An experts view on the tragic Avalanche in the Cairngorms –

The Depth Of snow the day after the avalanche in 2013

The Depth Of snow the day after the avalanche in 2013

Yesterday I wrote can we learn from past accidents the photo above is the tragic Avalanche in the Cairngorms that took 3 young lives in 2013. This was a black period in Scottish Avalanches with 8 people losing  there lives in Avalanches that winter. I went in the day after to have a look at the  Cairngorm Avalanche and the scale of it was horrendous. I did not do this with a morbid fascination but as I knew two of the people killed I wanted to see how this could have happened in such a so well known area? I wrote about this in my Blog in 2013 and it was a real tragedy that many will never get over. I was expecting an enquiry about the accident and I have been sent this article by a well known Avalanche Expert. He has his views and I wonder if any who read this agree or would like to comment. I know this accident is still raw for many of my friends   but maybe we can learn from this tragedy? Or should we leave well alone

“Renowned expert Alan Dennis, who was on the scene of the accident within 24 hours, fears lessons may not be learnt from the tragedy until a fatal accident inquiry is held.

Mr Dennis believes the accident could have been avoided and only the public scrutiny of an FAI will fully establish what happened and what could be done in the future to prevent a repeat a similar tragedy.

Three people were engulfed by the avalanche in the Cairngorms in February 2013 and died in hospital after they were dug out by rescuers.

The avalanche began as two groups of six climbers made their way up opposite sides of the Chalamain Gap, a deep, rocky cleft five miles south-east of Aviemore, not far from the Cairngorm ski slopes.

One fatality was from a group which was part of a winter skills course run by the national outdoor training centre Glenmore Lodge. The others were part of a second group of off-duty RAF personnel who were on the side covered in snow and were believed to have triggered the avalanche.

Mr Dennis, who’s ‘Technical Avalanche Services’ is based in British Columbia, was in Chalamain Gap the day after he tragedy.

He has been in touch with the authorities as he is frustrated that no decision has yet been taken whether to hold an FAI.

He said one group was on the heavily snow covered slope and the other was on the adjacent wind scoured bare ground.

“Someone triggered the avalanche that buried three people up to four metres deep. It was a very large avalanche considering the scale of the terrain,” he said.

“The technical characteristics of the avalanche conditions were well known but may not have been understood by the two parties. There was a well-developed weak layer in the deeper snowpack. The human factors and decision making around what the groups were doing is not known and confused over time by memory, emotion and who is responsible.

“What is clear is that serious mistakes were made and cannot be learned from without some level of independent scrutiny. One response has been to use avalanche transceivers on a discretionary basis, this sets a dangerous precedent in Scotland and would not have saved the lives of the deeply buried.

A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said no decision could be taken on an FAI until the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had completed its investigations, which were still ongoing . He added: “Depending on what was in that report we would possibly give considerations to possible criminal proceedings.” Only after criminal proceedings had been concluded or ruled out, would consideration be given to an FAI, he said.

An HSE spokeswoman said: “The time taken to date is not unusual. Investigations into fatalities are complex and require specialist input from a variety of sources which takes time.”

Meanwhile a spokesman for the sportscotland’s Glenmore Lodge said Chalamain Gap had been a tragic accident. The instructors at Glenmore Lodge were highly skilled and always followed the appropriate routes while continually carrying out a risk assessment.

He said Glenmore Lodge’s own internal inquiry had produced some answers.

He said: “Our report has enabled us to establish some conclusions and recommendations, review our processes, and continue to support staff, family members, and students involved in the incident. Through our continual dialogue with mountaineering organisations we have been able to share some of the key observations.

“Our investigations concluded that the slope which avalanched had a group on it unrelated to the Glenmore Lodge party, and that our party was well informed about the avalanche conditions, had good awareness of the weak layer deep within the snowpack, and had a continuous dialogue concerning the evaluation of this risk on their journey into the mountains.”

He said a sector-wide survey had been conducted leading to a three year trial of avalanche safety equipment at Glenmore Lodge to help inform the mountaineering community about best practice. “This trial is now in its second year,” he said.

Any views?

About heavywhalley.MBE

Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist
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20 Responses to An experts view on the tragic Avalanche in the Cairngorms –

  1. Davy Gunn says:

    I confess to not knowing the results or being fully informed about the cause of that tragedy. However, I suspect that the events are well known to a few and that both the fiscal and those who know them feel that nothing more might be learned other than than increasing survivor guilt and anxiety. Having said that, as a public institution via sport scotland then the results of any internal findings should be available under freedom of information and then an more informed view might be possible. A very touchy subject and I guess its up to the fiscal to decide if its in the public interest.

