Eric Higgs retakes an historic photograph from an exposed ridge along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, Southern Alberta. Photo: MLP 2016.

Each year, Mountain Legacy Project (MLP) researchers, alongside associated volunteers, are fortunate to spend four to eight weeks conducting fieldwork in the mountains re-taking historic survey photographs. This involves extensive mountain travel and time spent on summits locating the exact spot historic photos were taken from. It is a kind of fieldwork — or better yet, “mountain work” — that asks us to engage with and learn from the places we travel to, and the people with whom we travel.

Mountain Hazards

Mountains are beautifully complex, awe-inspiring environments. They are also inherently hazardous. In spring 2019, we wrote a Mountain Safety Plan to assess, mitigate and adapt to risks in the mountains. The 2019 MLP field crew put this safety plan into practice this past summer.

A sudden snow squall one day in Kananaskis Country during the 2016 field season. Photo: Mary Sanseverino.

Mountain weather can be extreme and unpredictable, and is often subject to sudden changes. Major peaks can even create their own weather! Some important mountain weather hazards to consider are: 

  • Thunder storms (lightning);
  • Sustained, gusty, or erratic winds;
  • Sudden, heavy precipitation (rain, snow, hail);
  • Strong UV rays;
  • Visibility, or lack thereof;
  • Large variations in temperature.
Golf anyone? 2017 Canada Day downpour of hail on Hailstone Butte Ridge, Kananaskis Country. Photo: Kristen Walsh.

Mountain terrain poses its own challenges, adding increased risks. For example:  

  • High elevation;
  • Exposure;
  • Route finding;
  • Limited escape routes;
  • Terrain altered by weather.
Vladka Lacova-Gat and Kristen Walsh assess the surrounding landscape to see if they’re standing in the spot where surveyors once stood over a hundred years ago. Photo: Rick Arthur.

We also recognize the important role the human factor plays in mountain safety, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Communication;
  • Decision making;
  • Team dynamics;
  • Fatigue, poor nutrition, distraction, disorganization;
  • Acceptable sphere of risk.
Mary Sanseverino takes in Willoughby Ridge in the 2015 field season. This area was burned in the 2003 Lost Creek fire. Photo: Kristen Walsh.


Mountain Safety Philosophy

Mountain Safety Plan (2019). Our Safety Philosophy includes four pillars: personal safety, self-care, open communication, and situational awareness. Graphic: Kristen Walsh.

At the core of our Mountain Safety Plan is our Safety Philosophy. Safety is our first priority, our anchor, guiding us back if we get distracted or drawn out of ourselves in other pursuits. More important than repeating photographs, our day’s objective in the field is always to return home safely. There are four key elements to our safety philosophy, which in turn informs how we assess, mitigate and adapt to hazards in the mountains.

  • First: Each crew member is responsible for their own safety, which in turn influences the safety of the group.
  • Second: We encourage crew members to take good care (physically, mentally, and emotionally) in the mountains, in preparation for mountain travel, and upon leaving the mountains. When we take good care of ourselves, this has ripple effects on the rest of team.
  • Third: Open communication is key to fostering trusting relationships. This occurs on three levels, an idea we borrow from mountain guide Ken Wylie at Mountains for Growth: communication with self, the group, and the environment. From this place of trust with ourselves, our team, and the surrounding environment, connections deepen and make room for assertive communication when the situation calls for it. This allows us to work collaboratively on a profound level.
  • Fourth: Last, but certainly not the least, situational awareness is extremely important to safety in the mountains — it underlies everything. Similar to a headlamp, situational awareness illuminates our way, sometimes more dull or bright, narrowed or wide. Situational awareness and intuitive knowing go hand in hand. The more deeply we develop our situational awareness, the more intuitions or gut feelings may present themselves. We encourage crew members to listen to these.
A storm brews over Barrier Lake one morning in the 2015 field season. After two turn arounds (first after an encounter with lightning, and second with a grizzly yearling), the crew eventually make it to the survey station once it was safe to do so. Photo: Mary Sanseverino.


Ways of assessing, mitigating and adapting to risk in the mountains

Sonia Voiescu slides into the front seat of the helicopter during the 2018 field season. Photo: Alex Hackonson.

Throughout the Mountain Safety Plan, readers are provided with ways to asses, mitigate and adapt to risks in the mountains. Given the lengthiness of the document, we will not go into details here. However, we would like to share two important tools from our toolkit.

  1. Before heading out into the field, crews complete and discuss amongst themselves a Morning Safety Briefing.  This is a critical trip planning tool. It involves:
    i). Checking several different weather forecasts and identifying hazards;
    ii). Having a solid sense of where the crew will be travelling that day – the terrain (and other) challenges associated with this travel;
    iii). Knowing the photographs to be repeated and understanding the information these offer;
    iv). Completing a checklist for personal and team equipment appropriate for terrain, weather and emergencies;
    v). Having a good sense of how each crew member is feeling.

  2. An Evening Safety Recap is completed upon return to camp at day’s end. It:
    i). Allows the crew to identify hazards encountered that day and important lessons learned;
    ii). Allows the crew to acknowledge things well done;
    iii). Provides a safe space to voice concerns and appreciation.
Following the launch of the Mountain Safety Plan, the 2019 MLP crew joined ACMG guides Ken Wylie and Graeme White at the Alpine Club of Canada’s Hišimy̓awiƛ hut for pre-season alpine skills and safety training. Photo: MLP 2019.


Conclusion

Whether it’s mountain-work, fieldwork or play … acknowledge the environment you find yourself in, and take heed of its hazards. Wishing you safe and fun mountain adventures in the year ahead.

Tanya Taggart-Hodge demonstrates an ingenious way to crack a (hard-boiled) egg. Photo: MLP 2014.



More information

Learn about the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides

Mountains for Growth programs for the outdoors.

Hišimy̓awiƛ – Gather Together.


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