Mountain safety: knowledge empowers you to interpret risks
Mikael Nyman teaches first aid and mountain safety and he loves adventures outdoors. He turned his passion into a job and guides people to high altitude peaks all over the world. Mikael explains that severe accidents often arise from a combination of mistakes. Mistakes then can be prevented.
- Making one or two mistakes happen most of us and it usually don’t end in tragic. However, too many mistakes in combination can lead to harmful accidents, says Mikael.
- Assume that you are going on a snowmobile weekend. Unfortunately, you had to work late on Friday afternoon so you get home later than planned. You are eager for the weekend in the snow, so you pack your things in a rush and drive to the cabin with the snowmobile on your trailer. It is late at night when you arrive but you manage to get up early the next morning. You realize that you forgot your snow shoes and your safety wind sack. Never mind, you might think. You never really had to use it before anyways. You pack your belongings in a rucksack and feel the need to hurry. You eat breakfast on the go, a sandwich and a cup of coffee, because you really long for the mountains.
Mikael describes a common scenario and continues:
- You go on snowmobile trails and the constant noise from the machine makes you tired. You notice that the wind picks up, but you are only half an hour away from your spot where you will be protected in a remote mountain hut.
- In a sudden moment of that state when you are not really awake but not really asleep, you almost turn over with your snowmobile. You just managed to stay on top of it, but you are stuck in the snow and you can really feel the wind now. You fight the deep snow and you soon feel tired from the digging. The shovel is old and you have thought of changing it for a lighter model for a long time now, but never got around to it. The shovel breaks. You have to continue digging with your hands but you make little progress. That mountain hut feels far away even though it is pretty close. Those snowshoes would have come in handy now. Or at least the wind sack, because it would have given you shelter.
A chain of events like these happens often, and it is also the most common reason for serious incidents. Poor sleep and low energy intake are dominant factors at the root of it all. The outcome can be harmful. Especially if it is combined with time pressure and lack of safety equipment.
- Remember that it is important to stay dry, well fed, warm and happy, regardless of what you are up to. It gives you a stable platform for all kinds of decision making, says Mikael.
Poor decision making might lead to dangerous accidents
Mikael knows of many examples when bad decision making ends up in dangerous accidents.
- I often study peoples’ behavior at the base camp of Kebnekaise, the highest mountain peak in Sweden. Making it to the top takes about 12-14 hours for the unexperienced. People might feel warm in the sunny and weather protected valley, so they decide on light packing. They leave the thermos with hot water at the base station together with the water resistant outer layer. They are full from a big breakfast in the morning and only pack a sandwich for lunch. But a few hours later when they are close to the peak, they feel a change of weather. The damp fog makes you wet and cold to the bone and you only have a sandwich to rely on for the descent which is just as strenuous as the hike uphill – but your body and legs are already tired.
- Another common mistake is insufficient training for your adventure. I always prepare my participants with a training program, but it is often men in their 50’s that complain about too little time to train because of work. They are often in the lead of the back when we start the ascent, despite our appeals to take it easy. They are often stunned from the effect of high altitude and the need to rest for several days. And when it is time for the final stretch they have to turn around. They overestimate their form and underestimate the challenge.
Mikael explains that poor knowledge and preparations lead to bad decision making, which in turn involves unnecessary risks, let downs and negative experiences.
- Many of us want to go out and do cool stuff, but we don’t want to spend time learning the necessary skills like navigation or knowledge about avalanches. When we don’t have the sufficient set of skills, we are left unable to interpret risks or understand the consequences of our poor decision making.
- We can prepare at home. Make plans so that you know what to do if the weather turns bad or if you get lost. When you are outdoors it is all about thinking of the consequences. What will my decision lead up to? If I continue without eating, what will happen next?
Talk through the adventure with your friends
Mikael’s advice is to talk through the adventure with your company.
- Share your expectations and discuss potential risks and the decisions you need to take for you as a group of people. The experience will be better with a shared plan. And remember to listen to your gut feeling. There is a difference between feeling thrilled and having a bad gut feeling.
- Let the adventure be reasonable and take it step by step. That will maximize the fun. After a successful adventure, plan for the next which may include a bigger challenge. Allow yourself time and experience to develop.