It should come as no surprise that mountaineering is an inherently dangerous endeavor. We face many challenges when we decide to go high; altitude sickness, rock falls, snow/ice conditions, weather, equipment failures to name a few.
Many of these factors can be mitigated through quality equipment, training and an experienced climbing team. There are of course factors that we cannot control such as the weather and terrain conditions. These uncontrollable variables are what force us to rely on our experience or the experience of others to make good decisions and execute risk mitigation strategies in a calm and purposeful manner.
Despite our greatest efforts in all of the above, we will always be faced with dangers, both unforeseen and unavoidable, and it is during these moments that we must deploy our greatest weapon on the mountain, a calm and collective mentality.
Panic kills! When a climb goes wrong, you may only have a split-second to make a good decision. Panic can also affect us in a more gradual manner, leading us to make smaller poor decisions that collectively put us in dangerous situations throughout the duration of our climb.
Panic is often a consequence of a lack of familiarity. Our society on a whole is so risk-averse that often mitigation strategies are designed into the machinery we operate or legislated in the rules that we follow. The result of which is that we are not accustomed to danger and thus not familiar with the feeling of panic.
So how do we deal with this emotion when it ferociously strikes at 5,500m?
I recently climbed the North face of Abi Himal in the Khumbu region, Nepal. A climb in two parts – a glacial ascent followed by a 50% gradient snow/ice face. The conditions for climbing were poor during our expedition. Warm weather had rotted the glacier and softened the snow meaning climbing equipment designed to keep us safe was instead coming lose and leaving us unsupported. Add rockfalls and poor decision making by the climbing team we were relying on to get us up and down safely, and you’ll get some very hairy moments.
When things go wrong, we feel that wave of panic (fight or flight) and it is important to try and switch quickly to solutions mode. Another common problem is denial, leading to the disregard of the seriousness of the current situation. Again, one needs to swiftly accept that lives are in danger and switch to solutions mode.
Here are a few things you can do to help mitigate the risk of an accident.
- Consolidate your position on the climb, provide yourself with as much safety as you can and take time to calm down and plan your next step (obviously assuming the danger is not immediate – like a rock falling towards you).
- Check your equipment, often this moves your mind past the feeling of panic and into a place of confidence by taking comfort in the safety checks that you already have in place.
- Marshall your resources. If there is another climber on your pitch, discuss the situation and plan together (if they are on the same pitch they are most likely facing the same danger).
- Test your strategy from your consolidated position on the climb and be prepared to modify as conditions can change.
- Most of all, evaluate the viability of the climb based on the current conditions you are in. Remember, the mountain is not going anywhere.
Climbing is a team activity. Everyone’s safety is at risk and your actions in those moments when things go wrong matter – not only to you but to those people in your team as well. You can’t correct bad decisions already made but you can make good ones from that point forward.
Stay safe and happy climbing.