Safety is a state which we can somewhat roughly define as anything which poses no danger. This leaves us, however, with the question, of what danger is. This can be a extremely broad concept, but as far as mountaineering is concerned we can surely agree that the categorical danger is death or injury. Therefore, while we strive for safety, we achieve it in a practical sense simply by preventing danger. For this reason it is necessary to identify and become familiar with the signs of danger we may encounter while mountaineering. Except that one obstacle stands in our way. There can be a wide range of signs of danger during mountaineering, and their specific number would be almost infinite. Soon we would be overloaded with evidence of many signs from various individual situations that could be dangerous, and the entire thought process would become wrapped up in a state of dull rote learning, memorising an endless count of various signs during various activities. And yet if we think more carefully, we can’t fail to notice that a number of the signs of danger and measures against it are based on common specific principles that are very similar in nature, even if they occur under entirely different conditions. As a result it is possible to generalise the signs of danger and tactics against it and to classify these general rules into a number of different thematic groups. The rules, advice, and insights we thereby obtain are dynamically applicable during any mountaineering event.
Types of danger
A certain negative aspect of mountaineering is the unpleasant fact that it is an activity which is relatively dangerous. In order to danger, it is necessary to realise what danger surrounds us, what types there are. To define it we can use several concepts that at first glance might seem contradictory, however it is highly recommended that we become familiar with them. These concepts mutually complement each other as if in “counterpoint”. There is no reason to be dogmatic about it and claim that only one way is correct and not another. What is correct is to be judicious and to know the ramifications as well as possible.
The first type of danger has its source in us (in the person), and the second in our surroundings (in the world). This first source of danger is called subjective, the second objective. This concept is based on a claim first published and promoted in mountaineering by the classic Alpinist Emil Zsigmondy (1861 – 1885), an Austrian pioneer of unguided mountain climbing, known for first ascents on the mountains Zsigmondyspitze, Cima Piccola, Croda da Lago, the crossing of the Mt. Rosy massif, and Matterhorn. Author of the book Die Gefahren der Alpen. He died in 1885 on the South Face of La Meije when his rope snapped.
Subjective dangers are such that they have their origins in the person of the mountaineer. The mountaineer has the option to influence the occurrence and dismissal of these dangers. They are, for example, lack of experience, ignorance, error, risk-taking, exhaustion, insufficient equipment, condition, etc. In order to reveal subjective dangers, we must consider ourselves, and at the same time be above all honest with ourselves.
Example 1 (purely subjective danger): Instead of a diaper sling the climber uses a sling tied in a loop with a knot. He poorly ties the bend. The knot unwinds under the strain. The climber falls and dies.
Objective hazards are such that they have their origin outside the actual person of the mountaineer. There is no option to immediately influence the rise and fall of such hazards. They include, for example, weather, the breakability of the rock, hidden defects in the material, falling rock, avalanche, errors of other people, etc. To reveal objective danger information from the outside world is necessary, it is necessary to conduct their collection. Nonetheless, it is never possible to entirely reveal all sources of objective danger. For this reason preventive measures are implemented against objective danger (i.e. we act as if the danger was certain, even though it might not be).
Example 2 (purely objective danger): The mountaineer is ascending a rock face. Somewhere above him a loose rock hangs “by a thread”. The wind blows and the rock comes free. It falls on a larger rock slab and the impact looses this as well. A rockfall ensues, which kills the climber below.
Many accidents combine both sources of danger.
Example 3 (combination): The climber enters in snow into terrain with a clear avalanche risk, and does not recognise this. After a while an avalanche sweeps him away and buries him. The fact that the climber entered avalanche terrain and did not notice it was the climber’s mistake arising from his poor knowledge of the issues surrounding avalanches (subjective danger). The avalanche, however, occurred based on the influence of climate factors, and was therefore an objective danger.
Example 4 (combination): The weather is good, the sun is shining. The mountaineer is climbing without a helmet, because she was hot in it. The wind blows and a rock comes loose above the mountaineer. The falling rock strikes the mountaineer in the head and kills her. The fact that the mountaineer did not have a helmet was her carelessness (subjective danger), but the falling rock was an objective hazard.
