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Are We Learning (and Sharing) our Lessons in the Mountains?

By Joshua Cole

The only real mistake is one from which we learn nothing

I was in a rush the other day, and I can’t remember why, but I have two little kids so we often live in a state of perpetual rushing. I backed out of our carport and then slammed on the brakes; I had nearly backed into our babysitter’s car (word to the wise, you need to hang on to those awesome babysitters). I didn’t look in the rearview mirror; I just had this vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps that feeling was brought on by the time my wife did the same thing, albeit without the application of brakes, and crunched my parent’s rental car which was parked in our driveway[1]. We humans rely heavily upon heuristics – mental short cuts – to get us through life. Most of the time they work great, but they can also lead us astray when we perceive the situation to be familiar, but it has in reality changed. This topic has been explored at length in our industry, most notably by Ian McCammon’s widely known research into common “heuristic traps” in avalanche terrain.

So, if heuristics are mostly great and sometimes disastrous, how are we supposed to deal with recognizing these pattern changes and keep on top of our own risk assessments? I’d argue that the best way is through consistent trip planning, debriefing and analysis – both of our own actions and mistakes, as well as those of others. It’s been said that a smart person learns from their own mistakes, whereas a wise person learns from the mistakes of others. I’d argue that if you really want to be wise, you need to do both. In the moment where I almost crushed our babysitter’s Subaru, I like to think that somewhere deep in my brain an image of my wife’s nearly identical accident caused an almost-involuntary slamming of the brake pedal.

The photo with this post is a rock I discovered at the bottom of the approach gully to Sharkfin Tower in North Cascades National Park’s beautiful Boston Basin. It’s a super popular climb, and for good reason – it’s relatively short and easy, but has solid rock, an outstanding position, and plenty of alpine climbing challenges. You’ll note that the block fell from somewhere high in the gully and is wrapped in a bunch of “tat” – what climbers call the slings left behind to make a rappel. What this picture means is that some number of people rappelled off of this block (likely without incident) and then some event (rockfall? The creep and glide of snow?) made the entire block tumble all the way to the bottom of the climb. The simple lesson from seeing this block is a reminder to carefully assess your rappel anchors and ensure that they are “bomber” (short for "bomb-proof," climber speak for unimpeachably strong). My first thought, however, was to wonder aloud, “again?”

In 2005, the venerable Mountaineers climbing club experienced the most significant accident in their history. You can read the entire AAC accident report here, but in summary, the group chose an incorrect approach gully and one member was injured by rockfall as they traversed back to the correct location. What was a simple route finding mistake turned into an injury that required a retreat from the objective to get care for the injured climber. The group chose to rappel down the gully (mixed snow and rock) and built one of their rappel anchors on a large boulder that rested on a downward-sloping rock slab. Two climbers rappelled one at a time without incident and the remaining four climbers decided that in order to help the injured climber, three would rappel simultaneously (two of them uninjured assisting the third injured climber). The last climber remained attached to the anchor and intended to rappel after the group of three. The weight of the three rappelling climbers was enough to dislodge the boulder, which crashed all the way to the bottom of the gully pulling all four climbers along. Three of those four climbers were killed in the accident and the fourth was badly injured. The club conducted an extensive review of the lessons learned from the incident and has worked hard to foster learning within their organization.

The purpose of sharing this incident (in the AAC, within our community, or in this blog post) is NOT about blaming, shaming, or recrimination. It is about learning. And when we revisit critical incidents such as this one, we need to be particularly respectful of the potential for re-traumatizing the primary and secondary victims of this terrible event. In looking at these incidents as learning tools, it’s my belief that we are showing respect to the victims – so that the loss can at least produce some good in our current climbing community.

I wonder what you think about when you approach a rappel anchor in the alpine. I know that I almost always think about this particular event. I remain very suspicious of down-sloping slabs and even really big boulders because of this incident. I am more cognizant of the force my group is applying to the anchor. I am more likely to back anchors up, or find alternates. I am more likely to bring some extra cord and pitons so I simply have more options for my rappel anchors. I am more willing to leave a few stoppers behind, reminding myself that they only cost as much as a beer, and the goal is to be drinking that beer at the end of the climb having made it safely to the trailhead. The fact that many climbers have been indoctrinated to be stingy about leaving a few dollars’ worth of gear behind (at the risk of their life), but would not hesitate to buy you a beer once at the pub afterwards, is probably rooted in some other cognitive biases - but we’ll save that for another blog post.

Looking at the tat-wrapped block on the snow at the bottom of Sharkfin’s approach gully, I wondered what the climbers that had previously rappelled off it had thought. Had they thought, “yeah, it’s probably good enough, and it’s getting dark so we better keep moving”? Did they know of the terrible events that had occurred in this same area in 2005?

There are a lot more climbers nowadays – from the gym-trained 12-year-olds happily taking whippers on 5.13 sport climbs to the newbies trying to figure out how to alpine climb without a dedicated mentor, to the grumpy old-timers who yearn for the good old days, when the mountains were less crowded and you could still hear the clanking of hexes. I wonder if these newer climbers are getting the information and history they need, and if the old timers are doing the work to help spread good practices, knowledge, and what they learned from their own mistakes and misadventures. I wonder, too, how the shaming and blaming that can take place on social media when people do share their mistakes (or even their near-misses) can stifle people’s desire to share, to reflect, or to give others the chance to benefit from their experiences? Pioneering philosopher and educator John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience."

I still make plenty of mistakes. And, embarrassing as some of them are, I’m trying to do my best to own them, learn from them, and let other people in our community know so they can learn from my mistakes and not just their own. This is a mindset that is shared by the entire team at Experiential Consulting, LLC, as documented in our previous articles and podcasts. We invite you to join us in building a culture of open communication about near misses and incidents, so that we can all get better together. By learning from our collective past, we can be stronger and smarter, together.

[1] It is critically important (for the sake of marital harmony) to point out that my wife at the time had just had a baby and wasn’t at her most mentally acute state, and furthermore, I apologize for throwing her under the proverbial bus in this blog post!


Joshua Cole is an Associate Consultant at Experiential Consulting, LLC and an owner and guide at North Cascades Mountain Guides.

He has given trainings and presentations on wilderness risk management to numerous organizations, and has been a regular presenter at the Wilderness Risk Management Conference since 2009. Josh served as Washington Program Director for the Northwest Outward Bound School for 8 years, is a lead instructor for Wilderness Medicine Training Center, and has worked as a professional ski patroller. He is an AMGA certified Ski Guide, Alpine Guide, Assistant Rock Guide, and Level 3 AIARE Instructor.


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