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Ice Climbers Should Carry Beacons in Avalanche Areas

Get really good at both climbing and risk control. Learn about risk and how you can reduce it

Grant Statham is based in Canmore and has been ice climbing for 30 years. For most of that time, Statham has worked as an IFMGA mountain guide and a leading avalanche forecaster doing a number of different jobs.

For the past 13 years, he has worked for Parks Canada’s Visitor Safety program; first designing avalanche forecasting systems, and now doing avalanche forecasting and mountain rescue in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

He also works as a risk consultant, teaching and speaking about risk and doing program reviews for organizations that manage risk. We touched base with Statham to gain a better understanding of avalanche risk to ice climbers and the precautions they should take when heading into the backcountry.

Grant Statham on Mount Tasman in New Zealand
Grant Statham on Mount Tasman in New Zealand

When we refer to avalanche safety gear for ice climbers, what exactly is included? I think of three things: avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe – plus practicing enough so you’re fast and competent when things go wrong.

When should ice climbers have avalanche gear? When they are exposed to avalanche risk. This includes alpine climbing and mountaineering too, not just winter waterfall ice climbing.

Why should ice climbers have it? So they can be located and dug out if they get buried by an avalanche, or so they can find their partner and dig them out if they get buried.

Who benefits when ice climbers have the gear? First and most obviously, the person who is buried! Getting dug out alive seems like a pretty strong benefit. Also their partner, who won’t have to wander about aimlessly on the surface of the avalanche debris and then try to dig a deep hole with their helmet and hands. Then there is the first responders, whose risk gets jacked through the roof when they have to search for climbers not wearing transceivers.

Take a look at this case-study of our 2015 response to Polar Circus – hypothetically, the rescuers’ risk exposure was 400 times what it could have been, simply because the climbers weren’t wearing transceivers! Damn I hate that. Finally, if you’re killed, then at least the rescuers can locate your body and bring you home to your family and loved ones – do not underestimate how important that is to grieving families.

Many climbers have not been guided or had professional instruction. What do those ice climbers need to know about avalanches and safety? Avalanche hazard is the most significant threat to ice climbers in the Canadian Rockies. The majority of routes are exposed to avalanche hazard – often for extended periods. The terrain and routes here are huge, and the snowpack is generally weak and unstable.

Every year there are numerous close-calls and/or accidents with ice climbers and avalanches. It is a very real hazard, and it should be on your mind every time you plan to go ice climbing. If you don’t know much about avalanches, take a weekend course and learn. Read some books, go online. Learn to read the avalanche forecast every time you go climbing. Take it really seriously.

How big is the effort to educate ice climbers about avalanche and safety? This isn’t news for experienced climbers. Joe Josephson’s 1994 guidebook makes a strong case for avalanche awareness and equipment, in 2005 Parks Canada published Waterfall Ice Climbing and Avalanches and every September we do a push for early-season avalanche awareness, aimed mainly at ice climbers. But over the past few years, Parks Canada and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides have been trying to increase awareness around avalanche safety and ice climbing.

In 2014 we hosted a workshop at the International Snow Science Workshop called “Avalanche Safety Equipment for Ice and Alpine Climbing – Not If, But How” which was attended by 300 people. In 2016 we published a case-study of an avalanche accident on Polar Circus, making the case for using avalanche gear, and presented it to 1200 people in Colorado.

Many of the guiding companies today consider the use of avalanche gear to be a minimum standard, and they teach their clients how to use the gear before going climbing. We have tried to convince the equipment companies to develop and market avalanche gear designed specifically for climbers, but have not had much luck. Over the years, many of my colleagues have done various presentations on avalanches and ice climbing, and some companies now offer avalanche courses designed specifically for ice climbers.

Silk Tassel WI4, in field, avalanche on Jan. 28/2017 Photo Tim Banfield
Silk Tassel WI4, in field, avalanche on Jan. 28/2017 Photo Tim Banfield

Are you surprised that not all ice climbers wear avalanche beacons? No, I’m not surprised. I think there are probably lots of people who ice climb and don’t know a lot about avalanches. Judging by the number of times I’ve watched people climbing in Field when it’s raining, or Bourgeau Left when the sun is roasting the giant slope overhead – there seems to be lots of climbers who don’t take the avalanche risk as seriously as they should.

To be completely honest, it’s only been in the past five years that I’ve really made a personal, concerted effort to carry avalanche gear when I climb. Unfortunately, it’s not really part of the ice climbing culture, and that’s the part we wish was different and would like to change. I can’t quite resolve why the outdoor community is so into avalanche safety when we have skis on, but then we leave it all behind and go climbing.

