Friday, 26 November 2010

Spiral of mistakes

There is an interesting story on Grough about two men who spent the night on Kinder after having got lost.

I used to go diving, and was a member of the British Sub-Aqua Club. Every month the club magazine, Dive, would contain a one-page story about a diving incident, usually from the first-person perspective. It always made interesting reading, as it told you about the mistakes other people made, and how they managed (or sometimes not) to recover the situation.

It is a shame that walking magazines do not do something similar. Perhaps Dive can get away with it because, whilst scuba is an inherently dangerous activity, walking is most certainly not. When diving it is always important to learn from other people's mistakes. The motto 'plan the dive, dive the plan' has no walking equivalent.

The problem is that when things start going wrong, they often continue going wrong. The more things that go wrong, the harder it is to correct all of them. This is sometimes referred to as a 'spiral of mistakes'. A mistake makes it easier for another mistake to happen; the more mistakes you make, the more panicked and more liable to make mistakes you are. The sooner you correct the problems, the easier it is to recover.

In this case, the men made several mistakes, all of which are utterly understandable. They got lost on Kinder Scout, and allowed themselves to get benighted. They did not call out mountain rescue immediately, before it got dark.

On the other hand:
  • They had a bivvy with them, which protected them from the worst of the weather;
  • When they realised that they could not get off the hill the next morning, they called for help (presumably using a mobile).
  • It seems like they were properly equipped for the weather.
How could they have improved their situation? Well, I assume that they did not have a working GPS with them. This would have helped them not get lost in the first place. At the very least it would have given the rescue services their exact position. Perhaps, if heavy rain was forecast, they should have considered not starting the walk, or cutting it short.

I do not mean this in any way to be a criticism of them: "there but for the grace of God, go I". British weather is notoriously changeable, and a good day on the hills can rapidly descend into absolute hell.  I had a minor fall off a mountain in Scotland years ago, and, although I emerged relatively unscathed, it taught me a respect (i.e. healthy fear) of the hills.

Yet I undoubtedly take risks. Mostly I walk alone, and although my recent walks have all been in the south of England, they can be surprisingly remote. I would undoubtedly be in trouble if I had a fall and got knocked unconscious, but that is a calculated risk that I am prepared to take.

I do take precautions: even on day walks I often take a map (usually a 1:50,000 OS Map, and a computer print out of the route I am walking), a whistle, a plastic bivvy bag, a GPS, spare batteries, a mobile and a basic medical kit with bandages and plasters. This means that my daysack is always rather large, but I see myself as being able to get out of many sorts of problems with these items. Additionally, I try to carry enough money for a taxi and/or a B&B.

Of course, things can still go wrong. I can only hope that, like these gentlemen, I have enough kit with me to help myself get rescued, even if I had to spend a cold and uncomfortable night on the hills.

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