Caught Out on Ben Nevis (Part 1)



Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Oct 16, 2020

It takes a brave soul to "fess up" to mistakes on social media. There's no shortage of users who are willing to criticise or make fun. Nevertheless when people are open and willing to discuss their mistakes there's a lot to learn. Here's Jamie Barclay describing a day on Ben Nevis earlier this year and thankfully, the comments he received were overwhelmingly positive. Hopefully this will encourage others to post in the future...


"Avalanched today under the Douglas Boulder. 

Our original plan was Vanishing Gully, the forecast for largely westerly winds making us hopeful the west facing approach slopes would be more wind scoured and safe to cross. We found deep, wind compacted snow from below 600m on the walk in to CIC hut, heavy snow was falling through the morning, obscuring the track in places. On hearing that a team had turned back from the Minus Face due to the wind slab and graupal on the approach slopes, we decided upon a Plan B to climb on the Douglas Boulder. Approaching the boulder we followed another team's tracks which were post holing to ankle deep powder and areas of wind slab over the old frozen snow. Under the Gutless / Cutlass approach bay we assessed the slope leading to Vanishing Gully. It was clearly heavily loaded and we agreed to avoid going near it. We decided on Jacknife on the boulder instead. Another team was heading for Gutless. As we neared the base of the buttress, a slab avalanche released, about 10m wide, 50cm deep and causing 3 of us to be knocked off our feet and slide a short distance. The slope angle where it released was probably 30  to 35 degrees, right at the top of the snow apron. Below that is was less steep, so not too much momentum picked up. Both teams were unharmed and ultimately decided to head down after this. 

Minus Face (left) and Douglas Boulder (right) on Ben Nevis. The approach slope to Vanishing Gully can be seen on the right above the mountaineer in shadow. Climbs on the Douglas Boulder such as Gutless (IV 5), Cutlass (VI 7) and Jacknife (V 6) are often seen as "safe" options after heavy snowfall as they are easy to approach and lie at a lower altitude


My learning from this: 

1. We initially made good decisions and changed plans in response to the conditions we saw, felt and heard about. 

2. My decision making process stopped being so analytical once we had decided on a "safe" route to approach. We did not factor in the short, but significant steepening, section of the snow apron as high risk, or the fact that 2 teams were on the slope in close proximity. 

3. The previous decisions meant that the consequences of the avalanche were low, but it still caught us out, and that's not good. 

4. The snowpack is likely to remain like this into tomorrow at least, so a high degree of caution is needed and a low threshold for avoiding a slope which is loaded. 

Happy climbing folks, stay safe enough to walk home at the end of the day!"


Thanks Jamie! We asked some experts to give us some thoughts about Jamie's post. Here's Adele Pennington, a highly respected guide and mountaineer to start us off...


"Being totally honest on social media is difficult when you know the world out there will make judgments. But those who critique and judge perhaps do not understand and Jamie’s honest post reflects the fact we can all learn. In the mountains "every day is a school day" and if we relish learning then we must listen to what others have to say.     

Avalanche avoidance is critical to a long and prosperous mountaineering and guiding career. Embarking on training and listening to stories is invaluable and resources such as the SAIS and the avalanche awareness courses run by the Chris Walker Trust should be an essential part of every winter mountaineer's portfolio.      

However, we have to realise that the mountains do not have a rule book BUT we do know their danger zones. The North Face of Ben Nevis is complicated terrain creating its own weather systems and wind tunnelling in its deep northern corries. A western facing slope may have many aspects and remember the forecast is a forecast and will not account for the 'micro detail".

      

Chris Walker was a mountaineering instructor (MIC) who died in 2010 after being avalanched on Buchaille Etive Mor. In the years since, the Chris Walker Memorial Trust has provided avalanche awareness training for approximately 400 leaders, instructors and guides. Donations to the trust can be made here.


As Jamie said his decision-making became less analytical as they had decided on a “safe approach”; I believe there is nothing totally safe in the mountains and have been caught myself in avalanches on the Ben, a similar scenario to Jamie’s and perhaps influenced by the fact that other folks were there.     

My decision-making has become more conservative over the years, or perhaps I’m just more conscious that the more often you enter the lion’s den, then the greater is the chance of being bitten! Old school advice but if it’s snowing heavily and the wind is transporting snow, then the old golden rule is to stay away from potential terrain that could avalanche. That’s what we do in the Himalayas and I believe Scotland is the same. Yes, the pressure is on to climb or work but no life is worth the risk.     

If more people were honest when posting on social media about Scottish Winter climbing conditions then we could prevent incidents and may save lives!"


Finally, here's Owen Samuel, paramedic and mountain guide, to finish...

 

"The subject of learning from errors is close to my heart having been on the positive and negative side of ‘fessing up’. My professional background is mainly influenced by the Association of British Mountain Guides and has been one of reporting errors and near misses in a supportive culture where most can understand how the error was made, relate to it and most importantly take note not to fall in to the same trap. This style of ‘narrative’ information sharing is highly potent and often very specific compared to dryer traditional forms of learning. I’ve certainly changed the way I work as a direct response to this type of information sharing. Sometimes this is a change in technique, other times it’s less tangible like taking greater care under certain conditions, certain places or when out with certain types of client. 

I took this mind set with me when I became a paramedic and started working for an ambulance service. Unfortunately, the trust paid lip service to this culture. In reality it was far from the point where errors and near misses were treated as valuable learning opportunities. As I found out from bitter experience. 


Matthew Syed's "Black Box Thinking" examines the factors that lie behind success and in particular the way we learn from errors and near misses. His excellent TED talk can be found here


Jamie’s post is a first rate example of learning from error and I applaud him and others who embrace this culture. I work in a tight nit group of highly experienced guides. So there’s a degree of safety in who you’re sharing with. After all these can be highly emotive and stress full experiences. Facebook groups and other social media are a much more open platform with, I’m sure, many readers unknown to the ‘fesser uper’. This adds a layer of difficulty. For example, less experienced climbers without the benefit of having made mistakes or perhaps not even known that they have made them, may be quick to criticise. This means any ‘fesser’ must have a thick skin before pressing the send button. It’s notable that several very experienced Scottish winter practitioners made very positive comments. This will have tempered any critics and in the long term been highly beneficial in developing the right culture. Another ‘fesser’ on the same FB group was not so lucky. Receiving over 70 messages varying from damning to very supportive. 

All in all, I’m pleased with the direction of travel the climbing community is taking with regard to learning from errors and near misses. But we are far behind other sectors. A book that tackles this subject is "Black Box Thinking" by Matthew Syed. It draws comparison between medicine and aviation in terms of learning cultures. Whilst it’s a bit over the top in it’s criticism of medicine, it makes for interesting reading and argues a strong case for errors and near misses being treated as valuable information rather than a reason for punishment. There’s room for this culture to develop in the outdoors and through posts like Jamie’s we’re making a good start."


Thanks to Jamie, Adele and Owen for contributing to this post.

Jamie's post was first published on Facebook's Scottish Winter Climbing Conditions. The group is highly recommended!

For another "near miss" on Ben Nevis take a look at thisMore on the BMC Frostbite Advisory Service can be found here.

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