My sense is that any reluctance to using avalanche safety gear results from two things:

  • Climbers want to be lightweight, and paring down the pack to minimize weight/size allows you to climb faster – which is safer. That’s our dominant culture, and I’m the first person to begrudge the extra weight. But, these days I am forcing myself to suck-it-up and carry it. I can’t even imagine how awful I’d feel forever if I was left on the surface while my partner was buried, and I had nothing to search and dig with. Stupid! So I force myself to take the equipment, and I hope for a day in the near future where I can buy a super lightweight, small, strong shovel and probe that is light and built for a climbing pack. As for the transceiver? For me that’s like wearing socks, I just wear one every day.
  • There seems to be a prevailing thought among climbers that you don’t need to carry avalanche rescue gear because what’s the point, you’re gonna be killed anyways. This is fundamentally wrong on so many levels. Being on a steep pillar could in-fact be the safest place of the day. But what about the approach? Or getting buried in a gully between pitches? People have some vague notion that they’ll be hit by some massive avalanche from above, which indeed would be bad and potentially unsurvivable, but there are so many other scenarios where burial with survival is entirely conceivable. Winter climbing is already high risk, why not reduce your risk where you can?  

Do you think that all backcountry users in avalanche areas should have avi gear? In principle, yes. Or at least people should think carefully about whether they need it or not and make a well-considered choice. When I’m going ice climbing in avalanche terrain, I always have a discussion with my partner about this equipment – just like planning the rack together.

We always wear transceivers, and we usually always take shovels and probes. Sometimes we leave them at the base of the climb, sometimes we just take one set up the route, and sometimes we both carry it the whole way. The main point is to make it part of your mindset, talk about it, and be calculated. When in doubt, bring it.

Why do you think only skiing has adapted the avi gear mentality? Probably lots of reasons, but I suggest these are the big three:

  • Skiing is big business. In British Columbia alone, the helicopter and snowcat skiing industry contributes $192 million annually to the provincial economy. Add to that the ski resort and ski touring markets, and it’s clear that the ski market is huge. Since the 1970’s, avalanche safety has been paramount in professional backcountry skiing operations, and I think this has translated into a broad acceptance among the ski industry that when you operate in avalanche terrain, you come equipped and trained.
  • Compared to the market for skiing, the ice climbing market is tiny. When was the last time (or first time) you saw a glossy ad from a climbing equipment company that promoted their avalanche safety gear for ice climbers? I have never seen one. Several of us have tried to convince some of the larger companies to develop light and strong avalanche gear for climbers, and then market it – but they don’t seem interested yet. Although the market is certainly smaller than skiing, ice climbing is clearly a viable market for selling equipment. I think if the gear companies got on-board then we’d see more uptake with climbers and avalanche gear.
  • Climbing prides itself on independence, and its roots in the dirtbag culture. Modern climbing celebrates hard routes done in a light and fast style. Carrying the extra weight of a shovel and probe probably seems like more of an inconvenience than an essential part of the pack. Even the climbing media celebrates athletics in front of good decisions. Like the awesomeness of a prolific climber doing a historic solo linkup on the Stanley Headwall. Indeed, this was awesome and inspiring climbing – but is it really awesome to climb through dangerous conditions all week, survive only by luck, and then have the media describe the feat as an inspiration for future generations?

Snowmobiling is a good example of a winter sport that has had to evolve their culture rapidly to come up to speed with modern avalanche safety practices. A series of high profile avalanche accidents over the past decade left their sport reeling. Front page stories and images of beer drinking fools accelerating through avalanche starting zones resulting in multi-casualty accidents left their sport shamed, with little public sympathy. As a result, over the past years the snowmobile industry has worked hard to change their culture so that avalanche safety is now part of the deal, and guess what – their rate of avalanche fatalities is on the way down. 

There are a number of fatalities every year in the mountains, some skiing, some climbing and some on snowmobiles. About how many ice climbers are killed in avalanches a year or over a certain period of time? A 2009 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that over a 21-year period from 1984 – 2005, 12 ice climbers were killed by avalanches, resulting in an annual average of 0.6 climbers killed per year. Ice climbers represented six-percent of all the avalanche fatalities during this period. In total, between 1978 and 2016, 450 people were killed by avalanches in Canada, while over the past 20 years the annual average of all avalanche fatalities is 14 deaths per year. 

How many of them die from asphyxiation versus trauma? That same study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that of the 12 ice climbers killed by avalanches between 1984 and 2005, 58 per cent of them died from asphyxiation and 42 per cent died from trauma. A 2016 study from Colorado found that of the 17 climbers/hikers killed by avalanches between 1995 and 2015, 76 per cent of them died from asphyxiation and 24 per cent died from trauma.

If you could tell young and old climbers one thing about safety, what would it be? If you love to climb and plan to do it for your entire life, then your best chance at success is to take the risk seriously and minimize it at every chance. That doesn’t mean eliminate it, or you’ll never climb anything, but in every scenario try to minimize your risk.

Why not stack the odds in your favour? Sure you can probably get away with shortcuts if you’re an occasional climber, but that’s just luck. Fools rely on luck. If you keep doing that, sooner or later your luck may run out, and luck is not something to be relied upon – the better alternative is skill.

So get really good at both climbing and risk control. Learn about risk and how you can reduce it. Be psyched when you climb something awesome in good style, which includes being light, fast, minimalist . . . and smart.  

Anything else you would like to add? I think I’ve already gone on too long with all the other questions, so I’ll leave it at that for now.