Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer


When luck runs out

When our experience fails us we ultimately rely on luck to pick up the pieces, but one day our luck will run out.

Whenever I step outside into our lovely countryside I have these words of a fellow instructor ringing in my ears. Our experience is the overarching defense against most incidents in the outdoors. In fact if we reflect on our own incidents and near misses over the years, chances are we have learned from them and gained experience - experience that will make us more aware of the specific oversight that affected us that day. In a chain of events we can usually trace back the cause for an incident to very early on with the "gut feeling" that something isn't quite right usually being the indicator at the time. I fundamentally agree with him on this aspect, since ultimately we are relying on our luck to ensure nothing happens if we are left in a situation where we have missed something.

Take the following scene -
A climbing instructor has attached a group of 9 year olds to a birthday party bell ringing system on an indoor wall. The instructor has briefed the children and they have so far been well behaved. They make the decision to leave the group for a minute to fetch another piece of equipment/their drink/whatever. Crucially they leave the group turning their back to them. While they are gone, even if only for a few seconds, is it their experience preventing the children from starting to climb and potentially fall? No - it is pure luck.

Another scenario -
You have set off slightly later than planned on a quick jolt up Tryfan, 2pm on a murky October day to be precise. Because you need to make up time you leave a few things behind and only take the gear you absolutely need. It is luck that dictates whether a strong gust of wind carries away your map leaving you in a slightly more vulnerable situation or whether the fog remains above the summit or descends rapidly.

Both of these issues can be avoided through the application of experience and ensuring warning signs are heeded and mistakes not made. However, when we rely on luck and it runs out it is very comforting to know that there is one final layer separating us from our untimely demise. If it weren't for the volunteers of the Mountain Rescue Teams a fair few of our fellow outdoors people would not walk among us today. Although many are quick to judge those in need of assistance on the hills, usually from the comfort of their arm chairs, it is very rare for a Mountain Rescue Team or its members to speak out and denounce their casualties as "idiots". While the words "unprepared", "inexperienced" and "under equipped" do feature in the reports from time to time, they are usually non-attacking and non-judgmental.

Recently some teams have even taken to reinforcing the stance that anybody, no matter how well or badly equipped and no matter how experienced they are can have a bad day on the hills and run out of luck. Take a couple of students rescued in snowy conditions a few weeks ago on Scotland. The rescuing team heralded them as being exceptionally well equipped and making very sensible mountaineering decisions. Ultimately one of these decisions was to call Mountain Rescue when they had become overcome with the cold, fatigue and became disorientated in horrendous conditions. Multiple comments scorned them for going out on the hills in the conditions at the time in first place, for being people with "all the gear and no idea" or indeed for being inexperienced idiots who should have best stayed in the city where they came from. However, reading between the lines of the Mountain Rescue report the two students were not only well equipped but indeed had the necessary experience to be out in the conditions they faced. So where did it go wrong for them? Only these two can answer this. Maybe a pre-existing injury got aggravated, maybe they discovered too late that their energy reserves that day were not as high as first thought. Maybe the conditions worsened significantly or a planned route became inaccessible. Maybe they simply took on too much that day or maybe they were simply overcome with a numbing fear leaving them feeling helpless and in need of a "helping hand". Whatever it was it is safe to say they did not go out with the intention of calling out Mountain Rescue that day. Simply put - their luck had run out.

Generally speaking the Mountain Rescue Team members I have met are happier guiding the cold and lost of a mountain than to carry their corpses off a few days later. Generally they all agree that most casualties simply had a bad day and overlooked some clear warning signs in the process. Most agree that the number of real "idiots" on the hills is very minor and the classic stereotype of the flip flop wearing overweight family is more of a myth than reality. That is not to say they don't exist - I have seen plenty, even away from Snowdon. But on the whole the true mountain, moorland and remote incidents Mountain Rescue are called to are reasonably well equipped and experienced individuals for the areas they are found in. Most of the rescuers even admit that they have had their fair share of close shaves and situations where the difference between walking home and being carried home was the amount of luck granted to them that day - or the sudden boost in morale and adrenaline when faced with the ridicule of their fellow team members for needing rescuing.

I will be the first to admit that not every adventure is plain sailing, that not every epic tale felt quite as epic at the time and that luck is a key component to any type of fun. Have I experienced situations where at the time I thought this is a bad idea? Absolutely. Have I looked back on situations and thought what was I thinking? Of course. Have I learned from situations that in hindsight were downright dangerous? Certainly. Have I gone back and repeated some of the stupid things I've done previously? Well - some of them were fun after all. Would I consider myself to be a bad mountaineer, climber or walker for having been in those situations? No - absolutely not. Since the most dangerous and luck based part of every mountain journey is still the drive to the location there is no harm in toying with the risks the environment and activity entails. What is wrong is judging individuals for doing so and not knowing all aspects involved. Admittedly there will be some, albeit a very select few, individuals who go out with the intention to call for help the second anything is remotely wrong, but thankfully they are few and far between.

Our Mountain Rescue Teams provide a vital service to the outdoor community and without them we would not be able to continue doing what we do in the manner we do it. Most team members know exactly what they are volunteering for before they become full team members and will have had some exposure to the likely casualties during their training period. As volunteers it is their right and responsibility to reevaluate their commitment on a constant basis and if they fundamentally disagreed with the people they rescued or the incidents they attended, chances are they would no longer volunteer and leave the service. Generally the only members of Mountain Rescue I have spoken to who have not shared the otherwise unanimous view that casualties generally are just having a bad day were the ones who had left the service. They are the ones who decided it was no longer for them and their decision to leave is as admirable as the decision to join in the first place. So next time Mountain Rescue tell you to just accept that they don't judge their casualty and don't think they have been idiots accept it - after all they almost certainly know far more about the incident than you and may have even enjoyed the soggy jog up the hill and the possible flight in the helicopter.

I leave you with an exchange that was had after another incident report by a team which caused a lot of people to comment on the "recklessness and stupidity" of those needing rescue, largely related to the prevailing conditions both underfoot and from above (quote paraphrased):
Random person: "Who in their right mind would go out in dangerous conditions like this? They must be absolute idiots to put themselves and others in such great danger!"
MR Team: "Well for starters at least one of us was out for a Sunday stroll up there."

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Categories: Opinion

Tags: Mountain Rescue, Mountaineering, Risk, Outdoors, Opinion

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