During combinations of both types of danger the level of subjectivity is given by the fact of how far the participant in the climb had the option of being informed in advance about the potential objective danger. If he had sufficient information, or if he should have obtained the information, he could have foreseen the objective danger. When the objective danger then struck in the form of an accident, it is more appropriate as a result to talk about the error of the person who poorly gauged the situation, poorly assessed or collected information, despite the fact that he could have so acted. And the mistake of a person is a subjective danger. The modern capability of a person to work with information (not only through communication resources but also for example stations for monitoring avalanche hazards, meteorology satellite, internet, mobile phones and especially smartphones, radio stations and last but not least even the capability of people to communicate their knowledge and experience with one another) reduce the potential for the occurrence of purely objective danger.
Concept of exclusively subjective danger
This concept is based on the claim that a person can be:
- a poor mountaineer, of pathetic knowledge and skills, and understandably aware of this, or
- an experienced and skilled mountaineer, but nonetheless unaware of many dangers which always occur during mountaineering.
Whether a person is from the first or the second group, she always runs risks willingly. Either she knows well that something is dangerous, or knows well that she doesn’t know something and that as a result trouble can occur. The very act of ascent into mountaineering terrain is given solely by the decision of a person. And danger given by the decision of a person are, after all, subjective.
This is made still clearer by considering the very word “danger”. For its meaning the word itself requires the occurrence of a person. Example: An avalanche falls into a deserted and empty valley, in what way is it dangerous? No one was there to be buried in it. Remove the person from the situation and it ceases to be dangerous. And on the other hand – a person heads out somewhere, and danger arises. Therefore all dangers are in their inception subjective, as they result from the actions of a person.
The founder of this concept can be considered the Austrian mountaineer E. G. Lammer (1863 – 1945). He promoted climbing in the mountains without a mountain guide, completed several significant solo ascents, such as Feldkopf, Weisshorn, and Rothorn, among others. He died in February 1945 during the bombardment of Vienna.
The concept of exclusively subjective dangers during mountaineering has two principles:
- all mountaineering dangers are subjective, because it is the person who decides to climb being equipped with his/her capabilities and given range of information
- using information (awareness), training, learned skills, and capabilities the danger can be significantly reduced, and yet it can never be entirely eliminated, because a person is not infallible, all-powerful, or all-seeing
Subjective danger can be divided into three groups, where the substantial criteria for their grouping is our capability of having information.
1) small danger – “I know that I know”; Dangers about which we are able to determine information – we know, that it lies in wait for us, the information helps us to eliminate it, we act in such a manner that the danger does not threaten us. Information, knowledge, and awareness enable us to enact thorough countermeasures. Of course be careful, it is necessary to acknowledge that it merely “enables”. We ourselves with our inattentiveness or impetuousness can frustrate this possibility. No one is infallible. Therefore even at this level a partial danger remains.
2) medium danger – “I know that I don’t know”; Dangers about which we have partial knowledge – the most we can do is enact certain preventive measures against them. And then we set off on our climb and hope that the danger either will not strike or at least to an extent that our preventive measures will protect against. For example, we have a helmet, and we will never know when a stone may strike at our heads. We have an avalanche beacon but we don’t know whether or not an avalanche will wash us away.
3) great danger – “I don’t know, that I don’t know”; We don’t know about the danger, we don’t have any information, we have no awareness – we are taking risks and we don’t even know it. There are two options how to get into this state: a) uncommon singularity of the emergent situation; b) the absolute ignorance of the participants in the climb. As regards a), a dangerous situation requires above-standard awareness, perhaps of a scientific character, in order to be discovered, which we can’t all have. No one is all-knowing in all possible fields of human activity. This danger is therefore posed to everyone occasionally. As regards b), but on the other hand beginners, inexperienced persons, without even basic knowledge of mountaineering skills, can end up in this category of great danger. In short those who are completely foolish.
Information and its assessment
Information + reason = correct decision-making. Information is without question one of the most important factors which has an influence on safety during mountaineering. The cry: “If I only knew!” is uttered by the mountaineer several times each day. To have information means to have a number of problems fewer.
