Dr Ffyon Davies recently got in touch with news of the BMC Incident and Near Miss Reporting project. Here's what she wrote...
"I think it’s fair to say that most mountaineers and climbers will have had at least one or two close calls in their lifetime. In the past this was discussed privately in the pub with friends. However, more recently there is a growing desire to document these incidents and use them to improve the safety of others. In April 2019, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) launched its very own incident and near-miss reporting form which has since seen over 200 reports filed. The project was launched by BMC member Pete Callaghan, after he was lucky to walk away with only a badly sprained wrist when a cornice collapsed and triggered an avalanche on Helvellyn in January 2018. He kindly agreed to answer our questions about the project. We have also selected a few of the submitted reports to illustrate the work that Pete and his colleagues have done.
Thanks Pete for answering my questions. Can I start by asking you what got you interested in this project?
In January 2018 on a club trip to Cumbria I was in a party avalanched on Helvellyn. We were fortunate to avoid serious injuries. In the hut afterwards, as we analysed our experience with the rest of the party, a picture emerged of climbers and mountaineers experiencing accidents, including fatalities, that were largely unknown to the wider community. Our party learned a lot from our experience. I was convinced that lessons like these should be widely available and that stories of incidents and near misses would make the lessons more compelling and interesting, and more likely to be adopted.
I followed up with discussion on UKC and teamed up with Louie Smith. We spoke to the American Alpine Club, Association of Mountain Instructors, British Mountaineering Council and Rockfax/UKClimbing before deciding to build the service and work with the BMC to launch it.
Since 1948, the American Alpine Club has published an annual account of ice climbing, mountaineering and rock climbing accidents in North America. Like the BMC project, "Accidents in North American Climbing" relies solely on voluntary submissions from victims, witnesses and rescuers. Recently these reports have formed the basis of a highly recommended podcast - The Sharp End
What did you hope it would achieve?
I'd like to see a changing culture in climbing, hillwalking and mountaineering that values sharing of lessons, learning from those lessons, and improving the habits that underpin safety. A culture with a constructive and open approach to discussing good practice and a willingness to both challenge and be challenged will enhance our safety.
Do you think the reports are representative of the events that take place in the UK?
That's a tricky question to answer, without any other reference data. We have published just over 210 reports, so we have a sample of roughly 210 individuals from a community that exceeds 80,000 based on BMC estimates alone (and this number is a couple of years out of date). The real community size is much larger than this figure. However, as a climber, some of the reports I see are consistent with my experiences and those of my friends.
Staden Quarry - I was seconding and had a very narrow escape when I dislodged a 'head-sized' block, just as I was stepping to safety at the top-out. The rock had shown no signs of being loose and had been 'apparently' well embedded in the lip of the top out - but wasn't used as part of the climbing by either the lead or I. The rock landed at the start of the climb, fortunately about a foot from where a couple of our party (including my 12 year old) were getting kitted up. Luckily, they'd responded to my frantic shouts of 'below'. A very fortunate near miss!"
What patterns do you see emerging?
A number of underlying themes seem to be present, including: poor or inconsistent practices, especially belaying; inappropriate management of inexperienced participants by those more experienced; complacency resulting in exposure to greater risk than intended.
What has been the most striking report you’ve read?
The most striking reports for me are those where a member of the team seems to fall short of their responsibilities for the safety of the team as a whole, especially where they are the more experienced member of the team. Good examples from sport climbing and mountaineering can be found on the BMC website.
Were you surprised by the success of the project?
I am not surprised because similar established systems in the USA and France have already proven successful. In conversation with Ashley Saupe of The Sharp End podcast, she told me of a change in culture in the US climbing and mountaineering community since she started her podcast. Like me, she is convinced that personal stories engage the audience and she has found that people have become much more willing to publicly share their experiences without fear of criticism. When she first launched her service people submitted their stories anonymously, but now she has many more reports and people are happy to openly tell their stories.
In the UK the vast majority of reports are submitted anonymously. When the majority of people are happy to share their names on their reports I will feel we have successfully achieved an important cultural change.
We have provided a copy of the entire reporting system to the New Zealand Alpine Club so that they can set up their own version. We have also had requests for help from Australia.
"Water-cum-Jolly - Slipped off a low-ball, well within my grade boulder problem. Bum landed on pad, bracing arm did not. Wrist landed at an awkward angle and was diagnosed as broken. Potential surgery to be had. Now in a cast for 6-8 weeks. Lesson? Buy a second mat if I can't have a spotter due to social-distancing rules!"
Did you expect some reluctance from the outdoor community to get involved?
I was confident from the outset that people would be interested in reading the stories that reports like these tell, and in seeking out lessons. However as a community we are not used to directly discussing poor practice when we encounter it, tend to be defensive when critiqued, and are not likely to be comfortable admitting deficiencies in public. Consequently I am not surprised that so many reports are anonymous.
Climbing forums like UKC contain some animated discussions when accidents occur, regarding sensitivity for the feelings of those involved, especially in the event of serious accidents. Our moderation process reflects these sensitivities. We are also careful to avoid judgemental language in published reports. We need to ensure that people feel that their stories can be shared safely and their contribution respected.
"Wild Boar Clough - foot slipped on "easy" scramble after final waterfall pitch, once harness and rope had been removed. Partner managed to grab my arms to stop me falling back onto the rocks below. Lesson? Stay roped up longer, always stick close together and consider helmets"
With over 150 reports filed in 2020, there’s clearly an appetite amongst BMC members to share their experiences. How do you see the project developing? Would it feed into future courses? The development of rescue services?
Once the majority of participants know our service as a source of valuable lessons and a safe place to share their own lessons I'll feel we are on the right track.
We need to raise awareness of the service among the community. Whenever we publish via channels such as Facebook, Instagram or the BMC Summit we get a rash of new reports. A recent article based on incident reports was one of the website's most visited pages, demonstrating a very clear interest. The task is essentially a marketing challenge: reaching more people, collecting more stories and spreading the lessons more widely.
We are planning to integrate the service into the UKClimbing online logbook, so it's easier for people to link reports to specific routes and areas, which will increase the accessibility of the service.
We are also in discussion with the Association of Mountaineering Instructors about sharing or exchanging lessons between our two systems".
Thanks to Ffyon and Pete for their contributions to this post!
Dr Davies is a Clinical Fellow in Emergency Medicine and Medical Education. In addition, she is a trainee mountain leader, aspiring expedition doctor and all round outdoors enthusiast. She can be found in A&E or Snowdonia (once we finally get out of lockdown!).
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 5th June. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.