Will Gadd pens an open letter about some hard mountain truths

Many people hire guides and instructors because, statistically, we do a good job keeping ourselves and our guests reasonably safe in beautiful but inherently dangerous places. Still, every guest signs a waiver and, when asked, says they have read and understood that guides can’t guarantee safety.

But I want to go deeper than a legal waiver here. We all intellectually understand that the mountains are inherently dangerous and accidents will happen, but most of us look at the odds and think, “Won’t happen to me!”

And generally, we’re right. The odds are forever in our favour. Until they’re not.

I’ve spent decades in the mountains, and have had three serious accidents in my groups in all that time. Pretty good odds, no? But, to my guest who got hit in the arm by a rock while I was guiding her, and to my partner who I dropped a rock on, that record means very little. I also reviewed the avalanche forecasting where, the next day, an amazing woman, who was very close with my family and deeply loved by hers, died. I didn’t think any of those outcomes would happen, but they did.

So, if I can and do get surprised regularly by the mountains, how am I going to keep you and us safe?

I can’t.

If we go into the mountains we are taking a larger-than-daily-life risk.The only way to totally avoid that is to not go.

I mean thisI really can’t keep us—you or me—completely safe. That’s my painfully learned truth after thousands of personal and professional days in the mountains. Days sometimes end badly, even with the best practices and motivations. I’ve lost 25-plus friends to the mountains, and done CPR on a dying man in perfect warm alpenglow. These people weren’t stupid or cavalier. The mountains and gravity simply did what they do, and that was that.

Do you honestly know and believe this? Or are you just relying on the odds and a guide? Because, long term, the mountains will destroy all of us who go there. Many guides and guests won’t agree, and I can respect that—as I once thought it too.

Humans are never omniscient in their understanding, and the mountains are infinitely complex. Put those two factors together and, even with the best systems, intentions, training and mental approach, there will be bad outcomes. We are tiny soft creatures in a magical but very hard world of ice, snow and stone.

I visit and guide in the mountains with the understanding of both the absolute joy and the deepest pain the mountains can bring. I am not abdicating my responsibility as a guide when I acknowledge the above. I am taking total ownership of what I really think it means to go into the mountains as a guide or guest, and letting you know my view as clearly as I can. I hope this knowledge makes me a better guide for you, and my words have a truth you can feel in your bones—as I do.

I will do my best to keep us in the “good statistics” column while doing beautiful things. But we won’t manage mountain risk, as no one manages mountains. We will use our inherently flawed understanding of the environment, and ourselves, to favour the outcomes we want. And I know I’ll get it wrong sometimes. Strangely, I believe knowing my own limitations helps me make good decisions for both of us.

Still thinking of hiring me? Damn, you’re brave! OK, here are some more notes on how we might approach our time in the mountains together:

1. My primary goal is to get back at the end of the day—with you. It isn’t to push for the top, it’s to come home. If we don’t make the summit, that’s OK. If we come home, we can get to more summits together in the future. Our lives are worth more than any one day or objective. Living is fun! I run away from hazards and toward life a lot.

2. We’re in this together, literally. While I’ve possibly had more days out, I routinely miss things or make errors you might catch.You will see things I don’t. I value your opinion, and guests and partners have saved my day or life many times. If your Spidey Sense is tingling, even a little, then please speak up! If nothing else it’ll be a good opportunity to discuss a situation.

3. I’ll also ask you for your goals and risk-perspective so we’re aligned and so we choose appropriate objectives together. Discussion is critical. I’ll outline expected primary hazards to you, and verbalize our approach to those hazards before and during the day. If you’re uncomfortable, please let me know. We’ll talk, and if unresolved, we will cheerfully leave.

4. Avalanches, lightning, rockfall, bears, falling trees—it’s a long list so I’ll stick to the immediate hazards and how we’ll mitigate them. Most of the time I won’t go super deep into these hazards, but I’ll say something like, “We’re going into avalanche terrain as discussed. I think it’s reasonable or I wouldn’t go, but I don’t want to be on the climb after 14:00 when the sun hits it, so we’ll need to be down by then. Thoughts?” I won’t necessarily talk about the ATES scale or return intervals or the rain crust, unless you’re interested. And a slide could happen at 10:00, 14:00 or never. I’m making a judgement and feel it’s solid or I wouldn’t go into the terrain myself—or with you. But it’s just a judgement, not an absolute. I simply can’t understand or explain every potential hazard we’re facing in detail or we’d never leave the parking lot. However, I do seriously love questions and talking about hazards throughout the day!

5. I build our days around you. Having our “best” day means both you and I are honest about our skills, fitness, risk-perspectives and stoke. If I don’t think I can give you a really great day, or our risk tolerances are fundamentally different, I’ll happily recommend other guides as I often do. What you say to me is confidential.

6. My decisions aren’t always purely rational. If I call a day or situation, it may have nothing to do with you or the obvious conditions, I’m just listening to something I maybe can’t even explain but know to trust from decades in the mountains. If I can’t explain it in a way that satisfies you, I’ll happily refund your money and buy you a beer/Red Bull when we’re down safely.

7. When guides fall or get avalanched, and I know many who have, they often need help from you. So, I need you to be able to initiate a rescue if I get hurt. I’ve been lucky so far, but we’ll go over how to do it until you’re comfortable with the practices. I know several guides who are alive because of their guests.

8. If I take you, your dad, sister, brother, son or spouse out I am 100 per cent going to treat and value each as my own. I will set different risk tolerances based on discussions, ages, experiences and skills. And I’ll think of your family when guiding you. Because if it goes wrong I may be looking them in the eyes, and have. But you also need to understand that the mountains don’t respect “family” at all, and that people make errors.

9With hindsight every accident is preventable, but most good guides and long-term climbers/pilots/paddlers have had “surprise” accidents. I’ve been “right” or had good outcomes many thousands of times, but the mountain’s infinite combination dials will spin in ways I’ve never seen before. To believe otherwise is a trap of naïveté and arrogance I’d like to avoid. By starting our day with an honest look at risk, I hope to finish it on the right side of those risks for both of us.

10. Your philosophy matters. Let’s talk about how you view the mountains and life and build the best day we can around what we can do together.

If the above makes sense then I am looking forward to getting out with you and having the best day we possibly can!

Let’s talk, figure out a great day and get fired up for the amazing places we can go to, and come home from, together.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue. ("Gadd's Truth," page 22).


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