1:x What’s in a mountain guiding ratio?

1:x What’s in a mountain guiding ratio? 1:1, 1:2 Cultural norms, local customs, regulation and why small ratio groups are more important than you think.

The situation I found myself in was suboptimal. ‘Tower Ridge’ is normally climbed roped up, with one or two clients per instructor or guide, using the techniques of short-roping and short-pitching.

On this occasion it was rapidly getting dark, and the weather was deteriorating. The sideways gusts providing a relentless blast of icy pellets into the side of my face.

‘Tower Ridge’ on Ben Nevis had provided a suitable challenge. The client nearest me was now dangling exhausted on the rope.

Swinging slightly in the wind and unable to climb out of ‘Tower Gap’ neither of us were sure how we were going to get out of this one. The situation was getting graver by the minute and it was all my fault.”

The two remaining clients looked on slightly concerned that they too would struggle to climb out of the gap. The situation was difficult enough, but I had three people on the rope to manage and it was going to be a long night…

1:x what's in a mountain guiding ratio?

Local Rationality

Was it really my fault? Trying to understand why we do what we do requires perspective. If we think about our own performance, it is obvious that we do what seems reasonable to us at the time.

In short, we go to work with the aim of doing the rational thing. The other side of the coin is that if the situation did not make sense to us, we probably wouldn’t have done it.

This is the Local Rationality Principle, and you can read about it here at Skybrary.aero. When considering case studies or stories it is important to consider the person’s situation and knowledge at the time, not what they, or you as the observer may know in hindsight.

As a young and newly qualified Mountaineering Instructor (WMCI) I had agreed to cover for another instructor that was ill. It wasn’t until I turned up that I really understood the plan was to do ‘Tower Ridge’ with a group of six. This was to be as two independent ropes of 1:3.

It wasn’t the lead instructors fault either. They had worked with the group for a few years and had done a few easier routes like this, and the conditions on ‘Tower Ridge’ had been favourable up to this point. ‘Tower Ridge’ made sense to them on the day.

Arguably, in the previous days the route may have been relatively straight forward. And this was when the original instructor was due to work. Although I had my doubts I didn’t raise them. We both drifted into the situation where we were committed on the route and making progress inch by inch in difficult conditions. But at ‘Tower Gap’ there was no doubt that it was us, that owned the decisions that had put us there.

What do the guidelines say?

At a recent workshop I was facilitating the conversation drifted towards the instructors favourite: rates of pay and ratios. I listened intently as one newly qualified instructor told me it was common place, if not industry standard to work at 1:3 on a particularly craggy Scottish Island.

Without hesitation I suggested that the “gold standard” of 1:1 or 1:2 would be more appropriate. To me, with my experience on ‘Tower Ridge’ the answer was obvious. But it is important to take the perspective of those heading to the craggy island for the first time.

So what do the guidelines actually say in the UK? MTUKI publish the National Guidelines here at: https://www.mountain-training.org/Content/Uploaded/Downloads/MLT/d0ce4421-70b6-4325-8df2-8525f339802e.pdf

Here’s the rub. The information provided is broad to cover multiple scenarios. The provider or employer should ensure:

“The ratio between participant and leader ensures adequate control and safe conduct of the activity”.

While the leader or instructor should:

“Inform the provider or employer if the ratio of leader to participants is such that the safe conduct of the party is in question”.

Cultural Norms and Ratios

The reality is that instructional and guiding ratios are really cultural norms in the UK. In many cases they remain un-communicated. They form part of the hidden curriculum that we all navigate. We are left to work these out for ourselves in many cases, applying them to our daily work.

ratio noun. the relative magnitudes of two quantities (usually expressed as a quotient)”.

Of course the newly qualified person that I was speaking to, had come to their conclusion by making observations of others.

Look closely and the subtle cues to the “gold standard” are there, with many providers operating at 1:1 or 1:2. Take a look at the ratios for MCI or WMCI training and assessment and you will find “gold” again. But as a community we remain largely silent on the issue.

(Above) “Brown standard++” – 1:6 on the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the Isle of Skye, climbers unknown. Credit: Kev Rutherford

In contrast in Europe most routes have an accepted guiding ratio. In the alps these are usually set by local guiding companies and are known as “customs”. Alternatively, they may be found in legislation in one form or another. For example in the Val d’Aosta.

