“Is this safe?” was the question asked of me as we descended Mont Blanc. At that moment the person I was with needed reassurance, not an assessment of the hazards, their associated risks and management. So, I said “Yes, totally safe”. This was a lie of course, descending Mont Blanc is never totally safe, mountaineering is dangerous and there are inherent risks. We got down to the Aiguille du Midi and took the telepherique down to Chamonix, an experience that was, to my client, more terrifying and seemingly less safe than climbing Mont Blanc!
All this got me thinking about what is safe, how safe is safe and how safe should we try to make climbing?
It seems to me that the goal is not to make climbing as safe as possible. The goal is to make it safe enough.
There are risks in everything that we do, and there are certainly risks involved with mountaineering and climbing. It’s good to try our best to reduce the risks through training and equipment, techniques and good planning, but there will always be some risk and accidents will happen. In the event of an accident, we should not necessarily change things and put safer systems in place so that kind of accident can never happen again. If we do this, we will eventually change the activity so much that it will not be climbing anymore as we know it.
We do need to learn from our mistakes, self-reflection and peer-reflection are very important, and many accidents are made through mistakes that could have been avoided. However, there is an end point at which we need to accept that certain accidents are inherent in the activity, and need to be accepted (or we don’t take part in the activity).
There is a very good analogy between climbing and driving on the road. There are many rules and ways of driving that make it safer, but it is certainly not as safe as possible. If the speed limit was 20mph everywhere, or if we had dual carriageways everywhere, there would be far fewer accidents. However, we have decided that driving is safe enough and we have accepted that a certain number and type of accidents are inevitable with the current system that makes travelling by road feasible.
The gold standard we are trying to achieve is to know that what we are doing is safe enough, as safe as it can be while still allowing us to go climbing. This is actually quite hard to do because the feedback we get is not always very helpful. When we go and do something, it might work out nicely, but we might be unaware that we were very close to having something go wrong. I have seen many climbers operating with pretty sloppy ropework but they have never had a problem and have always received positive feedback from their techniques, in the form of not having an accident and going home in one piece.
This is especially the case in avalanche terrain. It is possible to walk or ski across a snow slope and think that we made a very good decision about the stability of the snow based on the fact that we did not cause an avalanche. However, we might have been very close to triggering the slope to avalanche. The feedback is either trigger an avalanche or don’t trigger one. We can get positive feedback (no avalanche) when we should have got negative feedback (we were very close to triggering an avalanche). What would be useful is feedback that is not binary (did or did not avalanche) but graduated (we were 95% of the way to triggering an avalanche). Unfortunately, this kind of feedback is not available.
Feedback on an individual level can be quite unreliable. However, feedback on the level of the entire climbing community is better. If there is a significant number of accidents associated with a particular technique or piece of equipment, we should notice this, investigate the problem and do something about it. In avalanche education, we have gone through this process. We realised that people getting hurt in avalanches were often doing so not because of a lack of understanding of avalanches, but because of human factors in their decision making. As a result, we now have excellent resources and training that is aimed at helping us understand human factors in decision making and how to avoid letting them influence our decisions negatively.
All of this was very much on my mind yesterday as Doug and I climbed NE Buttress on Ben Nevis. It felt very serious, but always safe enough. Doug and I both understood the task and the risks, the systems that we were using and how to use them properly, and we discussed and agreed on our strategy at every step. I didn't take many photos because I was working hard, observing, calculating, judging, trying to work out the balance of risk all the time.
The wind was very strong in the morning but forecast to drop off later in the day; there might be windslab on the approach; actually the approach traverse was boiler-plate icy snow, sideways on grade I gradients, with anchors every 30m or so; we moved together quite a bit, increasing speed but decreasing security; we pitched the hard bits, four pitches in total; the snow was really solid so falling would have been difficult with ice axes in the snow; the consequence of a fall would have been disastrous; the wind did drop off as expected; the cracks in The Mantrap were clear of ice and the Forty Foot Corner had some nice bits of snow-ice; it was pretty white on top, we had to concentrate to find the summit and the way down.
NE Buttress is one of the finest winter mountaineering expeditions in the country and it was awesome yesterday!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.