Of course to simply receive information and expect that everything will proceed without problems is impossible. The world is treacherous, and information can of course be incorrect or distorted. On the basis of poor information it is nonetheless possible to enact a formally correct thought process, of course the conclusions obtained will in reality be non-functional. (Only entirely exceptionally will it be possible on the basis of poor information to make a good decision, but that is merely a happy accident, only very rarely does it occur). In order to reveal bad information we necessarily need other, this time correct information, which will be in conflict with the bad information.
A person is therefore compelled to assess the incoming information, seek out conflicts between it, and divide it into correct and incorrect. He ignores the incorrect information and attempts from the correct information to compile a thought whose conclusions will be functional in reality. Of course, we also cannot forget the situation that we will not obtain some information at all. Altogether three situations result which are a great source of danger.
The first danger is so-called unrecognised information, simply that we overlook something, or fail to determine it, etc.
The second danger is an error in the selection of information. For example, we erroneously consider correct information incorrect, or vice versa.
The third danger is an unhappy human characteristic, the capability to come to an incorrect conclusion on the basis of correct information.
As regards 1: Unrecognised information is categorically the result of poor or insufficient experience. Beginners in particular should be on guard against this mistake. But even experienced mountaineers are not entirely immune to this, they can suffer from simple inattentiveness, a state in which they are unable to capture information.
As regards 2: Regarding errors during the selection of information as correct and incorrect, there are many causes. On the one hand this can be poor knowledge of a particular issue, or excessive faith/lack of faith in a particular source of information, error/distortion of information during its communication, etc. To a certain extent a defence against this type of error is to focus on having information from multiple sources independent of each other.
As regards 3: Awareness, or rather acknowledgement of this danger, is very important for revealing huge sources of danger. It does not apply that correct information will automatically yield a correct thought! The cause of this may be found in other human characteristics (feelings, desires, character, etc.). When thinking only about correct information one can refer to “blindness” toward unwanted information. It almost defies belief how incredibly adept people are at this. Whatever a person does not wish to see, she can truly not see it, even if it is “ten centimetres” in front of her face.
Example 1: A mountaineer is planning a long-awaited tour. Let’s assume a correct weather forecast: a clear morning, fog in mountain valleys. Throughout the day clouds rolling in from the west to partly cloudy and overcast, isolated storms. — Poor conclusion: Hmm, it’ll be nice out, maybe in the later half of the day the weather will turn bad. Indeed, those storms are dangerous, but they are only isolated. They simply won’t be everywhere. In the afternoon it will go cloudy, and maybe the clouds will get thicker and there will be a storm. There’s not much chance that it will get me. – The mistake in such a conclusion is in the incorrect interpretation of the word “isolated”. It invites the assumption that the term “isolated” means not everywhere in the space. Or the person expects that a serious storm situation is such that the entire space in the region is full of one massive storm. The term “isolated” then conjures up the impression as if its “storminess” were less, and above all, that it will be somewhere other than I am. Except that the idea – stormy weather = entire space filled with storms – is a mistake! Correct conclusion: Storms are a local phenomenon, they won’t fill the entire space in one go. Therefore the expression “isolated storms” means that there will be storms, and that’s it.
Dangerous influence of a positive trend
More precisely we can speak about the false sense of safety due to the influence of a positive trend. That’s what this is. If certain conditions are the result of a change, then these conditions can be brought about in two ways – a) worsening, b) improvement. Of course, whether the conditions have come about in the first or the second way changes nothing about what the resulting conditions are like, objectively speaking. This is always the same. However, in the event that the resulting conditions were brought about through an improvement on previous conditions, people incline towards optimism and inaccurately assess the situation as being good. Despite the fact that they have otherwise accurate information about the situation.
Example 2: An avalanche risk level of three means: Level of danger – “considerable”, movement in terrain requires experience with evaluating snow, a need to avoid endangered locations, to pay close attention to slopes with windblown snow, an avalanche can be caused even by one person, here and there avalanches can bury even the flatlands at the bottom of the valley; If these conditions occur overnight by snowing, when the previous day had an avalanche risk level of 1, everyone will be shaken by this change for the worse and will take caution. If, of course, the mountaineers have waited three days in the cabin where an avalanche risk level of 5 has persisted (level of danger – “very high”, ban on going out, catastrophic situation), and then by the fourth day the avalanche risk level has dropped to three, there would be celebrating and eagerness to set out. And at the same time, it is still the very same avalanche risk level of 3 – that is, one of “considerable” danger.
Information understandably occurs in a certain quantity. Here the relationship applies: the more correct information we have available, the more likely we are to have a chance to make the right decision. Therefore we always carry out so-called collection of information prior to a climb. This includes: 1. questioning other people, 2. observing other people addressing the same problem, 3. observing the terrain, 4. drawing information from literature and media. Another significant source of information which a person should take into consideration is transfer of experience.
Transfer of experience is information which we have obtained through some experience in the past which is partially similar to the experience for which we are now preparing ourselves. And yet it is information which is “filtered” by our mind and memory, and therefore it can be tainted. At the same time our conclusion that the two experiences arte similar can be (and often is) mistaken. For this reason experience from the past can be a double-edged sword. When used correctly, it is a priceless aid. However, people unfortunately tend to be overly arrogant when evaluating their experience and their incorrectly assessed experience can become a blinding element which rather suppresses their caution and ruins their sober judgement.
On a general level the collection of information can be understood simply as “look around you!” To collect information means to be attentive, to observe, watch, listen. Information is also our awareness of what we learned before and what we hold in our memory.
A truly great source of danger. It is a situation in which we can be geniuses, have all information necessary on a silver platter in front of us, and despite this we perpetrate some absolutely cardinal idiocy. Inattentiveness can be caused by various influences, both pleasant and unpleasant. We can be inattentive because we are having fun, e.g. we get caught up in a conversation with friends, or we are taking in the beauty of the surrounding landscape, often in our euphoria after overcoming an incremental obstacle, etc. Plenty of other pleasant causes could surely be found. Of the unpleasant causes we can list, above all, fatigue, exhaustion, fear, psychological distress after an accident, injury, etc.
Whether the cause of the inattentiveness pleasant or unpleasant, it is always an influence persisting in time. The danger is thereby greater, the longer this influence persists. And if at the same time in the same period a climb is carried out, the level of danger grows steeply upward!
Example 3: Climbers have “chatted away” at the belay station. They are self-belayed, in this moment they are not climbing. The danger is in the fact that they are losing time, perhaps a cloud cover will form earlier than planned. If, however, they chat away while climbing, one of them pulling on the length of rope, placing intermediate points of protection, the second managing the belay device, then one danger piles on another. When compared to chatting at a belay station, chatting while climbing is many times more dangerous.
Inattentiveness is a state in which we stop working with essential information. We forget the information we acquired before the climb, and above all we cease to notice the information currently coming in from our surroundings during the course of the climb.
A defence against loss of concentration is disrupting the influence which is distracting us from thinking about safety. Once we have the feeling that any activity which is not associated with safety is lasting for a longer moment, it is necessary to mobilise all our will and “wake up”. It is truly similar to when a person fights off sleep. After “awakening” it is advisable to thoroughly look around oneself, rapidly obtain information from one’s surroundings and look for what could go wrong. Moments of inattentiveness can be remedied with resumed collection of information – and imagining catastrophic scenarios. These will be discussed in one of the later sections.
Ranking of complexity
The key to understanding the importance of this problem is accepting an awareness of the differences between the terms “difficulty” and “complexity”.
Difficulty is an expression of the fact that a certain mountaineering ascent has in its course a spot which creates difficulties in overcoming it. The level of this complexity can be divided using classification of grades of difficulty. Perhaps the most significant rating system is the UIAA. Let’s say an arbitrary route is classified as VI+. That means that there is a spot in the route which poses VI+ difficulty. Of course, the level of difficulty does not in any way express how long the route is, or how long the segment classified as VI+ is. It tells us nothing about the locality in which the route is found. Difficulty therefore can be simply understood as a point or spot requiring a certain skill, most often of a movement/gymnastic character, to overcome.
In comparison complexity expresses the fact that a certain mountaineering ascent is entirely unpleasant, often exhausting, if not downright debilitating. We can simply understand complexity as a vector, as an expression of the level of intractability of the entire route toward our efforts to overcome it.
