Avalanche off the Chaturangi peaks after the storm in Sept 2010
We instinctively feel safer in a group and tend to follow group behaviour without question. The security of the crowd is illusory in the mountains. Even worse, the social pressures created by the crowd often induce irrational and dangerous behaviour.
Himalayan trekking and climbing is mid-way through an unprecedented boom. Increasing numbers of middle-class Indians are taking to the hills for recreation. Adventure education is considered an essential part of character formation by enlightened schools. Visitors from all over the world find challenge and fulfilment on the Himalayan peaks. The growth of mountain tourism is good news, but the occurrence of well-publicized accidents and natural disasters has raised serious concern that there is a lack of risk awareness and a want of information and good equipment among many of the participants. These worries are exercising the thoughts of clubs, tour agents, insurers and educators as well as regulatory bodies like the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.
We can only make our mountain sports safer if we first analyze how and why mountain accidents occur.
In 2010, I came close to a tragedy when three Bengali trekkers and their five porters perished in a snowstorm on the Chaturangi glacier in the Gangotri massif. The group passed through Satopanth base camp 36 hours before the onset of the blizzard. They were anxious to procure some kerosene from us. We noticed their shoddy tents, clothing and footwear. They seemed naïve as to the task and were ill-equipped to make their planned crossing of the 5900 m Khalindi Khal. The storm brought well over a metre of snow. We were hard- pushed to preserve our own camp from collapse. Only when the skies cleared two days later did we remember the Bengalis. The glacier was an unbroken white expanse with no trace of tracks or tents. The group were probably only a few kilometres away, yet trapped in our own base we could do nothing to help. Six days later, as we extricated ourselves and retreated to Gangotri, an air force search helicopter flew overhead, and our fears were confirmed. Their bodies were not found and recovered until the following spring. I still feel a pang of guilt that we hadn’t attempted some sort of rescue mission, but with only one pair of snow-shoes among the 12 members of our own party we had no realistic chance to find and save them.
Chaturangi glacier after the storm - a party of eight perished somewhere up there
This was a true ‘tragedy’ in the sense that it was avoidable. The group lacked the experience to tackle such a high remote crossing. Their equipment was woefully inadequate. Worst of all, they had no means of communication either to get a weather forecast or to summon a rescue once trapped, satellite phones being banned in India. We survived only because we had strong tents, a pair of snow-shoes and a couple of shovels.
Accidents can occur for several reasons. Only the first two are entirely excusable :
Act of God – the unforeseeable natural event : The 2015 Nepal earthquake best fits this category. Other natural disasters may be acts of God, but often give some prior warning. The flash floods unleashed by the cloud-burst in Uttarakhand in June 2013 killed many thousands. While the extreme intensity of the storm above Kedarnath could not have been predicted there were good indications that some flooding and landslides would occur. Had an early warning system been in place in the valleys, an evacuation might have been started and the death toll substantially lessened. A few minutes warning can save many lives.
The bad luck scenario can apply at the smallest scale. We all experience the odd random near-miss through our climbing careers. ‘But for the grace of God there go I’ – may be the reaction when a random stone flies down across a trekking trail.
The Rational Misjudgement : Mountaineering judgements are not binary choices between risk and no-risk. There is always some risk in steep places. Instead, we use our experience to estimate the probability of an event – whether it be the trigger of an avalanche, the failure of a belay or the chance of holding a fall. If we satisfy ourselves that the risk is low on the probability curve, and I mean well below 1%, we proceed. Unfortunately, there are occasions where the one-in- ten-thousand event does occur. Stephen Venables fell on Panchchuli in 1992 when an abseil anchor failed. His companions had arranged a back-up anchor. The main anchor held firm for their descent, but when Venables removed the back-up and commenced his abseil the main anchor failed. The group had done everything right and yet the unthinkable still happened.
Ignorance of Risk : The saddest tragedies are perhaps those where the victims were completely unaware of the hazards facing them, through youth and inexperience. In these situations there is no probability curve. The victims blunder into an accident without realizing that any risk exists. My first avalanche experience on Lochnagar in Scotland fits this scenario. We had driven 700 km to reach the mountain, thinking of nothing except the ice gully we wanted to climb. We didn’t even register the combination of blizzards and strong winds as a recipe for wind-slab hazard, and walked straight across the middle of a steep open slope under the cliffs. The surface slab fractured, I was buried in the slide and survived thanks to one protruding hand which gave me an air pocket and allowed my companion to find me. Back in 1980 there was no avalanche forecasting service and I was 25, too impetuous to think of objective risks. After that, I was a quick learner!