Non-standard Ratios

So there is an argument that 1:3+ is acceptable assuming that you have the right instructor/guide with the right clients, on the right terrain in the right conditions. Seems legit… In a small number of circumstances in simple uncomplicated terrain this “brown standard” might be ok.

But the problem is that as a provider or freelance instructor/guide, you have no control over the conditions at the time of booking. The clients ability will be difficult to judge on communication alone. This can only be confirmed by observation on the day.

As a result the risk of the enterprise is pushed down to the freelance instructor on the ground. Ultimately, they are expected to make a decision on the itinerary on the day. That might be ok, but whether we like it or not doing so adds to the pressure of decision making.

My challenge to the employers and providers out there who continue to offer courses at “brown standard” ratios is simple. Please help instructors and guides to do the right thing, support good decision making and work at the “gold standard”.

There is the additional consequence here that those operating unbound by the professional standards of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) and the British Association of Mountain Guides (BMG) have the greatest flexibility to apply the “brown standard”. Arguably, they are by definition the least qualified in their technical field to make those judgements. Yet they are frequently observed working in this way, adding credibility to exotic behaviour.

The Technical Stuff

The context here is one of roped climbing and scrambling on rock and mixed terrain in winter. It is an unavoidable fact that three people on the rope results in a greater potential load, and therefore an increased risk of severing the rope. Increasing the pre-load from 80kg to 160kg reduces the cut resistance of a polyamide rope by more than 81%. [Personal communication – ‘Weight Matters’, Daniel Gebel, EDELRID].

In a short-roping scenario without intermediate runners on the rope, it is impossible to keep the rope to the third person tight enough for it to be useful.

There is some excellent information in EDELRID’s Knowledge Base here at: https://www.edelrid.de/en/knowledge-base/sports/index.php

“The overall conclusion here is simple and quite obvious. In order to increase the overall safety regarding cut resistance of a given rope system, one should try to reduce the weight that is applied within the system before looking for any other solutions!”

Edelrid – Knowledge Base, Cut Resistance of Ropes – Part II

Dogma aside you will find isolated situations where numbers on the rope will vary. Ski touring is a classic example in the alps, where small summits are accessed or cols crossed roped. But look closely and these examples will be different in context i.e. uncomplicated short snow slopes or well furnished with bolts.

What does safety look like?

Tower Ridge was a long day for my clients and one where we were all stretched beyond our comfort zone. I guess that’s experience, but if you find yourself in the same situation it is worth considering what safety might look like:

  • It is the ‘Gold Standard’ of 1:1 or 1:2.
  • Sticking to your values and being prepared to state where your red lines are when working.
  • Being clear about standards – talking about norms and acceptable practice.
  • Setting an example. If you are an instructor or guide you should be able to explain how you do your work and why.

If you liked this article you may wish to read Attentional Narrowing: Why mountain guides and pilots know it can put you in harms way. Check out Assured Training or E-Learning.

The Normalisation of Deviance and how I nearly killed myself at an avalanche “safe” venue…

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.

(Above) ‘Les Formes du Chaos’ at the popular cascade ice climbing venue of Ceillac

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 in the 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.

Habit Forming

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.

Richard Feynman

Vermicelli

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.

The Consequences

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?

If you liked this article you may wish to read Attentional Narrowing: Why mountain guides and pilots know it can put you in harms way. Check out Assured Training or E-Learning.

The Human Factor in mountaineering and snow sports – Going beyond FACETS.

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

Ian McCammons original paper can be found here at: Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications. I would recommend reading the full paper as a seminal work on the subject of Human Factors / Heuristics. For those who want a two minute summary this video runs through FACETS in two minutes:

Powder Magazine: The Human Factor Intro

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?

Roll forward to autumn 2020 and I have just digested this paper from Jerry Johnson et al : Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm in avalanche education: Past, present and future.

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.

In short, taking a systems approach to the “nerd fight”, you can view this video here at https://youtu.be/M3HR_Uuvqf4

Changing the narrative around Human Factors

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.

Mont Blanc: The Inconvenient Truth…

Mont Blanc du Tacul

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.

Petzl Foundation Reports – Mont Blanc

Petzl Foundation – Mont Blanc: how can we reduce accidents in the Goûter couloir?

https://www.petzl.com/fondation/Couloir-Gouter_Rapport_EN_web.pdf?v=1

Petzl Foundation – Goûter Couloir on the normal route, Mont Blanc

The latest reports make some stark observations:

“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.