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Winter Hiking Accident Analysis

Stick together - Never spilt a group on a winter hike
Stick together – Never spilt a group on a winter hike

I was introduced to accident analysis as a teaching methodology a few years ago when I took the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (Boston Chapter) Winter Hiking Program. I sat their riveted as Mohammed Ellozy, a well known White Mountain hiker, climber, AMC leader, and the former accident editor for Appalachia Magazine, described and analyzed an accident report for us about two winter hikers who got disoriented on Mt Lafayette and spent an unexpected night out, with tragic consequences.

I’ll save you the details, but the lesson we all learned that night was to “get below treeline,” if you want survive an unexpected night out in the winter without shelter. I still think it the most important survival lessons you can learn for hiking in the White Mountains in winter.

I was reminded about the accident again last night, as I was sitting in another Winter Hiking Program class. Instead of being a student, however,  I am one of the volunteers helping to run the program, giving gear demonstrations to the students, and co-leading some of the day trips, overnights and skills workshops that are held on weekends for the students. We reviewed a similar accident report, but this was one where a person got lost on Mt Lafayette in a whiteout, and ended up spending 40 hours on the mountain before he could be rescued. He lived because he got below treeline.

What’s remarkable to me is how powerful and memorable these accident analysis teaching sessions are, particularly when they’re interpreted by students together in a group. Students can ignore a lecturer, but it’s much harder to avoid participating in an accident analysis discussion with people who will be your hiking partners over the weekend.

Equally important, these incidents are never as black or white as you might think. You can be fairly well prepared and still have things go south in a hurry if someone in your group wanders off in a whiteout, you’re too ambitious, or you try something that’s borderline stupid but that you’ve gotten away with in the past in better weather.

I’ve done some really dumb stuff in winter and lived to tell the tale: accident reports are a better way to learn from other peoples’ mistakes without having to make them yourself.

If you’re interested in reading some White Mountain accident reports, here are a few good sources and references:

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11 comments

  1. Somehow, accident analysis always struck me as being a bit morbid and one of my least favorite topics. Kind'a like waiting for an accident to happen so it can be analyzed. But, it is a necessary evil. Learning from my mistake is good, I make more than my share. Learning from someone else’s mistake is better! And, easier on my old body…

  2. Someone much smarter than me said those that don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Another wise person said I won't live long enough to make every mistake so learn from the mistakes of others.

    Two good sources for this type of information is the American Alpine Club ( http://www.americanalpineclub.org/p/anam ) and the Mountaineers ( http://www.mountaineers.org/about/safety.cfm ).

    Michael Blair http://www.meetup.com/random-hikers

  3. Recently, I also took a winter hiking workshop. The main takeaway for me was to keep warm in winter, and keeping warm is a function of keeping dry. When a winter hiker gets wet and dehydrated, accidents are more likely to happen.

  4. Jim – some of the accident reports are grim, but there's nothing like a true story and storytelling to pass along important knowledge. (Think Aesop's' Fables – I was raised on the stuff.)

    I took a 3 day Avalanche Class (AIARE Level 1 Certification) last winter and we also did a lot of accident analysis in that class. It really hammers in lesson points.

    Michael – I wish the AMC would put the old accident reports from Appalachia online. I'd read them if I didn't have to buy them. Of course, I could just go to Joy St and sit in their library to read them, still it seems like it would better to make them free.

  5. I should have probably added the 4 questions it's useful to ask when analyzing an accident report:

    1) What could they have done different before the accident?

    2) What did they do wrong?

    3) What did they learn?

    4) What conclusions can you draw from this incident?

    Like I said above, it's not always black and white what went wrong. Ambiguity makes us think.

  6. Phil, yes. I make it a point to read them. I never liked what I was reading. Some stories are really funny.Some are misanthropic and quite unlikely.Some are very serious and some are simply tragic. Anyway, we can all benefit from them. Aesop?? I was thinking more like Grim(m.)

  7. I wish they would put them online too. They have a few on outdoors.org (you have link in your story) but but not that many.

    Michael Blair http://www.meetup.com/random-hikers

  8. Michael – That sounds like a cause! I have the contact info for the guy who collects these at the Highland Center.

  9. Oh, man, I thought it was just me who likes reading these! It’s my guilty pleasure whenever I stay at an AMC establishment, reading the old Appalachia accident reports. Now that I’m a leader, I figure it’s just research, right?

    So when, Philip, will you be posting a blog about the “dumb stuff” you’ve done in winter? :-)

    • That’s easy – here are a few.

      1) Climbed mountains alone.
      2) Fallen into spruce traps (alone)
      3) Used a grabber warmer in a -25 degree bag (you sweat)
      4) wake up at 3am to drive to a day hike in the Whites
      5) Hiked twice+ with people who make risky decisions
      6) used plastic boots when non-mountaineering boots will do just fine in certain conditions
      7) Not bring two headlamps
      8) Used snowshoes without televators to save weight
      9) No bringing food I really like to eat
      the usual. It’s all about experience.

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