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  2. Does focus the mind Davy. Just shows that no matter how experienced these accidents can happen. People always said you do not get avalanches in Torridon, reality is you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Three interesting blog posts in quick succession there (stats, can we learn? and tragic avalanches), thanks for sharing. Ultimately, we ‘can’ and we ‘should’ learn from these incidents otherwise they will happen again. That’s simply unacceptable in my mind.

    History tells us so much if we choose to record events and draw conclusions. The statistics retained by MRCofS and MRE&W do much to inform but on a practical level MRT’s primary focus is on resolving their ‘jobs’ and not paperwork. The burden of these stats is significant for the Statistics Officers (past and present!) and also Team Leaders of busy MRT’s who have to fill in the reports.

    The barriers to using the information to draw conclusions on issues of mountain safety are considerable, but not insurmountable. But on the one hand MRT’s collect data on incidents and the MCofS and the BMC via Sport Scotland and Sport England draw down funding for mountain safety (with a bias towards participation in England and Wales).

    In a utopian world, I would like to see one organisation with the terms of reference to process this information. As well as a cultural shift in the mountaineering community. The only way that will start is with greater transparency and reporting of incidents within “professional” mountaineering bodies as a starting point.

    Sadly, due to the inherent hazards in the mountains many people think that incidents are inevitable. In the tragic case above, I have to agree that a ‘Fatal Accident Inquiry’ is very much in the public interest. There is much value in a third party establishing the facts of incidents whether by statutory process or not.

    In saying that, I recognise that I too may be extended the same level of scrutiny at some point in the future, working as I do in the mountains. While I do not relish that in anyway, it’s essential for the mountaineering community as a whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    • heavywhalley says:

      Thanks James

      I appreciate all the comments and I agree in an ideal world it would be easy to sort out. For too long it takes a tragedy and the public outcry to highlight failings and problems. This is not the way forward and I am glad that at least a few people are being made more aware. Many of the improvements in climbing gear and equipment were made after tragic accidents and people like Hamish MacInnes highlighted and improved ice axes etc which resulted in better safety. Litigation is a fear especially for .Mountain Professionals but every other aspect has it what is we fear. Accidents will always happen,, the secret is to learn from them and pass on the advice so others can enjoy the mountains and at times the dangers?

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  4. Davy Gunn says:

    I can’t disagree with whats’ being said, only comment that the real story is probably already known and due to not wanting to scrub raw wounds I suspect that the parties involved and the fiscal do not want to make a decision as yet. If folk really want to know what occured maybe just ask the folk who conducted the internal enquiery or who were directly involved. I have been at 4 FAI’s of which 3 were for accidents to professionals in the mountains, and for one colleague who had been killed next to me in a non mountain incident. I have also been predicated by the fiscal to make a statement on a couple of others. None of these were to make comment on professional capability, just what I had seen, encountered and my actions. Of the 4 that went to full FAI the conclussions as to cause were nothing more than was already well known, and the recommendations were either already put in place (barn door syndrome) or unworkable as the fiscal didnt grasp mountaineering as a sport. I do remember the difficulty of professionals being asked to comment as witness’s on the judgement of fellow guides and MIC’s and was very glad I wasn’t in that position. FAI’s do not always answer much other than supressing the clamour to have one. They are a bit like a good old fashioned highland funeral as opposed to a cremation. There is the drawn out angst, gnashing of teeth and lots of tears and regardless of outcome the greif bubble and anger boil gets lanced. These of course are only one persons disenchanted experience and others may have a more positive experience.

    So back to the original premise of the post asking for comment: Are the facts already known? Almost certainly. Is an FAI in the public interest? If so then the statutory bodies for mountaineeering such as BMC/MCofS, British Guides Assoc, Sport Scotland should make a public statement asking for one and make a representations to the fiscal. This is how you get an FAI. More importantly, do the families want an FAI? I suspect they want and need to move on as they already know the facts. Could there be lessons to learn regardless? I agree with James we can’t learn unless we know the facts, but a lot of hurt can occur in the learning and thats the balance of in the public interest. I too lost two folk I know that winter. All we can do is ask questions and do our bit to prevent more needless loss. If an FAI is wanted then let the statutory bodies repesent the views of mountaineers and the families to ask for one, and to that end maybe the folk who feel its required need to lobby them.

