 fatalities per year and countless injuries.
Regardless of your experience to climb Mont Blanc by the normal route (voie normal), you will need to pass the couloir, either in ascent, descent or both.
The Petzl Foundation asked the simple but logic question: How can we reduce accidents in the Goûter Couloir?
Presenting such a significant objective danger due to rock fall, the Petzl Foundation postulate that the Goûter Couloir tarnishes the image of mountaineering. That assertion is certainly an inconvenient truth, but one that would be worthwhile stepping back and scrutinising away from the commercial pressures of the tourism industry and individuals livelihoods.
The full links to the reports, are available below and worth reading in full.
“Despite its limitations (see Conclusion), this study provides valuable information for those planning to ascend Mont Blanc:
– The number of rock destabilisation events recorded over the course of the study is an indicator of extreme gravitational activity.
– In 2019, a rock destabilisation event was recorded every 37 minutes on average and every 24 minutes on average during a peak of activity between 7 pm and 8 pm.
– The highest frequency of rock destabilisation events was recorded between 6pm and 8 pm. It increased an average of three hours after temperatures became positive at the top of the couloir.
– Rock destabilisation events grew more frequent and larger in size when the couloir became exposed to the sun.
– The time of day when rock destabilisation was least frequent was between 9 am and 10 am.
– The couloir was as dangerous at 3 pm as it was at 10 pm.
– Rock destabilisation was more frequent at the beginning of the season, partly as a result of snowmelt. However, these events were relatively small in size, but still hazardous for mountaineers.
– The frequency of rock destabilisation events was lower in the second half of the summer season, but the longest events (“boulder showers”) and those involving the highest volumes of material also occurred during this period.
– The liquid water present in rock fractures seems to be the primary factor governing the risk of rock destabilisation. The more liquid water is present in the cracks in the rock (melt water/precipitation), the greater the frequency of rock destabilisation events. Mountaineers need to be particularly cautious during periods of snowmelt or after rain/storms.
– The presence of snow in the couloir is not necessarily a guarantee of safety, since snowmelt promotes rock destabilisation.
– A cold period marked by frequent freeze-thaw cycles is conducive to the occurrence of rock destabilisation. Only a cold period without thawing (which is rare in the summer) can reduce the frequency of destabilisation events.”
Climbing Mont Blanc
The conclusions from this report adds evidence to the widely held view that crossing early in the day before the couloir is fully in the sun, is in relative terms “safer”.
This includes ascent and descent, so hut reservations that facilitate these timings are essential. Starting early from the Tete Rousse Hut, and staying at the Goûter Hut in descent is one option. There are inevitably financial barriers to this, and the issues of securing bookings of huts that are in significant demand.
Finally if starting from the Tete Rousse Hut, some guides choose to start at first light. So at least they can see the conditions in the couloir and will get visual confirmation of any rock fall activity. Choosing to cross in the dark, although common, degrades you ability to make observations.
There are alternatives, and with fifty major 4000 metre peaks in the alps there is a whole collection of challenging objectives on these classic peaks alone. Although any alpine route will be subject to objective dangers and can never be risk free, there are plenty of summits that can be climbed without the same exposure to rock fall on Mont Blanc.
[Originally published in July 2016 this post describes and ascent of Les Droites, Chris Bedford’s last 4000m summit in the Alps].
In mid July, unsettled weather cleared through the alps leaving fresh snow and colder conditions behind. It was an ideal opportunity to grab an ascent of Les Droites with Chris Bedford.
Chris had been waiting for an opportunity to try Les Droites again after an attempt a couple of years ago. To leave it at that would be a gross understatement, as Chris had climbed all of the other major 4000m summits in the Alps, many with his wife Liz. Just one remained – Les Droites.
A quick text exchange followed: “Do you want to do Les Droites? I think it could be good.” The immediate reply of “Yes, deffo!” sealing our plan for the next couple of days.
With this single objective in mind we made the approach to the Refuge Courvercle and had an early night in preparation for our start at midnight. Here lies the difficultly in timing an ascent of Les Droites. It’s imperative to leave early to ensure that the south facing slopes are still sufficiently frozen in descent. Why not go earlier you ask? Well start too early and the glacial approach and initial slopes won’t have sufficiently refrozen from the heat of the day.
Acutely aware of this delicate balance we started out from the hut shortly after midnight to find that the glacier was only moderately consolidated. We traversed carefully through the crevasses trying to pick out the line which we had observed the night before. Making good progress the starting couloir was in sight, only to remain on the horizon as we slowed to a crawl in knee deep unfrozen snow on the glacier.
The likelihood of a successful ascent was rapidly slipping away with the minutes, and I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to Chris that our attempt might be over. Neil Johnson, had experienced tricky conditions accessing the Jardin Ridge the day before and had urged us to simply “keep the faith’.
Keep the faith we did, and the glacier was soon behind us, albeit with some wallowing in deep snow. The approach couloir was good neve however, allowing fast upwards progress onto the broken mixed ground below the East Summit. There was much scope for variation here and we moved together following our nose through the small mixed steps and ‘corde-tendue’ climbing towards the summit.
We moved together up the final steep snow slopes before pulling onto the crest at the top, Chris leading us up onto the top of his final 4000er.
Thanks Chris for a fantastic experience being a very small part of a long term project.
Both Chris and Liz have now ticked all the major 4000m peaks of the Alps, and although I may stand corrected, may be the first husband and wife to do so?..