Lack of Information or Communications : In this digital age mountaineers in most countries have access to sophisticated information on mountain hazards. In the UK we have Government sponsored mountain weather and avalanche forecasting services. Topographic maps are available down to a 1:25000 scale. Guide-books give intimate descriptions and photographs of every trek and climb. Social media provides us with constant interchange of information on conditions and risks in the mountains. If we don’t have access to wi-fi or a cellphone mast we can take a satellite device, either a phone or spot emergency device.
In the Indian Himalaya trekkers and climbers are denied access to this information stream. The 1:50000 topographic maps published by the Survey of India are withheld from public view, purportedly for security reasons. I tried all avenues to get hold of the Survey’s 1:50000 maps, eventually obtaining some Open Series sheets through my agent in Delhi. My anticipation was crushed when I opened to maps to find that all contours had been removed. The Nanda Devi Sanctuary was truly a blank on the map! Instead we explore the Indian mountains armed with 1:150000 sheets from the British era or 1:200000 Russian maps half-a-century old. This is an incomprehensible situation. Good maps attract visitors and prevent countless epics and accidents through navigational error. Thankfully, GPS devices do seem to be allowed now, but they are of limited use without the reference of a decent map.
The continuing ban on use of satellite phones in India is highly detrimental to safety of trekkers and mountaineers. We are unable to obtain the weather forecasts that are vital to our survival in the high mountains, and when an accident does occur we are unable to contact emergency services. Imagine the outcry were there to be a tragedy involving a school party, where young lives were lost for want of a means to communicate their predicament.
For the last decade the Indian Mountaineering Foundation has engaged in hand-wringing on this issue, offering vague promises that a system will be created whereby licensed sat phones could be issued to mountaineers. Sadly, there appears to be no genuine appetite to make such proposals happen. Even if we must accept the intransigence of the military authorities on the general legality of satellite phones, some system of registered control is surely possible to provide this vital safeguard to organized groups and visiting mountaineers. Those Bengalis and their porters on the Khalindi khal might well have been saved by such a system. The officials of the Gangotri National Park were of the opinion that no group should be allowed to go into the mountains without a satellite communication device but the Defence Ministry and Intelligence Bureau have the last word in such matters.
In Europe insurers are now insisting that groups have satellite communication on expeditions to the Himalayan countries. We foreign mountaineers are in a tight squeeze here. The risks of prosecution and a ban must be weighed against a life that might be saved by a single call. In 2013 an Indo-British expedition in the East Karakoram chose the latter option. When Andy Parkin was seriously injured by an avalanche blast the rescue services were notified by satellite phone. Andy was swiftly evacuated but the leader Victor Saunders had to endure a show-trial in Leh with the sanction of a fine and confiscation of the device. The authorities were sympathetic to the situation but the letter of the law had to be followed.
Apart from phones there are now a range of satellite-activated emergency spot beacons and texting devices on the market. So far, the authorities have shown no interest in or awareness of these options. The spot locator beacon presents no conceivable security hazard, but one fears the worst if an official pronouncement was sought on their use.
Inadequate Equipment : Many trekking groups and most porters move around the Himalaya without the clothing or equipment necessary to withstand a storm or benightment at high altitude. Several dozen trekkers and porters died in a blizzard on the highest stretch of the Annapurna circuit in October 2014. A failure to heed weather warnings created the conditions for a disaster but the shocking death toll was attributable to a lack of clothing and protection. Few trekkers and no porters will carry emergency shelters, shell clothing, spare food or down garments to meet such emergencies. To attempt to cross a 5000 m pass without such protection is tantamount to culpable negligence.
In my experience most attempts to get porters to take protective clothing fail. Even if good shoes are issued the wily porters invariably spirit these away for later barter in the markets and turn out in flip- flops or plimsolls. A cultural shift is needed, both in the attitudes of the local communities who do this work and in recognition of a duty of care by the trekking agencies and groups who employ them.
In May 2016 we blundered into an epic situation with our porters while exploring the Vishnu Ghar Dhar mountains in Garhwal Himalaya. Our team of ten trekkers and 25 porters got strung out on wet precipitous terrainin late afternoon whena vicious thunderstorm and blizzard struck. Within a few minutes a tiresome trek became a battle for survival. Few porters had more than a wool sweater and a scarf for protection. Under fresh snow the path became lethally dangerous. My mind flashed back to the Annapurna tragedy. I ordered the porters to drop loads and retreat. Somehow they managed to find their way in darkness and the last stragglers reached the shelter of camp at 11:00 p.m.
