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: