Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Threads related to Colorado mountaineering accidents but please keep it civil and respectful. Friends and relatives of fallen climbers will be reading these posts.
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Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby mattpayne11 » Mon Jul 22, 2013 10:12 pm

As many of you may know, I started documenting all of the Colorado Mountaineering accidents back in 2010 based on what I felt to be a very emotional and gripping season of deaths that impacted us all. We all cope with death in a variety of ways. Some of us cry, some of us get angry, some of us ask questions... and some of us write.

I continued writing about deaths in 2011 and 2012 and each time I've done so, it has been harder and harder. I receive a lot of PMs here and emails ... both positive and negative. While some people find my actions to be downright horrible, others find it useful and informative (and surely some people just like to rubber-neck).

It is no secret that there are a large number of people on this forum who find my writing and behavior to be horrible/inappropriate/etc. And I understand why... sometimes I think they are right. I do. And I would be lying if I said I did not care. I think I'm an OK guy, and I've been told by many very smart and passionate people to not let it get to me... but here I am.

The purpose of this post is three-fold:

1. To explain myself
2. To have an open discussion about the subject and how we should/could handle it on this forum
3. To talk about where I want to go from here

So here goes...

1. A lot of people assume that I write about death because I'm just curious and want to know what happened, to satiate a curiosity so to speak. Honestly, I can see why people would think that, and to some degree, I am a very curious person. When I read about WyomingBob's death on Jagged last week, it freaked-me-out. Bad. I felt horrible. I had read many of his trip reports and felt like I knew the guy. I wanted to be able to take away that loss. I hate reading about people dying doing an activity I do. Maybe because it sends a message to my primitive brain that I should not be climbing mountains. You see, I'm climbing Jagged this year and reading of his death made me immediately question my trip plans to climb it. I wanted to know everything I possibly could so I could make preparations to avoid death. I write to understand what happened so I can prevent others and myself from dying. Stupid, I know.

When I was in college, I did a research paper on the effects of death comics (like the Far Side) on death anxiety. I've always been fascinated with understanding how death effects us.

I also think there are people out there that get value from reading about accidents. It helps them, like me, prepare for the activity. Of course this will never prevent all deaths, in fact, we all know that a good portion of deaths on mountains are just plain freak accidents that could only be prevented if climbing was avoided altogether, and I don't suppose many of us like that option... which is why we want to understand. We want to do anything and everything to avoid death. It is what has made us such a viable species.

Lastly, I have the odd duty at work of analyzing all accidents for workers comp injuries... I've found this activity to be very useful in preventing future accidents and I think it has tremendous value in mountaineering as well. Perhaps with names omitted?

2. It seems like every single time someone has an accident or death, the discussion splits off into two segments - people who have questions and want to learn... and people who want to give condolences. Both are perfectly acceptable in my book, but not in the same thread. Maybe another reason why I started writing...

Would we not benefit on this forum for a separate forum to discuss accidents respectively - that can be avoided by those that find it distasteful? I agree, there's a time and a place for understanding... right now we have neither. People that have genuine questions get flamed... I've seen it a million times. And a lot of times we deserve to get flamed, because it is just disrespectful. I get that. What do you all think about having a separate forum?

3. In wanting to get the "facts" I often try to contact those that were there... otherwise, it is just speculation and conjecture, which has little value when it comes to analysis. When I was naive and stupid (some would rightfully argue I'm still both of those things) in 2010, I would ask right away what happened and people found it to be horrible. I totally get that. So my lesson was to wait. I waited a year to ask and was still blasted. I get that too. I feel the genuine pain and anguish in the responses that people send me. I hate it. I don't want to be the causer of pain. I want to help people, not hurt people.

With that being said, my project to document all of the mountaineering deaths each year is coming to an end. I will simply keep track and provide basic data for statistical purposes. I'll leave the analysis to you guys, if you'd like. I thought I could handle the lashback... I just can't now. I feel the pain, and it makes me hate myself for writing about people's death, even if it may have been helpful to others.

For anyone I caused pain to - I genuinely apologize, it was never my intention. Death is a sensitive subject and perhaps best left to those that want to discuss it openly and not because someone wrote an article on the internet...

I'll leave you with a quote from Steve Gladbach's thread on this topic that he wrote...

sgladbach wrote:
Do not ask for details (beyond those that a newspaper would report) so that you can "Learn" from my mistakes.

I have seen about 5% (That 5% often does more harm than the 95% does good) of every accident thread deteriorate into a useless guessing game designed to "analyze' the accident. In reality, it only serves to stir up feelings of guilt and loss amongst those left behind. The "lessons" learned never serve to prevent future incidents, because the armchair critics assimilate the info by convincing themselves that , "Since I take precaution "X", that will not happen to me." BS.

In every thread (and in at least one book where the author told me he didn't necessarily consider it important to interview the primary survivor), the critics boil the details down to some trite conclusion which can be filed under a particular chapter of stuff "not to do". Every time, you hear how there are no such things as "accidents"; the person performing the analysis can always explain how they would have prevented the accident. If only they could be there every time we climb!

edited for grammar
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby DArcyS » Mon Jul 22, 2013 10:52 pm

mattpayne11 wrote:
With that being said, my project to document all of the mountaineering deaths each year is coming to an end.

Glad to hear it, as this type of thing is best left to experts, i.e., those people in SAR or associated with organizations. It really shouldn't be a task undertaken by any one individual, no matter how noble the intentions.

Best of luck to you.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby milan » Tue Jul 23, 2013 1:35 am

I agree that this task is too difficult for one person to take. On the other hand, I am convinced, that accident analysis is very helpful for the other climbers. Truth is that every situation is different and it is difficult to predict what one would do in the same conditions. But the appropriate analysis can bring some sort of awareness if someone is in a similar situation, what not to do and what may be the best to get out of troubles.

There are a lot of accidents in the mountans that are purely bad luck and there is not much to analyze. There are also a lot of accidents where multiple mistakes piled up and got the victim into troubles when it was avoidable and the latter cases may be avoided by warnings that can be extracted from the accident analysis.

The other side is that as you say it is a really sensitive topic. Maybe the way to avoid hurting the people who were close to the victim is to anonymize it and separate the analysis from the concolences as you suggested in another thread.

As someone who had a serious accident in the mountains, I had to go back and investigate what went wrong, talk to the rescuers and find out about everything what was going on. And I wanted to share it with everyone who may benefit from the knowledge. I would never judge you for the articles on your website, I think I was using them to be aware of certain problems on certain mountains, especially those that happen repeatedly.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby mtndude3737 » Tue Jul 23, 2013 5:43 am


I appreciate your analysis and I am sad to see it go. I read "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" written by The American Alpine Club and its' "Safety Advisory Council". I guess when accidents are reported by them, it is considered "facts", but when it is written by you, it is considered conjecture? I personally prefer to read about accidents from a "real" person who compiles data based on facts and some "inside" information. However, I understand the stress it must bring you having someone thrash your commentaries on a consistent basis.

You are probably right to focus on making some of the most awesome mountaineering photos out there that people appreciate, instead of delving into sensitive issues that get beat around like a ping pong ball on the tumultuous seas. Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive, overly politically correct public of today can't handle someone observing the facts and writing history so that we can learn from these mistakes, unless the report comes from a "qualified" accident analyst from Channel 9 news. :wft:

The problem with "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" is that the facts sometime come out too late to save someones' life. I prefer to learn about it as soon as it happens, so that it might save mine. Thus I read of them on and try to weed out the opinions.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby TomPierce » Tue Jul 23, 2013 6:50 am

I'll take a contrarian point of view, and fully expect to get flamed as Matt points out. Some may perceive my words as callous. That's not so, but so be it. Rest assured I have absolutely no intent to offend or rub raw the already tender wounds of those left behind after an accident. But in my opinion this is a topic that deserves discussion and I applaud Matt for stepping up and broaching the issue.