We can therefore have a very short route (e.g. only 10 m), which is on a rock in the neighbourhood of a parking lot, whose complexity is IX+ but whose complexity is minimal. And on the other hand we can have a route on which the most difficult spot is a mere II-, but the route is 3 km long, in the course of the route the difficulty grade of II- is persistently present, the route is located in a mountain range with a high height above sea level, and is unpleasant to navigate. The complexity of such a route is great.
As we know, mountaineering is divided into many disciplines (bouldering, rock climbing, high altitude climbing, etc.). As part of each discipline it is possible using rating systems to define which ascent is the easiest and which the most difficult. At the same time within one discipline there are less and more complex ascents, which can be relatively easily compared.
And now we have arrived at the important part. The comparison of the complexity of ascents from various individual disciplines. In order to be capable of this, it is necessary to specify a method which will measure complexity level across all disciplines. From the word “complexity” it can be judged that this is a characteristic due to which there are certain demands placed on us. If we wish to measure the complexity of any two entirely dissimilar ascents, we can pose the question: “What demands will this ascent place on me?” It is necessary to evaluate the needs of physical strength, the amount of equipment necessary for carrying out the ascent, the duration of the ascent, climactic conditions, accessibility of the actual locality where the route can be found, etc.
On the basis of these criteria it is possible to divide the mountaineering scene into certain zones, levels of complexity. At the same time it applies that a great jump transition from a lower level of complexity to a higher one is dangerous.
At first glance it seems that the above must be obvious to everyone, and is pointless to state. Sure – certain comparisons are obvious, e.g. if we’re comparing the complexity of a bouldering ascent with an ascent of Mont Blanc, it is hopefully clear to everyone that the ascent of Mt. Blanc is more complex. It’s also true that no one who is training for Mt. Blanc will prepare for the ascent by intensively bouldering.
Unfortunately, however, there are certain “overlaps” between two complexity levels which are systematically underestimated, and many accidents are sad proof of this. They are the following:
- the transition from artificial climbing wall to natural rock without fixed protection, where it is necessary to place chocks or slings (e.g. sandstone)
- from rock to the mountains, whereas it is important to realise that in the mountains this need not consist directly of mountaineering ascents, but merely high altitude hiking
- transition from a “dry” environment to a snow and ice environment
Example: Someone begins with climbing on rock outside the city. He is talented and picks it up quickly. Soon he begins to climb routes of higher difficulty, sometimes even the highest. On rocks he comes into familiarity with seat harnesses, climbing shoes, rope, chalk, quickdraws and carabiners with eights. The route on the rock presents a challenge which requires only this gear, certain awareness, and one’s resilience and strength in order to overcome it. Now the same person transitions to the mountain environment, where he intends to perform a foot march along a narrow ridge, where there are often sloped grassy segments, the soil is moistened after recently scattered snow. What of the things he has learned and used thus far on the rock will he now require? Little, almost nothing. Suddenly such a person is confronted with a muddy slime on which when he places his foot, he will slide downward. If he wants to grab on with his hands, then everything that looks like a piece of rock proves to be a loose rock placed in this horrible gritty mud. A view of this person will not at this moment be pretty.
Here a counterargument is offered: And when we bring this high altitude hiker under a sport climbing wall and place her before a VI+ route, what of the things she knows from the mountains will she need here? After all, she doesn’t have climbing shoes, but mountain boots, instead of a quickdraw just a bare carabiner, she may have slings, but she will not even be able to place them on this rock! Indeed, on this climbing she is not equipped, her ascent will be a risk! Isn’t she also transitioning from a lower level to a higher one? – Such an argument, however, indicates a failure to grasp the problem, or a lack of knowledge about high altitude hiking. During high altitude hiking one also occasionally climbs, but truly only occasionally, and short segments and in easy difficulties, maximally up to II+/III-. On these segments the high altitude hiker realises how demanding climbing is from a movement/gymnastic perspective. Often on unsuccessful attempts she verifies that her condition does not allow her to climb harder segments, and therefore she acquires respect and the ability to make a correct estimate. If she were then “transitioned” to a sporting climbing wall, she would safely recognise what she can’t handle, and on the contrary would climb that II+ on that sport wall even in hiking boots. On the contrary the sport climber walking on the mountain ridge is truly in terrain which sport walls don’t have, which he has not been able to master, and which he will not be able to avoid!
