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When most people look at mountains and mountainous terrain they automatically see danger. They see the sheer cliffs, rocky outcrops and declivitous ridges as risky places to be. However, when you look at it practically and statistically it is really not the obvious “risky” areas where the majority of accidents occur.

But why is that? It’s because people underestimate the “easy” terrain or fail to recognize the true severity of their situation. What do I mean by this?

Well consider this. You wouldn’t venture on to that vertical cliff that is perceived as risky simply because you recognize that it is dangerous and can only be approached using climbing techniques and with the use of ropes, harnesses and protection. If trained in these techniques that vertical cliff can be a fairly safe place. You have proper training and you are using ropes, harnesses and protection to prevent from falling off. If you do slip, the rope will arrest your fall and most times it is nothing but a minor inconvenience.

Now consider this, you venture onto a moderate angle slope. It doesn’t feel that steep and you are able to walk upright. You slip occasionally but a quick touch of your hand to the slope stabilizes your movements. There are steep cliffs above and below you but you are on what seems like easy terrain. You suddenly step on a smooth rock slab that was hidden from view by moss, scree, grass etc. You fall down and start sliding with the cliff below you fast approaching. You are unable to arrest your fall. You can imagine how this will end.

Here is another similar scenario. A family is out for a hike in the mountains. On the way down they are all feeling tired and an apparent shortcut to the valley below appears. Although the trail goes way around, this appears much faster and doesn’t look much different. They begin heading down feeling like they have outsmarted everyone. The walking is easy but gradually the terrain gets steeper, and some cliffs start to appear. The parking lot is in sight a little ways below. They scramble through a short cliffy section. Before they know it, they can no longer go down safely and going back up is out of the question.

This type of accident is very commonly seen by rescue organizations such as Parks Canada or local SAR groups.

This type of terrain is also very common in mountainous workplaces. Without proper training and experience, it can be very difficult to differentiate between safe and dangerous terrain. The wrong route and right route can appear strikingly similar. The biggest problem with this type of terrain is that it is accessible to most. This is called transitional terrain, and it is where people should focus their training.

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Global Mountain Solutions technicians have responded to many workplace accidents and incidents. They were often terrain related and usually preventable. It is rare that people get injured in highly technical terrain and most of our workplace responses have been in transitional terrain and /or because people wandered through terrain they thought was easy and got surprised.

In group scenarios which are often the norm with seismic crews, Heuristics usually play into accidents and incidents. Here is a good real life example of a response we did, and the lessons to be learned.

A seismic crew was following a well flagged line back to their truck at the end of the day. As they walked they were primarily following their GPS and the guy in front. The terrain was forested and somewhat steep but easy walking. As the crew neared the road the flagged trail took a hard left. The guy in front with the GPS decided to head straight downhill as they were “almost at the road.” As he continued descending the whole crew followed even though they saw the flagging going left. The terrain got steeper and soon there were some small cliffs and steps. Much different than the forested terrain they had been in. When a couple workers recognized the change in terrain, they were told “but the road is right there,” and kept going.

Next thing they knew the whole crew was caught up in large cliffs that could not be safely ascended or descended. After calling for help using their ERP protocol, GMS technicians arrived on scene and completed a technical rescue in which all crew members had to be lowered on ropes 50m to the flat terrain below.

There are many contributing factors to this event, not the least of which was failure to recognize transitional terrain. Other factors were loss of situational awareness, fatigue, complacency, and heuristics.

Now look at this incident from a different perspective. Had they approached the line directly from the road and in the opposite direction, they would have immediately been met by vertical cliffs. It would have been obvious that scaling them directly to access line was not a viable option and they would have looked for an alternative route. 

The best way to mitigate hazards associated with transitional terrain is to focus on educating workers to recognize it, and to identify the appropriate action to manage it. 

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