I'll first point out something with which few would take issue: Our community on this site is populated by thousands of people, many of whom never post. I suspect there are hundreds here who are novices looking to learn more, many from out of state who come in annually for a pilgrimage of sorts to our mountains and so on. Others are experienced, but across a wide swath of "experience," i.e. some have many, many ascents of peaks, but only on-route adventures on relatively heavily traveled peaks. Others have experience of a different nature: off-route adventurers, some with technical expertise, etc. But few would argue that there are members of our community who want to learn more, and some who might have insights that could help in that process.

On to an opinion apparently not shared by many here: I think there is value to be had from discussing accidents. The vocal norm seems to be that accidents just happen in the mountains, deal with it, express condolences, be done with it. There is a time and place for condolences to be sure, I've given mine several times. I'm not advocating that we discuss the details of an accident on the original thread at all. As Matt suggests there could be a separate forum where friends and families would have to choose to go, not the memorial threads at all. But I suspect that on this site the condolences-only approach to accidents stems at least in part from Steve Gladbach's "When I Die" thread. Absolutely no ill will to Steve's memory, he and I mutually respected one another (e.g. take a look at the first page of his thread), and we had been planning for two seasons to go after some ambitious winter goals. But the post-accident issue is one where he and I respectfully disagreed, and I'll point out that the condolences-only approach is not one shared in other areas of our sport or on other related websites. It's somewhat routine for technical climbers to analyze an accident, looking for errors made or equipment failures. If you ever want to see a clinical online discussion of an accident, go over to supertopo (populated by many old school tech climbers), where diagrams of knots used or belay rigging is occasionally analyzed as part of a technical accident.

Maybe so far many would agree with what I've written, but here's where many others will jump off the train: If you're of the opinion that accidents should only be discussed after an exhaustive analysis by highly trained specialists who have issued a thoroughly vetted report, you might be waiting a long time for cavalry that may not be coming over the hill. A belief that there is an NTSB-quality post-accident investigation is perhaps not say the least. SAR can do what it can with its resources, but I suspect at the end they will have to speculate as well; unless there's a videotape that's just the nature of accident reconstruction. Of all the accidents we've had over the decades I've seen only a very few reports that had any sort of wide distribution (but to be fair I haven't done a FOIA-like inquiry for governmental records). Yes, yes, complete speculation based on absolutely nothing is worthless, but that's a Straw Man fallacy, right? (i.e. take an obvious, silly position then knock it down in support of your view) No one would argue in support of that. But to say that, with the breadth of experience held here by people who have perhaps been on the at-issue route, no value can be had from any discussions seems extreme.

If there is never any discussion, how will others learn? To say nothing can ever be learned from amateur discussions is a position with which I vehemently disagree. For one thing, we're climbers, we're not rank amateurs with zero experience (like, uh...reporters). Yes, reviewing a professional report is the ideal, but quick: When is the last time you saw one released? How is it that when people die climbing, any sort armchair analysis is taboo? I was out Saturday climbing a relatively remote, difficult peak, and misjudged a rappel stance and for a couple of seconds was hanging inverted on the rappel rope. It rarely happens but was pretty funny, I think I momentarily freaked out one of my partners because I was laughing about it as I was coming around upright. A trivial example, but I have repeatedly analyzed that 3 second event and made some minor equipment modifications as a result. But if I had had an injury, I'd invite all here to analyze and comment, and yes even speculate about what went wrong.

Climb, learn,

Just my .02, purely my opinions and I respect the contrary point of view.

Last edited by TomPierce on Wed Jul 24, 2013 9:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby flylikeabeagle » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:13 am

Well said TomPierce. Really couldn't say it any better and agree completely. There is definite value in learning from climbing accidents and deaths. Ask an old mountaineer how many friends he has lost over the years. With the boom in 14er climbing I think there will be more need for information and caution as hikers move on to more difficult peaks. Thanks Matt for your efforts

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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby IronSkiMountaineer » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:23 am

Tom, nailed it! Couldn't agree more.

