Any other Saturday in the fall. A lesson learned
On any given Saturday in October, Sara and Toni, along with another couple of friends, decide to go on a weekend excursion to Puigpedrós, a 2915-meter-high peak in the Eastern Catalan Pyrenees.
As usual, the Thursday before, they review all the details of the route planning and the weather forecast. Strong drops in temperatures and copious rainfall are expected for the day of the activity in the Puigpedrós area, with a certainty of more than 90%. This causes Sara and José’s companions to abandon the excursion since there was little hope of being able to do it. But Sara and Toni, decide to try it since it was a peak that had been behind him for a long time. They hope that the forecast is not fulfilled and that luck will accompany them to make their long-awaited excursion. They are regular mountaineers in that area of the Pyrenees.
Once the trip from Barcelona has been completed, in the shelter, where the parking was located, they find everything in a normal state. Although it is somewhat cloudy, the expected meteorological deterioration is not seen. Confident by this, they interpret that they have made the right decision to go up to the mountain … they have to try, luck accompanies the brave, as they say … They started the route drizzling, but with good visibility, they also felt safe because Toni was He had downloaded the Wikiloc ascent and descent route into his mobile phone application in case they got lost or the fog fell. They were also encouraged by the simplicity of the route and the equipment they carried. Everything was going well, they found some freshly fallen snow on the ascent that far from pushing them back motivated them even more since the snowy landscape intoxicated them. Sara told me a few months later while I was interviewing her: “We felt that we were where we liked to be, doing what we liked to do. What could go wrong!
They continued to their coveted summit. Near it, it began to snow heavily, but visibility was still good, so they were not too concerned and decided to summit, very close to where they were. Once in it, suddenly, the landscape changed, there was about 10-15 centimeters of snow, and the valley was completely covered by fog, and the worst thing is that the snowfall was increasingly dense, which caused loss of visibility . They realized that the weather forecast was being fulfilled at the worst possible time and place. They began a furious descent, as fast as the speed at which the fog surrounded them. In an instant the visibility was terrible, and the trace of the path was completely covered by snow.
They immediately thought that they needed to use the GPS of the mobile phone using the Wikiloc application to be able to orient themselves. Toni pulled out her device and found it was out of battery. She pulled on the external reserve she was carrying, but it had no load, the cold had killed her. Then, Sara reached for her phone to try to download the Wikiloc app and the track, but they didn’t have good coverage and they couldn’t get it.
Stuck in a sea of fog, where it was impossible for them to find their way without GPS, they decided to call for help. They thought that maybe if they could give their location they could guide them. They established a call with 112, notified them of their situation, told them that they were lost and that they were equipped with food and water. They tried to send their location, but there was not enough coverage in the area. The storm, far from decreasing its intensity, was getting worse and worse, and the possibilities of foreign aid by helicopter was unfeasible, and without being able to give its location, ground aid was not likely either. To top it all, as Sara moved through the snow, arm outstretched for cover with a cold gloved hand, the phone dropped and was lost in the voluminous layer of fresh snow.
Quite hopeless, they decided to lose altitude quickly even knowing that they would stray from the probable normal search route. The cold was beginning to be terrifying. They went down what could be seen to a valley in the hope that the chances of finding a natural refuge would increase. And so it was, they found two rocks together where they could mount an emergency bivouac covering the holes and gaps to avoid drafts.
Night fell. They could not sleep an eye during that time because the cold made them shiver constantly, they had to move to try to keep warm. The next morning, after all night snowing, the fog was still thick. His hope for help fell apart. All morning a dense fog dome remained around him. Colder and snow.
At midday, desperate, they decided to leave the refuge and try to return to the route that they had rejected the previous afternoon since they thought that if they were looking for them it would be there. The return at first became a dangerous ascent, they walked without being able to see and disoriented, there was no glimpse of any kind of mark that would place them on the itinerary, only monoliths with half a meter of snow on top were glimpsed. It was impossible to orient themselves in those conditions, so they walked without direction without stopping until nightfall again. At this time, Toni was in severe hypothermic symptoms and was beginning to hallucinate. Sara tried to make him moral support and encouraged him to move on, she did not want to lose hope.
Already, in the late afternoon, they needed to rest, but where they were there was no possibility of shelter, everything was an esplanade of snow and rocks. They found a descent through another valley where something similar to a shepherd’s house seemed to be sighted. They decided to go down a very dangerous slope, they found a river that had to be crossed, they decided to wade through the water, the eagerness to reach the refuge led them not to bother to look for a passage where their feet would not get wet. Within seconds the boots were wet and frozen. The worst was yet to come. What appeared to them to be a shepherd’s hut with a snowy roof was a large square dark rock with a snow-capped top. With this panorama they began to look for another refuge. They pulled a rock that could protect them a bit from the elements, but Toni couldn’t stand up anymore, he was exhausted, so they decided to settle for the precarious shelter.
