Article – Of Experts and Death

The following article is from The Mountain Training School (email: [email protected]).  The focus of this article is on knowing ourselves, our weaknesses and our strengths, and being honest.

In the good faith department, I have known Ben, the founder and director of The Mountain Training School, for a few years and was a client of his on a trip in Alaska.  I asked him if I could repost this article, and am receiving nothing in return except to be in his good graces.

January 27, 2001:

The ground slid out underneath my skis and I started to tumble, head over heels, fighting to keep my head above the snow.  Oddly, I don’t remember feeling panicked, scared, or any other expected reaction.  I just thought, “Well, so this is what it’s like to be caught in an avalanche.”  ?The snow slowed and finally set, hard as concrete.  I was only buried to my waist, but my pack had been pulled off, and it took me a few minutes to pry myself out of the snow.  I started calling for James and Eric.

March 1, 2003:

She hit the ground with a sickening thump.  You could hear the bones snap.  There was no scream as she fell, just the sound of people talking and laughing, until the thud/crunch of impact.  Everyone just stood there and stared at her crumpled body, unsure of what to do.

January 27, 2001:

James skied the freshly avalanched slope and, I think, arrived before I had finished digging myself out of the snow.  He was panicking.  He ran around the slope calling for Eric, but it was clear that Eric was buried somewhere in the debris pile and wouldn’t be calling back.  I told him to get his beacon out, but he ignored me, and kept yelling for Eric.  I yelled back that he needed to calm down, that we needed a plan.  He took off his backpack (with the only shovel and probe we had left), threw it off to the side, and began running around, yelling for Eric.

I finally caught him, grabbed his shoulder, and turned and started yelling at me, how we should never have been here, how we were stupid.  I slapped James, hard.  He finally stopped yelling.  Eric was buried under the snow, and we had wasted 5 minutes.

March 1, 2003:

I showed one person how to stabilize a neck injury.  I sent another to run up the beach toward one of the restaurants, where he could call the police and hopefully get a helicopter.  I went to work checking the ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) to see if this random girl was going to die in the next 2 minutes.

January 27, 2001:

Twenty minutes later, Eric was out of the snow.  He was alive: breathing, good pulse, responsive.  He made a few jokes about how stupid he was.  We were.  And an hour later, he was dead.  Internal bleeding.

March1, 2003:

I don’t know her name, or if I once did, I don’t remember it.  I assume she lived.  She was alive when the helicopter showed up, when the Thai paramedics threw her on the stretcher (and “threw her” is putting it gently).  I’m pretty sure she had a broken neck.  I’m pretty sure she isn’t rock climbing any more.

The way we make decisions is fascinating science.  Most of us like to think that we make rational, practical decisions after carefully weighing the benefits vs the costs.  I’m pretty sure this is about as far from reality as possible.  We make decisions based on emotion, based on what we know or don’t know, based on who we’re with, what we’re trying to avoid, or how we think something may impact us now or down the road.  We use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, to speed up our decision making processes.  Our subconscious makes decisions for us all the time (when you see the brake lights of the car in front of you, you hit the brakes long before you think (add fake British accent) “Oh, gobbers, the car to my front is decelerating and perhaps, in an act of self preservation, I ought to decelerate too. Let me just tap this here brake pedal and reduce my velocity.  Lovely jubbly, old chap…”  Heuristics can be good.

But they can also be very bad.

James and Eric, my ski partners in 2001, were excellent skiers.  I had been to Alyeska, the local ski resort, with them several times, and while I putzed around, they could clearly shred.  Thus, when we went backcountry skiing together, I assumed they knew what they were doing.  They were great skiers.  They must know how to check for avalanche hazards, judge what is relatively safe or unsafe to ski, and, if disaster strikes, how to properly perform a search and rescue.  As it turns out, they were just great skiers.  They were lousy at noting avalanche hazard (we ignored multiple “bullseye clues” to the extreme hazard around us), and James had never actually used his avalanche beacon before.  As it turns out, being an expert at skiing is not the same as being an expert at avalanches.

The unnamed girl in Thailand fell 10 meters while rock climbing.  The guy she was climbing with, who she had met the previous day, was a very good rock climber, like 5.13d good.  Put simply, he could hang from a vertical roof off of the tiniest of holds, and move along like an expert.  So the girl assumed that he knew how to belay well, that he would be attentive as she tried the hardest climb of her life, and that if she fell, he would release the gri-gri (the automatic belay device he used to keep her rope secure) and would catch her fall.  But he didn’t.  He was busy chatting with friends.  So when she fell, he inattentively held the belay device open, the rope fed through, and she kept falling.  Until she hit the ground with that sickening thunk of flesh and bones being pulverized against the rock.

On our courses, when we discuss risk management, we talk about strategies to make good decisions and how to block out things that are unimportant.  The universe doesn’t care if you have to be back at work the following morning at 9AM.  It doesn’t care that you spend $10000 on this trip.  It doesn’t care that your clients will be upset because you have to turn around, just 200 meters shy of the summit.  But all of these things (the money you spent, your commitments to others, your desire not to look foolish or to please others, and many, many more) factor in to our decision making when we’re in the mountains.

One of the decision making traps we discuss is the “expert halo,” the idea that because someone is good at one thing (skiing, rock climbing), they must be good at something else, even though the skills are only somewhat related (judging avalanche risk, belaying).  In some avenues of life, this is more obvious (We assume that our surgeon is a lousy psychiatrist, even though both are “doctors.”  And we can guess that a race car driver and a race car mechanic are two different skills, even though both involve cars.).  However in some cases, this is less obvious (Universities have long mistaken “genius physicist” for “genius physics professor,” even though teaching is not the same as researching.).

It just so happens that mistaking an expert in one thing for an expert in another can be more lethal in the mountains.  You may feel like you’re going to die of boredom in your physics class, but you really will die when your buddy, a great climber, builds a crap anchor.

The moral of the story is this: You don’t have to be an expert in everything.  But you do need basic training in all facets of mountaineering or rock climbing.  You need to be able to know a good anchor when you see it, recognize avalanche hazard, and know how to read a map.  You need to be an effective communicator and a good listener.  And you need to know when you’re about to make a bad decision for the wrong reasons.

Apply for the November 11 to December 22 Patagonia Mountaineering School and learn to be a good, well rounded mountaineer.

Be safe.

Kind regards,
Benjamin Gorelick
Expedition Director
The Mountain Training School
[email protected]

+1-763-219-1833 (USA)
+44-(0)20-8144-4017 (UK)
+1-763-374-4641 (Fax)






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