Accidents

One way to prevent accidents is to study incidents that have happened and try to learn from them. The American Alpine Club does just that in its annual publication "Accidents in North American Mountaineering." The publication includes only actual climbing accidents, as distinguished from other mishaps that occur in mountainous regions. It describes only those accidents that are voluntarily reported, so it doesn't include numerous unpublicized incidents. The accidents represent only a fraction of those in mountaineering areas throughout the world.

More than 1,100 climbers have been killed in North American mountaineering accidents since 1947, when the American Alpine Club began its annual reports. Despite advances in equipment, skills, and techniques, a number of climbers are killed or injured each year. Every accident is a little different from every other, but there are many common causes and most involve human error. For example, modern gear rarely breaks by itself. Equipment failure is usually related to improper use or to poor placement of protection. Climbers also cause accidents when they try to exceed their climbing abilities by relying on incompletely learned techniques.

There are some limitations to the American Alpine Club statistics because the types of causes change as climbing practices evolve, and the classification of accidents is a difficult judgment call, especially in deciding the relationship of immediate and contributing causes. But in spite of these limitations, the annual reports roughly indicate the elements of danger in climbing by showing recurring patterns.

The most common immediate causes of accidents reported were (1) fall or slip on rock, (2) slip on snow and ice, and (3) falling rock or other object. The most common contributing causes were (1) climbing unroped, (2) attempting a climb that exceeded abilities (inexperience), and (3) being inadequately equipped for the conditions or climbing situation.

An accident victim may feel that a mishap occurred "like a bolt out of the blue." But it's clear, in retrospect, that many accidents moved step by step toward an almost predictable incident. The climber who takes off on an ascent without an ice axe because it was forgotten in the rush of leaving home may do fine all day in soft snow. If this climber slips during the descent on the firmer snow of evening and is injured, it's an accident—but it's no "bolt out of the blue." An alert leader tries to

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