They spent the second night really bad, at the limit of their strength, shivering and very cold. When it dawned they felt what seemed like visible symptoms of frostbite on their feet. That morning inside the makeshift shelter from where they couldn’t see the outside, hysteria was beginning to take hold of them, but the morning brought a clear day. They began to walk like sleepwalkers and in less than an hour they heard the noise of a helicopter.
This horrifying experience, but with a happy ending, is the result of the interview I did with Sara, with the intention of analyzing the causes of mountain accidents that we lead from the FEDME Safety Committee. It is, without a doubt, a lesson learned, the purpose of which is to serve to learn from the incidents or accidents reported by its protagonists.
When I chatted quietly with Sara, months after the event, she shared her experience with me in great detail. While I was taking notes, I observed it carefully and through my questions I tried to find out in it some clue that will lead me to find a logical reason that led them to undertake that excursion, clearly impossible and risky due to the adverse weather forecast. In her way of explaining things to me, I could see that she was not a beginner mountaineer, but quite the opposite, she demonstrated experience and knowledge in the mountains to know what they were facing.
Over time, I have realized that Sara and Toni are not different from other mountaineers who suffer accidents or not, the truth is that we are all the same, including you and me, dear reader. And believing the opposite can bring you bad consequences, or what is the same to think that it would not have happened to you because, logically, as did your colleagues who retired, you would have done the same.
My experience in accident analysis leads me to the conclusion that the vast majority are normal people, normal mountaineers, who fail in their decision-making. Certain emotional influences or mental biases make them consider wrong actions as correct. What is special about this case is the spectacular consequences. In summer it could have simply been a starry night wandering through the mountain lost by a great slope. Instead, already in autumn, it became a struggle for extreme survival as we have seen.
Having read the story “Any given Saturday in autumn”, and taking up the objective of this article, which aims to provide recommendations for safe sports practice in the mountains in autumn, I can add these conclusions:
-You must correctly plan the itinerary, on a map. And, in addition, a specific GPS device must be used to help with the possibility of dark, because the days are getting shorter, and a loss of visibility can occur due to fog. At http://www.twonav.com you can find the right device for your activity, and what is more important, tutorials to know how to use it properly. Clearly a mobile phone is not the most recommended device.
-We must review the forecast weather, as Sara and Toni did, and interpret how it will affect the terrain, visibility, progression, the choice of clothing … The urban species is very vulnerable without adequate means in the extreme mountains.
The first snowfalls create unstable terrain full of holes and eliminate traces of the terrain complicating orientation.
-Do not forget your bivouac material, suitable for the temperature and inclement weather possible on long and cold autumn nights. For Sara and Toni, I saved their lives.
-Consider the transition stage from summer to winter as the most delicate and difficult to tackle in terms of choosing the material to wear. Our close perception is of a hot summer and we go into a cold winter, which causes that in autumn we can find very hot days in the main hours of the day with land in summer situation, and in the next day we can find cold days where a layer snow covers the ground.
And thus, a multitude of points that will make your outings safer. But if you want the best recommendation, I would tell you that all of the above, as we have seen in the story of Sara and Toni, are worthless if we do not avoid being excessively complacent in the choices of your itineraries. Reasonableness must be imposed on what we want. Remember that everything we want to do we cannot or should not do.
The basis of our success in the mountains lies in a correct interpretation of the weather, and we must always be conservative in our decision. It is possible that a blue sky early in the morning leads us to the perception that we have been lucky, that our dreams have been fulfilled. People in general are always optimistic, and especially in our days of free time that are scarce. The “today I am going to be lucky”, leads us to imagine, to believe, that the appearance of a spectacular day when the weather forecast is of a 90% probability of heavy snowfall, is the beginning of a fantastic day for our objectives. This is called delusional optimism, and it is a terrible enemy. And as we have seen, when reality presents itself, it is still too late as in our history.
-I would always recommend that when uncertain weekends arise, typical of the autumn seasons, they should always be accompanied by an attractive and safe plan B, which helps you to banish the main one when doubts appear.
-And finally, even if you sin in cruelty, do not believe that the mountain loves you, it does not care about you at all, neither the good weather is because you are special, nor the bad weather because you are a bad person. The mountain is simply like that, whoever is. What should worry you is that it has led you to be there when you should not.
Don’t get me wrong, dear mountaineer, don’t think I want to get you out of that fantastic connection that we feel when we are in communion with nature, but never forget that the mountain has two faces and both, believe it or not, are dangerous.
José Ignacio “Rizos” Amat
FEDME Security Committee