Written By: Bob McKercher Originally Published in the May 1989
issue of The Outfitter Magazine.

 

On March 29, my best friend died because he was not wearing a toque.

The official cause of death was listed as hypothermia. Hypothermia was, however, the end result of a series of mistakes that led to this tragedy. Poor planning, inadequate preparation for an accident and poor crisis management turned an incident involving one person into a fatal accident that almost took two lives.

This tragedy could have been avoided.

There is, however, a lesson to be learned in how the situation evolved and how a minor incident deteriorated into a fatal accident.

What happened here could happen to any tourist operator if you do not prepare your camp and your guests to handle an emergency situation.

Let me briefly describe the incident and some of the factors that resulted in it mushrooming out of control.

Four very experienced wilderness travelers were skiing on the glaciers on the Alberta/B.C. border. All had over 10 years experience in wilderness travel, and all had taken various mountain rescue and wilderness survival courses. They were extremely fit, although one member of the party was in his 50s and another member was going to require minor back surgery after the trip.

As seasoned skiers, they thought they had taken all the necessary precautions. They each wore harnesses, so if they fell into a crevasse, they could be rescued. They carried ropes and other rescue equipment. Moreover, they did not believe in taking unreasonable risks.

The party was out for a day trip, having left most of their gear behind in their hut. The incident occurred at about 3:30 in the afternoon on a clear, late winter day. The temperature was slightly below freezing.

One of the skiers fell into a crevasse, as an unknown snow bridge she was skiing over collapsed. She fell 30 feet, landing on an ice ridge. Although she initially thought she had broken her leg, once she removed her skis, she realized that, except for minor injuries, she was all right.

The other skiers were notified of this accident by the second woman. The two men, who were ahead of her, turned to come back to give her help.

Gary was the first person on the scene. He was the strongest and fittest person on the trip, but had never faced a crisis situation before and had limited experience on a glacier. The other members told him to slow down and assess the situation, but, for whatever reason he did not heed their calls.

He removed his skis, thus distributing his weight over a much smaller area and began to probe the snow for the edge of the crevasse. All of a sudden, the snow under his feet gave way and he tumbled head first down the crevasse. He stopped, wedged upside down about forty feet deep in the crevasse. The force of the fall caused him to lose his hat and his right glove, thus accelerating any hypothermic effects.

In a flash, an incident became a crisis. Instead of three people being in a position to rescue one person, all of a sudden, two people were trapped and one of them was in extreme danger. To add to the crisis, the two people in to crevasse happened to be the two strongest individuals in the party.

An accident had suddenly deteriorated into an emergency that would ultimately cost one person his life.

After four hours, Gary was pulled out of the crevasse, but it was too late to save him. The other person was not rescued until over six hours had passed after she fell in. Later, park wardens were to say that it was a miracle that she survived, as most people in her situation do not live more than four or five hours before hypothermia overtakes them.

How did this accident occur? What factors led to the severity of an otherwise non-life threatening incident?

The answers to these questions should cause everyone involved in to remote, semi-remote or rural tourism industry to ensure that their business is as prepared for an emergency as possible.

First and foremost, even though he was a highly experienced wilderness traveler, Gary’s immediate and possibly instinctive reactions did not help the situation. Indeed his reaction to a crisis situation caused that crisis to worsen, ultimately costing him his life.

Second, the party was not as well prepared to handle the crisis situation as it thought it was. It was under-dressed for the day’s conditions. As well, it did not have enough food, water or emergency supplies for an unforeseen situation that would restrict it from getting back to its base camp.

Third, the members of the party were not physically able to function as effectively as they would have liked to once the strongest individual of that party became disabled.

Finally, the accident occurred late in the day, when the party was tired, hungry and slightly dehydrated. This further exacerbated their physical limitations.

Human error you say?

Well, most incidents of this type are caused by human error.

Further, the successful resolution of any crisis is also usually attributable to effective, responsible actions by the players, aided by sufficient tools to enable them to properly react to a situation.

At this time of year in particular, the tourist industry is extremely vulnerable to accidents. Variable weather conditions, cool air and water temperatures coupled with seasonally high water levels create the potential for an emergency situation.

Add to that, the fact that your guests are often over-eager to get out into the water after a long winter of little fishing activity, plus for many, the opportunity to fish also provides the opportunity to consume alcohol. You have a potential disaster in the making.

 

What should tourist operators do? Obviously, you cannot hold the hand of every guest. Similarly, by its nature, remote, semi-remote and rural tourism have some inherent risks. The greater the isolation, the greater the difficulty of extracting injured parties and, therefore, the greater the requirement for proper crisis management.

Tourist operators can do a number of things. The first is to ensure that all your equipment is functioning properly and is properly maintained, including life jackets. Add to that, ensuring that the camp has adequate supplies of gasoline and oil.

The second is to ensure that your tourist camp and each outpost camp is properly equipped with first aid equipment. This includes fire fighting gear, a well-equipped first aid kit with no stale-dated medication and exhausted supplies, blankets and other such emergency equipment needed to keep people warm, an extra day’s supply of food and a clear, concise, simple to follow emergency first aid kit.

The third is to ensure that, to the best of your ability, your guests are fully informed about the lake or river system they are on. Rapids, waterfalls and other natural hazards should be clearly outlined to them.

As well, it is worthwhile to explain some simple first aid techniques to your guests. I know that you do not want to scare them, but it may be prudent to talk about hypothermia in terms they can understand and to explain that, sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor.

Fifth, it is incumbent on you to ensure that your guests have proper gear, especially if they are going into remote areas. Do they have rain gear, wool sweaters (not cotton) and other warm clothing? If not, then rent it to them, or include it in the package.

Lastly, it all depends on you and your staff. Are you and your staff properly trained to handle a crisis situation? Have you, or has at least one of your staff, current first aid, CPR and crisis management training? Do you have the equipment to extract someone from a dangerous situation? Further, do you have an evacuation plan for injured guests?

In my younger days, I was fortunate to take a wilderness medicine/crisis mitigation course, ironically funded by the company my friend owned. The theme of this course, stressed again and again, was managing a crisis to ensure that it was not permitted to deteriorate.

As the owner/operator of your business, your clients will be looking to you for leadership in any real or potential medical crisis that may occur. How you act and how you manage this situation will directly affect its outcome, be it successful or tragic.

In a very real sense, if you are not part of the solution, then you will rapidly become part of the problem.

If you do not know what to do or how to do it, you are not going to be able to handle the emergency.

Furthermore, rash and immediate actions, without first assessing the situation, the risks at hand and the opportunities available to mitigate the problem, may result in you making a fatal mistake.

This last lesson was, unfortunately driven home on March 29, 1989, when Gary Watts, my long time friend, died in a crevasse in the Mountains of Alberta.

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