Porters caught in the storm on Vishnu Ghar Dhar
Until we all take the issue of porter protection seriously and until all trekkers get properly equipped tragedies similar to that on the Annapurna circuit will continue to occur.
Human Misjudgements – heuristic traps and psychological bias : Reviewing my own experience of accidents and near-misses I can attribute most such events to human error, induced by the prevailing social scenario or psychological pressures which serve to distort rational judgement. Highly experienced mountaineers fall prey to such errors as often as novices. An inquest into an accident regularly concludes that the danger was obvious before the event occurred. Why was it ignored?
Our patterns of behaviour are largely regulated by rules – or heuristics – which generally serve us well in day-to-day life. We tend to follow such rules subconsciously both as individuals and in the context of group dynamics. In the unpredictable environment of the mountains an adherence to heuristics can lead us to disaster. The heuristics become traps.
These principles were applied in a study of avalanche accidents in North America by Ian McCammon in 20041. They can equally be applied to Himalayan mountaineering.
Familiarity : We tend to become complacent on trails and climbs that we often follow. Because nothing has happened on all our previous visits we subconsciously assume that nothing will happen on the next outing, failing to take account of specific circumstances. Guides, Sherpas and porters are vulnerable to this trap. In the European Alps we regularly see local guides dispensing with the most basic protection for themselves and their clients. An early lunch seems to matter more than security. After 200 successful ascents of the Matterhorn why bother with belays? Sadly, judgement day may come on the 201st.
Consistency : We have an in-built inertia to changing behaviour patterns that have previously served us well. Under the stress of high-altitude we are particularly prone to the consistency trap. Hypoxia induces laziness. The 5450 m Kang la between Lahaul and Zanskar is usually snow-free in the summer months. The ice is bare and any crevasses are visible. Local porters and visiting Sherpas, informed by this rule, then fail to take any precautions when there is a snow cover. We encountered snow on the pass in 2011. All our groups roped up for the crossing and we advised our Sherpas to do likewise. They ignored the advice. Minutes later one of our team fell through a snow bridge, was saved from a fatal plunge by the rope and had to be rescued by a hoist. The Sherpas walked past this scene, looking sheepish, but still didn’t put on their rope!
Heavy traffic on the fixed ropes on the Nun icefall
Social Facilitation : We instinctively feel safer in a group and tend to follow group behaviour without question. The security of the crowd is illusory in the mountains. Even worse, the social pressures created by the crowd often induce irrational and dangerous behaviour. Witness the madness we regularly see on fixed ropes on popular expedition peaks. When I visited peak Nun in 2013 several dozen people were shinning up and down the fixed ropes on the icefall every day without a thought for their security. In an interlude of sanity I decided to examine some of the thread and stakes anchor to which we were entrusting our lives. Two of them lifted out by hand, a third was attached by a few frayed strands of polypropylene. The accident was waiting to happen. I always feel safer and in more rational control of the hazards when alone with my group in the mountains. I judge the precautions necessary to each situation without being prejudiced or pressured by the actions of others.
Acceptance : Many of our actions are subconsciously determined by a need to be noticed or accepted by our peer group. Young climbers are particularly susceptible to this heuristic, especially in presence of members of the opposite sex. Under the delusion that we are being vaguely heroic we may take risks that would never be contemplated on our own. When a 48-hour blizzard trapped us in base camp on Satopanth in 2010, I ordered my team and my staff to stay in camp because of the high avalanche risk, and then promptly put on my snow-shoes and went off to break a trail towards our higher camp where most of our equipment was buried. Indeed, I felt a buzz of adrenalin traversing the loaded slopes of Vasuki parvat, forging a route, saving the day and increasing my prestige in the eyes of my troops. What nonsense! If I judged the situation too risky for my party then it was madness for me as leader to go off and risk my life.
Breaking trail in waist-deep snow after the storm on Satopanth
Decision - making Structures and the Expert Halo : In many parties, both novice and experienced, there is no clear hierarchy of command. When a group of friends or a club team goes off into the mountains there is rarely any set plan for decision-making. When a crisis arrives there may be endless discussion, prevarication and dissension among the party. A strong personality often emerges as the driving force towards the eventual decision. This person may not be the most experienced or rational, but gains control by force of personality. The halo of the self-appointed ‘expert’ is dangerous. Bad decisions often follow.
