Sense of security
August 18, 2007
It’s truly amazing how many ways people can get into trouble in the mountains. Death or serious injury from lightning, animal attacks, falls from heights, drowning,, rockfall, and the list goes on and on.
One reason people hire guides in the mountains is to increase the level of safety for backcountry trips.
Because of inherent risks involved in outdoor pursuits, no guide service can promise safety. Aguide service can maintain a high level of professionalism by having a good risk-management plan in place.
Such a plan does little to control the natural forces one may encounter when using a guide service in the mountains.
Safety has been on my mind this week after receiving news that a friend died rock climbing last Saturday in the Wind River Mountains outside of Lander, Wyo.
Ahiker above the climbers dislodged a boulder that hit my friend in the head. He died instantly even though he was wearing a helmet. He leaves behind a wife and 7-year-old daughter.
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We are now into the time of year that people want to get up the fourteeners before the first snows of winter make safe climbing more problematic. In a normal year, we see those early snows sometime in September or early October. Last year, we saw snow as early as late August on the high peaks. In some years, we see that first early snow melt out in September; last year that never happened.
From a risk-management viewpoint, this past week has gotten pretty interesting. I had a young man’s father call me three weeks ago to see if I would take his son climbing up Capitol Peak in one day, then climb the Bells and Pyramid in one day.
I’ve never heard of the Bells and Pyramid being guided in one day ” the risk factors resulting from fatigue and afternoon thunderstorms are very high.
On Monday, we started off with Capitol Peak. We began our trek at 4 in the morning to do the ascent in one day. We returned to the trailhead 11 hours later after traveling 17 miles roundtrip with 5,800 vertical feet of elevation gain. The young man is very fit, and I could see the possibility of doing the Bells and Pyramid in a day.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we did rest days because Thursday had the possibility of being rather strenuous. We had a rather early start by hiking at 3 a.m. We arrived on the summit of North Maroon at 6:30 a.m.
We did the both Maroon Bells, including the traverse twice, and then started up Pyramid Peak trying to make our third attempt of a fourteener in one day.
We ended our climb of Pyramid in the large amphitheater below because of thunderstorms.
I really wanted to get up Pyramid, but, at the same time, I realized we were pushing the safety envelope more than I would care to admit.
Safety and trying to stay on top of risk management is relative to the perception of those trying to accomplish specific goals in the mountains. I get personally involved in the goals of others in the mountains when I help people to reach a summit or travel to a particular destination.
To improve our chances of success and increase our safety margin, I invited a fellow guide to accompany us Thursday for the attempt on the three peaks.
Having three people on the traverse seemed just right. More than three and the team will start to slow down, and it’s hard for the leader to keep track of all participants in steep loose terrain.
By trying to climb the Bells and Pyramid in one day, the goal of the young man, we lost some of our safety standards because of the extreme fatigue involved in such a venture.
Granted, I could assess his physical qualities on the climb of Capitol Peak, but it still did little to tell how he would perform in the steep loose terrain of the Bells.
The young man did an admirable job for being only 17 years old and never showed movement skills associated with someone who has Gumby legs from fatigue.
There are many ways to increase your personal safety in the mountains. Here are a few that might help in your backcountry travels: Traveling solo may not be the best idea; have medical training; give specific locations of your travel routes to someone back home; and keep the distances traveled in line with your personal fitness.
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