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  5. hello, trying to figure out the blog business. I’d like to send you a comment by email. You decide if you wish to publish it. Thanks
    my email is alan.dennisattelus.net

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Heavy Whalley
    I appreciate you having this discussion and posting the article that was in the Glasgow Herald in March. Avalanche safety in Scotland is the fundamental issue. The Chalamain Gap incident was the classic tip of the hazard triangle; numerous close calls, near misses, caught but not buried, even buried and recovered alive incidents are well known but have not been reported or investigated. Many of these were in situations led by an instructor/mountain leader/guide. It is not necessary here to describe specific incidents.
    In a way it makes sense, the mountain leaders are out there (collectively) most exposed every day. The odds are not good. However they are also meant to be the most experienced and best trained. What’s disturbing are the anecdotal reports that indicate a lack of understanding of basic avalanche safety and scant regard for SAIS bulletins. Mistakes are made by the most experienced too.
    I was on site with one other SAIS forecaster at Chalamain Gap the day after the incident. We did a fracture line profile and analysis of the technical characteristics of the avalanche. It quickly became apparent, without knowing specific decision making (or lack of), that the human factors were very disturbing .
    In January 2014 I wrote to sportScotland outlining my concerns and made suggestions; briefly
    • audit of existing avalanche training in Scotland for mountain leaders
    • appoint an avalanche safety officer for operations that employ winter instructors
    • re-establish the use of the avalanche forecast software programme ‘Cornice’
    Since then I have written to the Procurator Fiscal and Mountaineering Council of Scotland. The MCof S refused to open the discussion in the Scottish Mountaineer saying it would prejudice an FAI. This is not true. The Procurator Fiscal said (October 2014) that a decision has not been made pending the HSE report and possible criminal charges. There are not going to be criminal charges.
    The biggest elephant in the room is the RAF. Where is the RAF in all this mess? Sport Scotland, Glenmore Lodge , MCofS etc have been under the microscope and have taken more than their share of social media blame. Their response has been inadequate. for example, discretionary use of avalanche transceivers is not helpful . However they have made public statements about response to the incident.
    From the RAF there has been nothing. They are the Ministry of Defence and in this situation are masters of running defence. They can kill their own with impunity in Tornados and Kintyre helicopters but when you sign on with RAF you may die. You are not expected to die when you sign on a basic mountain skills course.
    It appears most likely* the RAF party triggered the avalanche. What responsibility have they taken in this event? What are they doing to help prevent a repeat?
    As you know the Lord Advocate is “permitted to waive the necessity of holding an FAI if he considers it is not in the public interest…”. The time taken so far to make a decision is not unusual. Maybe the Lord Advocate had a chat with the RAF and decided a FAI is not required..
    The Scottish Government web site says about an FAI, among several points
    • the purpose of an FAI is not to apportion blame
    • describe reasonable precautions whereby the death might have been avoided.

    At this time, it appears that an FAI is the only way this may be possible. On a final positive note there is a way forward that is worth exploring.
    Most trades, guilds and professional organizations have committees to investigate members competency, professionalism, ethics, technical standards etc. Considering the number of organizations in the UK, it would be in the public interest to show best practice that the mountain groups MLTB, AMI, BMG have a collective way to review due diligence.
    For example, technical standards are very high but how to measure true experience, part time/ seasonal staff, management role, mentoring. There is much to learn from this incident for the mountain community in an open, transparent and inclusive process.

    *probably not a natural avalanche, not triggered remotely by the GL group, not triggered by an unknown party nearby .

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  7. Davy Gunn says:

    Thanks Alan. A few things in there that I was unaware of and which put an entirely different light on a complete picture and I can see more clearly why you feel an FAI would get to all the facts. Niavely I assumed everyone was open with the facts of cause and effect on this tragic event, but thats not the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Davy and Heavy for continuing efforts to keep some discussion going.
    An FAI is not the only way forward but the wagons have been circled and it appears that the only ‘dialogue’ is very much inside a few separate circles. Interesting isn’t it, all the rhetoric about openness, transparency, dialogue are pretty empty words from the bureaucracy. No surprise really that bureaucracy/politics and honesty are quite contradictory.
    I am mulling things over…

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