Pitfalls of South African Climbing Expeditions
I was recently in an aircraft accident caused by very bad pilot error. The pilot had a minimal number of flying hours and owned the helicopter himself. He used it just for playing around in and sometimes to go to work. It was in effect a very expensive toy of a rich man. In speaking to a friend and aviation instructor, he said that in that industry there is a saying and it goes like this: beware of pilots with thick wallets and thin logbooks.
There is a similar phenomenon in the world of climbing. South Africans from time to time put together expeditions to the greater ranges of the world. Over the past years, I have made several observations of these trips and have also taken part in some. Unfortunately, much of what I have seen is not good and carries strong resemblances to my air crash. The basis of this is that South Africans have a bad habit of heading off to climb in remote and wild places with pitiful little skill to either gain the summit they are aiming for and even less skill to get down safely. Now climbing in the bigger ranges is an expensive undertaking and very often it’s the rich and not the skilled heading out there. I am surprised that there has not been a major disaster involving South Africans thus far.
The lack of skill is most prevalent when it comes to snow and ice climbing and to glacier travel. That is to say, many South African climbers know little or nothing of some of the most important aspects of staying alive and of keeping their fellow team members alive while on big mountains, yet they venture out into these environments with scant knowledge or skill.
To show just three examples:
On one expedition while at over 5000 metres, on a Himalayan peak, the leaders could not find a good abseil point, as the little bit of rock that protruded through the glacier was too shattered and loose. They did rig up an abseil point using wired chocks in the loose rock and somehow made it down. Yet the point here is all around them was hard glacier snow they could have used for a belay in the form of a snow bollard. When I questioned why they did not use such a method, they simply replied that they did not know how. This means that these climbers did not possess the most basic snow climbing skills, yet they were out to tackle a major 7000m peak!
Secondly, there is a case of a South African person on a Himalayan peak, asking to be shown how to clip to an abseil rope, because they were a bit “rusty” in the skills of abseiling. The mind boggles how people spend huge amounts of time and money to climb some of the world’s most dangerous peaks, yet they cannot abseil without supervision.
Lastly, I had personally been descending an Andean peak, in a rope of four, moving on steep ice, and I looked back to see persons two and three with their axes dangling from their wrist loops while they enjoyed the view. These two had little situational awareness of the potential for disaster that climbers are in, when in this sort of terrain.
Lastly, and also irritatingly so, on these trips is how people write their climbing CVs. Very often the expedition is advertised and people join up and are asked for their previous climbing experience. But it is unfortunately our human nature to over sell our skills. Lets call the applicant “Bob”. The problem being is that Bob says he has been climbing for 20 years and has climbed a whole list of peaks. This seems fine at first glance. But what Bob did not mention is he has climbed perhaps once a year over a 20-year period. Secondly, that he did not lead any of these routes. Friends or perhaps guides dragged him up to the summit and back and he took no part in the risk assessments or safety measures and hard skills. In other words, on an expedition, he will just be a liability to himself and others or in climbers’ terms just “baggage”. And yes unfortunately Bob normally has a thick wallet.
Let me make it clear, unless someone is actually leading climbs regularly on rock or snow or ice they are not gaining skill and do not possess the qualities to be on any mountain unless heavily supervised.
So, one asks how and where can these skills be learned and what should one know? It is a vast subject but here are a few pointers:
Firstly, there are personal skills; how to cut steps with an ice axe, how to self-arrest with an ice axe. (There are about 4 ways one ends up sliding down a slope and it is a vital skill to know how to stop). Then how to walk properly up and down slopes with crampons and an ice axe. It is a skill and needs practice before it can be done properly.
Slightly more advanced but absolutely essential is the skill of making and using snow and ice bollards, T-slot belays, seat-bucket belays and the essential for stopping a sliding climber, the ice-axe-boot belay.