A want of leadership can be equally disastrous. On my first trip to the Himalaya in 1983 we descended, stressed and exhausted, after making the first ascent of the west ridge of Bhagirathi I. At the shale band one of our team fixed a nut anchor in dubious rock and prepared an abseil. I didn’t trust the anchor and unclipped my harness from it, yet didn’t have the courage to voice my concerns to my companions. After all, they were my peers. On the second man down the anchor failed and we lost our friend. If only I had spoken up. The bigger the group the more complex and vulnerable are the dynamics of decisions. That is why pairs perform so successfully on hard new climbs in the Himalaya. Going off as a twosome to a remote face appears crazy to most people, yet is in fact the simplest and safest means to succeed. Just ask Mick Fowler!
Scarcity : We struggle to recognize just how big an influence our ego has on decisions in the mountains, especially when climbing a virgin peak, grasping a brief window of fine weather or breaking a fresh trail. A scarce resource is dangerously attractive to the egoist and the thrill and kudos derived from being first can often blind us from making a rational decision. Young, ambitious climbers will often push on where wiser climbers would pause for more rational thought. Skiers are fatally prone to such a flaw. Who wouldn’t want to be first to put down the tracks on one of Gulmarg’s famous off-piste2 runs? Old climbers are not immune. Above 60 years of age the veteran enters ‘last chance saloon’ where opportunities are becoming scarce, so why not push out the boat a bit? Our attempt on a new route on Nanda Devi East in 2015 failed on the upper ridge at 6860 m. I knew that I wouldn’t get another chance at this peak. We retreated to high camp and I fell prey to feverish dreams that we could climb an alternative route up a big couloir, convincing myself that a metre of new snow would have stabilized in a couple of days. When I broached my plan to my companion, Mark Thomas, he flatly turned me down. “There’s no way I’m going to risk it in this amount of snow.” Though he was 20 years my junior, his was the wiser counsel.
Commitment : In normal life our logic tells us to complete a job that is nearly done. The ascent of Himalayan mountains requires enormous commitments of cost, time and effort. On the final slopes of a seven or eight-thousander the temptation to push on can be overwhelming. We are willing to risk all when every rational indicator is screaming at us to retreat. The commitment trap has cost many lives, most publicly in the Everest tragedy of 1996. In 2005 I attempted Kamet as guide to a large group. Late in the day we found ourselves wallowing in deep snow less than 100 m below the summit. The temperature had plunged below -20°C. One member complained of chest pain and within a couple of minutes another had carelessly dropped a mitten. Instantly, my mood switched from the euphoria of pending success to a gut conviction that we must get down. Thank goodness that my survival instinct was so finely honed. Another half-an-hour of delay and we may not all have made it back to Meade’s col. One member suffered mild pulmonary oedema and two were seriously frostbitten, but we all pulled out in one piece. The disappointment came later, but the decision was never regretted.
All of us with an interest and passion for mountain sports in the Himalaya need to combine our knowledge and resources to harness and reduce the risks currently faced by trekkers and mountaineers. The occurrence of preventable accidents, both great and small, is inevitable in the present climate where we are denied proper communication in the mountains and where risk awareness is poorly developed. Co-ordinated and well-reasoned lobbying is needed to break down the barriers of officialdom with regard to satellite communication devices. One day soon the breakthrough will come!
The psychological framework of heuristic traps can help us individually and collectively to analyse our decision-making processes and avoid irrational behaviour. As an educational tool for schools, agencies and clubs, heuristics can illuminate the human factors that are contributory in the majority of accidents. The responsibility for safety is largely in our own minds.
Accidents will always happen but we must hope that Himalayan trekking and climbing will continue to flower without a litany of needless tragedies.
One of the world’s most experienced mountain guides presents an analysis of why accidents occur in the mountains and the best ways to prevent them.
MARTIN MORAN is a mountain guide and the author of several mountain books. He has achieved many ‘firsts’ in exploratory mountaineering and major mountain traverses.
Martin has a special passion for the Indian Himalaya and has made 25 expeditions to the Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir ranges – most of them as a mountain guide, and most with pioneering objectives. His first ascents include Nanda Kot South Face, Changuch, Nilkanth West Ridge. He also has a special liking for exciting unsupported crossings of high passes – most notably the Badrinath-Kedarnath route in 1998 and the Shalang-Poting traverse in 2015.