Matt, keep doing what you're doing. Love the idea of a separate forum for analysis v memorium. For those that don't want to get into the what ifs of what happened and speculation, they just don't have to visit the thread. Problem solved and those that want to attempt to learn from events can proceed.

There is so much value in analyzing things that go wrong and so much to learn. And Matt, you don't have to be an 'expert' to engage in analysis. If you've been documenting these for several years now then I'm pretty sure they makes you plenty qualified to continue to document and weigh in on these. It's also obvious you're very sensitive to the feelings of those involved.

Those that don't want to participate in your analysis for whatever reason, that is certainly there prerogative and it's clear you respect that. For those that want to respond with nastiness, they don't matter and should be ignored.

I'm not going to speculate on others' wishes but I'd want my actions broken down for the learning of others in one place and a separate arena that skimps on details for the sake of my mother. But I definitely see value in both.

Anyway, back to work but I wanted to weigh in with my .02 and support Matt on this especially after seeing some idiot's infantile comments on another thread to him.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby Cruiser » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:24 am

Over the years I have read a lot of threads on this forum about climbing accidents up in the mountains. I usually don't post a whole lot in them though because I don't typically feel like I have much to contribute. That said, I certainly would not begrudge anyone for writing a post on this forum about an accident. Everyone here is entitled to express their opinion even if they don't have access to the "facts". That's the beauty of the interweb. It's up to us all as individuals to sift through the information and evaluate it. If we don't like what people are saying then we shouldn't listen to them. We have that right. Heck, we can even politely ask them to stop saying the things that we find unpleasant. But then they are entitled to politely ask us to f-off.

Freedom is a two way street and if we spend too much time standing in it flailing our arms and shouting at the top of our lungs then we are sure to get run over.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby lordhelmut » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:29 am

I agree with what Tom Pierce said. Had this article by Lou Dawson never been published - a lot of confusion would be left out there as to why 5 seemingly educated backcountry riders were caught and killed in a massive slide.

Back when TalusMonkey died in 2007 - a member of this site, amidst the plethera of prayers and condolences, made a critical comment about Talus's inexperience on snow - which happened to be a very valid point (arguably a tad too soon, but regardless), since he lost control on a snow slope glissading without an ice axe. Like Dawson mentions in his Sheep Creek analysis, he "ignored or forgot basic safety protocols". People's/Victim's personality (online or in person) and their good nature aside - these are tough issues that cannot be avoided.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby SilverLynx » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:33 am

Tom, your post was very eloquently stated and I agree.

There is a time and place for emotions, but there is also a time and place for reason and analysis.

Matt, what you are doing is very hard but I think it is the right thing.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby Buckshot Jake » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:38 am

I like the idea of an analysis thread, people learn from past mistakes. It's how we grow and adapt. Good work Matt, I've seen the backlash people give to others on these forums whenever they start asking questions so I understand what you have gone through.
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Re: Deaths, Accidents and Analysis

Postby Oman » Tue Jul 23, 2013 7:56 am

One thing about the Internet (and You can always find someone who disagrees with you.

In general, I think we're better served by more information, not less. One of the surest ways to make information public is to try to keep it secret. Even so, after almost every accident, there is a push by some here to withhold information about the accident. I understand that people grieve in very different ways for very personal reasons, but withholding information about an accident on public land, responded to by public safety officials, and investigated by public coroners, just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Society makes public the details about traffic deaths, crime deaths, plane crash deaths, drowning deaths, skydiving deaths, scuba deaths, and fire deaths, among others. Why should mountaineering deaths be any different?

I've learned something from the details of almost every mountaineering accident described on this website. (Unfortunately, there have been many.) I especially remember the Lou Dawson / Wildsnow report posted above by the Lord. I saw Dawson's accident report as a public service, and discussed it a lot with my ski partners. Like Lemony Snicket says, those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it.

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