Many South African climbers have little knowledge of how the roping configurations work in big mountains. That is to say the way parties rope up on steep snow is different to steep rock or rocky ridges. On glaciers the rope configuration is completely different and differs depending on the number in the party and the surface conditions at the time. How to extract yourself and others from a crevasse is also essential and can be learned to a great extent in non-glacial environments.
Avalanche assessment is not something we in southern Africa encounter very often. But it is still possible to gain valuable knowledge just by watching a training video or going out into thick snow and practicing the basics.
MDT Mountaineering Instructor and NQF Mountaineering Guide
Peak High Mountaineering
Gavin Raubenheimer wrote: I am surprised that there has not been a major disaster involving South Africans thus far.
I disagree slightly Roll back 10 and 11 May 1996 when 8 people died on Everest.
Jon Krakauer in this book Into Thin Air, page 218 - whilst not a 100% quoting the book, this is what Jon says wrote: "After the 10 May disaster, Woodall refused to lend the distressed Hall team the South African expedition's powerful radio to coordinate the rescue efforts, despite being aware that people were dying on the summit"
Jon Krakauer in this book Into Thin Air, page 142 - this is what Mr. Woodall says wrote: "The South Africans would go to the top whenever they damn well please, and anyone who didn't like it could bugger off."
They sure did us proud there. Hell even the Sunday Times who was the major sponsor dropped the entire expedition. Into Thin Air is not bad, but I prefer Anatoli Boukreev's book, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.
I think the issues you raise relate to a lot of things in life, including people with their CV's for getting jobs. Always overstating what they're capable of. Let nature take it's course, and keep your eyes peeled to avoid the cowboys.
My mountain CV is unlikely to say "almost died of hypothermia on day 1 of my first GT and had to have my pack carried up the last 300m of Isicutula Pass" - it would be one sure way of ensuring that I would be left out of the team! But that is a classic case of getting in over your head - I wasn't experienced enough to do a GT at the time, but fortunately pulled through and gained a large amount of critical experience. Night one of the GT was my first time in a tent on the escarpment - a scary thought in retrospect! My first GT was also my first hike of more than 3 days.
I think a risk on distant mountains is the "it is so hard to come back" factor. If you are halfway up Bannerman Pass and aren't feeling well - you can jump in your car next weekend and come back. If you are suffering from altitude sickness at 5000m on Kili, it is very expensive to bail and come back - and you will have to explain to a lot of people why you didn't get up - especially seeing as you probably shared your plans with lots of people, plus social media.
The "I'm sure it wasn't that bad" or "you're probably exaggerating how bad it was" response is quite common (in tone more than words) when explaining what happened - or so I have found when talking about day 1 of GT2012 - not that I bailed on that occasion. I'm sure some readers of my GT2012 hike report on this site would have thought that too, and some family members and friends clearly thought I was exaggerating how bad it was when I told them the story. Others go to the opposite extreme and get very critical - I remember after my rescue off Bollard Pass, a family member commented on my FB photo saying something like "you shouldn't have been hiking in the mist anyway" - helpful advice, of course, especially seeing as we were already above the difficult-to-downclimb open-book when the mist rolled in.
My point being - amongst VE members, many of us have had things going wrong. I would hope that an expedition leader putting together a route in the greater ranges would understand that this will happen from time to time, and thus honesty shouldn't automatically disqualify someone. It is when things go wrong that you learn the most, anyway.
“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”
In the month that snow has been lying around, I have had plenty of fun in the hills.
I have sneaked in 16 iced up passes and hiked several km on the summit in snow. Each experience has been different.
I have been able to kick steps with my shoes. I have skied on top of firm snow and floundered in deep snow. I have cut steps with an ice axe and self arrested my way down an ice gully as they only way down. Hint. Doing this with only one axe is not clever. I have cut steps on sloping ice with rocks and have turned back when things were too scary.
I have seen spindrift, been in a complete white out, and have had melting icicles fall past me because I took too long to get up a pass. The stuff I have read about in books.
