Cumulative Risk in the Mountains
And the rare occasion when five beats queen
When people die doing things you routinely do for a living you tend to take notice.
Monday, January 2, Christian Helger, a 29-year-old ski patroller at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah was riding the Short Cut chair when a tree fell on the cable driving the chairlift. As the cable rebounded from the force of the falling tree, Helger was thrown from the chair and into a ravine with reportedly chest-deep snow in it. The spruce tree, loaded with 11 inches of new snow, on top of 14 inches from the previous day—fell on the span of cable behind Helger. Presumably, he never saw it coming.
I wonder and worry about the welfare of the patrollers sent to rescue Helger, their friend. I can easily imagine their desperation The physical demands of a situation like that are intense. Navigating through quicksand-like snow is exhausting and can be terrifying; lose your balance for a split-second, tip over, and you are suddenly submerged in a cold and relatively airless place with anchor-like skis locked to your feet. For people born and trained to be the helpers—the able ones in terrible situations—helplessness is the worst of fates and a feeling that is hard to shake even years later.
It reportedly took rescuers 20 minutes to reach him, let alone dig him out. Every patroller knows the statistics: in an immersion/avalanche burial situation, the probability of survival drops 3% every minute. The fittest of shovelers can only dig 25 centimeters of soft snow per minute. That clock eats away at you. The reality is the odds are stacked against you. Still, everyone believes in that 40, 30, or 20%; it’s what drives them, releases the adrenaline that enables otherwise normal people to move through chest-deep snow. However, the fall from that heightened state of attempting to save someone’s life and failing to do so is a great one. Some don’t recover from that.
Drew Hardesty, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center and a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park, wrote an article for Outside titled “Blood on Our Hands; Life, Death, and PTSD as a Ranger in the Tetons.” It details the rescue of three women—two of whom did not survive—from a climbing accident on the Black Chimney route of the Grand Teton. The upshot of his article is that these events not only take lives, but they take life out of those who remain. The trauma affects the brain rather than the body at large, but it is trauma no less. Events get played over and over in the mind’s eye. I sometimes think that endless loop is our subconscious desperately but vainly hoping for a different ending.
So, I think about those Park City patrollers grappling with that stress. It is insidious.
Hardesty had something to say about this. He wrote:
“In the Tetons, at the end of a rescue or body recovery, we’d often wander over to the porch at the large cabin in the meadow just south of Jenny Lake. There’d be a bottle or two on the porch, but often it would go unopened. We’d look past one another, tell a joke about death, look up at Teewinot, listen to Cottonwood Creek and the rustle of wind through the leaves. Sometimes we’d tell stories. What was important was that each of us had been there; we all, in another way, had blood on our hands—we had all shared the same experiences. While always offered, we didn’t need the chaplain. We needed each other.”
To expand on Hardesty’s point, tragedy has a way of overwhelming our senses—so much so that we become lost in our own familiar world. It is vertigo in every direction. For those left behind in the fog—family, friends, colleagues—sometimes the only way forward is together.
What I’ve come to accept is that both stress and risk are cumulative. When I was starting out as a patroller, the idea of doing avalanche control—throwing bombs, powder skiing, navigating through wild beautiful terrain with no one there but you and your route partner—was nothing but exhilarating. Fear, stress, bad outcomes never entered the calculus. The same was true of whitewater kayaking in my 20s and 30s. It was all fun and games.
The fact is the stress of living that life affects me a lot more than it used to. I think part of that has to do with the changing balance between cost and benefit. The benefit of skiing untracked snow or watching a big bomb go off is the same as it ever was. The cost, however, of a bad outcome—loss of life due to a mistake—is different. Ironically, a young person has a lot more of life to lose, in years, at least. However, an older person faces steeper costs in terms of lost relationships—children, spouse, parents, friends—that build and richen over the years.
In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart imagines a world without him in it. I suspect real adults in real life play a similar mind game. I don’t recommend it; it’s an exercise in anguish. It does, however, bring in to focus the real costs of a risky endeavor.
Beyond the fact that steeper costs increase our stress load, I also believe that stresses add up over time. Certainly, you can relieve some of them in various ways, but others linger. Bad wrecks, bad outcomes don’t ever fully go away; they just recede a little and wreck their havoc below the surface a bit.
When it comes to risk, anyone who lives higher on the risk scale than others surely has a sense that risk adds up. Of course, one of the foundations of probability and statistics is that of the independent event. If I tossed a coin yesterday and it came up heads, that result has no bearing on the outcome if I toss the same coin today. The probability it lands heads today is exactly the same as it was yesterday (50%).
Cumulative risk, however, looks at the probability of an event occurring over a long period of time. Manuel Genswein, an expert in avalanche rescue, search strategies, and emergency and risk management—and who happens to be spending time this winter in my area helping train rescue personnel—wrote with others a paper in 2012 titled “Perception of Risk in Avalanche Terrain.” In part, the paper discusses cumulative risk or what the authors term “lifetime risk.”
Genswein and his colleagues calculated the probabilities of fatal accidents as a function of exposure. One case they provide as example is that of an active skier who skis 50 days per year for 15 years. The sum of his ski days over a lifetime would be 750 days. Genswein et al then used Swiss accident data to categorize different user types—those who were modest in their approach to risk, those in the middle, and those more aggressive in their approach to risk. The fatality rate of those in the first group was 1 death in 100,000 outings; that in the second group was 1 in 50,000. Those in the most risk-tolerant group had a probability of fatality of 1 in 25,000.
Do the math and an active skier with a low risk profile has a 1 in 130 chance of dying while skiing over a lifetime. The highest risk profile active skier would have 1 in 30 chance over his lifetime.
On the other end of the spectrum is a professional mountain guide who might have 2,600 days in the backcountry over a career. The fatality rate of guides in the low, moderate, and high-risk user type is 1 in 40, 1 in 20, and 1 in 10, respectively. That last statistic should give pause. A high-risk-tolerant guide has a 10% chance of dying while guiding over a lifetime.
All of this is to say that anyone can get away with an isolated risky action. But do it consistently, day after day for a lifetime and the odds of a bad event do begin to add up. Obviously, everyone has to find their own balance between the exhilaration of freedom that a higher risk life offers and a longer (speaking probabilistically) life with less risk in it. And that balance depends entirely on our entanglements in life—the connections and value and joy we get from and give to others. At some point, choosing freedom becomes self-indulgent, but at what point?
Risk is at once a source of joy and grief. For those who live, love and work in the mountains, risk is part of the scenery. We can do our best to lower the probability of disaster with skills, knowledge, and abilities. Still, the probability never goes to zero.
In the ski patrol shack where I work, we often resolve minor quibbles—who has to go to a certain station or deal with a vomiting patient—by drawing cards. There are times when you might draw a queen and the next guy draws a five. Dispute resolved. On occasion though, and inexplicably, greater powers (namely a boss) intervene, and it is determined that queen loses to five. Likewise, out on the mountain, as what happened in Park City, a once-in-a-hundred-lifetimes event can strike. Odds are defied; rules cast aside. Five beats queen. Like Christian Helger, we don’t see it coming, nor can we understand it.
At 29, Christian Helger hardly had time to accumulate much risk in life. I desperately hope he did have the occasion to touch the bright sky from time to time, that he was able to find among the madness a precious moment—pure and still—to feel the wild thrill of the mountains while he was here.