There’s no point in being excessively correct, sometimes it is necessary to say things openly. A great difficulty during the transition from lower levels to high levels is human pride, egotism. Certain people quickly get used to the notion that they belong somewhere among the more successful (hotshots) and are unable to give up their halo for a time. They are unable to admit that the external conditions have changed, and that things are different than they were before. A driver would say: they don’t know how to reduce speed before a turn.
How, then, to proceed properly? The prerequisite is for people to be sensible and know what they have done and what they will do. They must compare the differences in their mind between what they have accomplished (and mastered) and thereby what they will do. They must become aware of the differences, even the minute ones. And then they must use all of their intelligence in order to compare what demands the new zones they are planning to visit will place. By comparing it with what they have done thus far to deduce whether they are now transitioning to a level of higher complexity or not. If they are, to immediately wise up and stop having “hungry eyes”. In the new zone it is necessary to start with the simplest ascents and gradually to become acquainted with its new guiles. If a person is entering this zone of higher level of complexity without the accompaniment of an experienced person, we can only recommend that their first ascent or tour be truly the simplest on offer. Potential surprises therefore won’t be so terrible.
Fantasy is the bounty of thought. If we wish to ward off any danger, the first order of necessity is to reveal it. It is logical, and easy to say. But how to go about doing so? One option is to constantly imagine catastrophic scenarios in which one failure follows another, and we will come up with effective countermeasures.
When we then leave the world of our imagination and enter reality, the countermeasures we’ve come up with can be executed preventively ahead of time, and once a specific thing fails (in other words – something doesn’t work, or something happens) we will then be calm –the necessary countermeasures will already be ready.
Example 1: A climber has now reached upward to a narrow rock shelf where there is one piton from which he wishes to pull up the second. It is good to imagine the horror fantasy: “What if I fainted and fell to the ground. What would happen?” The answer is obvious. I will fall off the rock shelf. In order not to fall, I have to tie in to the piton, that is, arrange a self-belay. Done, finished. But wait: once I faint and end up hanging from my self-belay, then what if the rope slides out of the belay device and the second falls? In order to keep that from happening, I have to leave the upper end of the rope tied to myself, so that it won’t slide out of the belay device. Done, finished. Is there anything else that can go wrong? Hm, that piton is rusty, and it seems to stick out as if it were coming out of the rock … If the second sits in harness, the piton will come out and it will drag me down! But that won’t happen if there’s another protection point next to it, which takes over the task of holding. In other words, implement a backup belay station. Done, finished. And so on and so on …
When it comes to imagining potential accidents and failures we can be horrifically thorough, and then a person is not too far from being convinced that it’s all in vain, that at some point everyone falls, because it’s not possible to have infinite supplies or material in order to implement all necessary countermeasures.
No need to despair. First of all, everything is a question of probability. If we are dutifully equipped with proper mountaineering materials and we carry out backup of the most exposed safety measures, it will be highly unlikely that a fatal failure will occur. It is mostly to put our minds at ease.
Second of all, the thought of falling to earth will lead us to the question: “Where, exactly, will I fall?” Even though it sounds rather hopeless, this has been for many people a saving thought at the last second.
Example 2: Climbers A and B are descending using free climbing down an easy but rugged face. They reach a spot above a rock ledge 4 m high. Two routes are available. One leads along a firm, dry, compact rock to the left. Below the left part of the rock step, however, there is a gorge. The second possible route leads to an inside corner, which is wet, the surface of the rock is slippery. Under the corner is a small chimney full of rock and rubble. And how did it turn out? While they were climbing down, A on the left and B on the right, in the rock above them a rockfall came loose and they were struck with isolated stones. The first climber, A, climbing on the left, dropped into the gorge, while the second climber B fell 3 m down and merely jammed his feet and scraped his hands.
Danger from elsewhere
We all know it – we’re expecting a blow from one side, and “Boom!”, a blow comes at us from the complete opposite side. And this section addresses this principle.
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Mountaineering Methodology – Part 1 – Basics
Available for download from Google Play.