My major learning point from this is that snow is not the same from day to day. It can heat up during the day, freeze at night and the conditions on one side of a ridge are definitely not the same as the other. A slight difference in slope angle changes the game completely. A pass that us good to go up one morning is better to come down another afternoon. And, 2 days later the situation is reversed.
Passes can be death traps without pointy steel on your side and you must not assume that your planned descent route is possible. It also slows you down significantly and for once I cannot use my speed and fitness as a way to get out of trouble.
I found out all of this the hard way. I am lucky. I have experience in trad leading to keep my head calm when I am a long way up. I took it all slowly and literally recalculated my options each step of the way. And, most importantly I can recognise a DFU situation (the learning experience did of course sometimes involve getting into it first)
Can I now travel safely in snowy mountains? No. Yet, in a months time I will be in Nepal with every intention of getting up Mera Peak and Island Peak.
Thanks for your input
My first real taste of technical alpine climbing was in 2004 in the Himalayas when I paid a guide to take me up two peaks above 6000m. Other than rock climbing, I knew very little about alpine climbing then, and though I was certainly very aware of the dangers of avalanches and crevasses (and encountered both on that trip), I did not have any know-how on how to assess these and how to respond in an emergency situation. But, through my dealings with Nepal and having lived there, I can say that this happens all the time there, with people from all over the world. Commercial mountaineering is a fact of life in Nepal, and many inexperienced and ill-equipped people scale the peaks there. And naturally, there are deaths. Additionally, though there are many good, experienced local mountaineering guides, not all of them are necessarily equipped to deal with every situation either.
Over the years I had sporadic exposure to some easy alpine adventures outside of South Africa. It wasn't until I moved to Canada where I now live that I plunged deeper into the world of alpine climbing that isn't the warm basalt and grass-tuft alpine scene of the Berg. It's been a very humbling learning curve for me. It's a strange thing in life that often the more you know, the more you realise you don't know. Though I live in a mild, coastal part of Canada, the mountains around here get a phenomenal amount of snow fall due to the moisture in the air. A healthy alpine snowpack on our mountains is in excess of 4m! This changes the scene altogether, and we deal with snow year round. Even right now, in peak summer season, I am having to pack crampons and an ice axe for a trip I'm on tomorrow. Its a fun thing initially for people like South Africans who are from warmer countries where this kind of gear isn't the norm. I still think snow is beautiful to look at but it presents challenges and difficulties that quickly bring you to the point where you are glad when it melts in the summer so that you can walk and climb "normally" for a change!
I think the hardest thing for me has been the avalanche risk. Canada has multiple avalanche fatalities every year, and this year has definitely not been an exception. Assessing avalanche risk can quickly get quite complex, and even with the best of knowledge and methods, nothing is ever totally 100% sure. A beautiful, warm, perfect, sunny day can easily still have very high risk to the point where you have to turn back, or not got at all, and this is a hard thing to come to terms with sometimes. And it's also when the accidents happen because things can seem so sublime and inviting. ClimbyKel and I did our Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training this last winter since its a pre-requisiste for many of the Alpine Club of Canada trips we've been going on, and well worth the money anyway. It deals with avalanche types, risk assessment, and rescue. Even so it only briefly touches on many aspects, and I'll definitely be doing higher level training in time.
As Gavin mentioned, YouTube has a wealth of information on alpine skills, I have definitely learned a lot from those videos. I've also really enjoyed the book " Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills " which is a very comprehensive book and is sometimes even called the mountaineers Bible.
I once remarked to some of my Canadian climbing friends that South Africans were not born with alpine skills and didn't grow up in the snow. Their response was: "Neither did we". That was telling.
In closing, some photos from an avalanche course which may be of interest.
Studying the profile of the snow pack:
Preparing a "Rutschblock", one of several methods for assessing the stability of a snow pack:
Stage 1 of a sequence of tests one does on a Rutschblock:
Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.