Monday 29 June 2015

With every adventure, there will always be risk

By David Lim, Published The Sunday Times, 28 Jun 2015

The tragic deaths of trekkers and adventurers on Mount Kinabalu following the June 5 earthquake in Sabah have raised the question about handling risk, and the appropriateness of mountain-based adventure activities for children.

Every year, globally, thousands of children travel to high altitudes without incident. These include trips to ski resorts, and hiking in countries with developed emergency and evacuation procedures, as well as to more remote destinations.

In assessing risk, it's important to separate what's known as "subjective" risks from "objective" risks.

Subjective risks refer to risks that are known and, to a degree, manageable. These include climbers' rate of acclimatisation as they move to higher altitudes.

Often, the faster the ascent, the higher the risk of adults and children being affected by acute mountain sickness and more serious conditions like fluids accumulating in the lungs (high altitude pulmonary edema) or brain (high altitude cerebral edema), both life-threatening.

Only one study has shown that children are more susceptible to altitude-based ailments, and that's only when they have prior or pre-existing upper respiratory tract illnesses. There is no conclusive evidence that they are more or less susceptible than adults to altitude problems.

However, there is an issue with what I term "competency reserve" that is of greater concern where children are involved.

In the presence of peers or a mixed group of peers and adults, some young children may find it hard to articulate how they feel, or draw attention to a specific health condition. This is less of an issue as children mature.

But pre-teens or more introverted teenagers may express problems like loss of appetite or poorly defined aches in a way that may mask more serious symptoms.

In general, the larger the gap between the existing competencies of a child or adult and experience and knowledge of a situation in the mountains, the greater the onus on the accompanying guide to ensure that the "controllable" does not spiral downwards into an "uncontrollable" situation.

In cases where children are significantly guided and helped during an adventure activity, the loss of the guide or access to adults who can make critical decisions can render the individual confused or frightened.

In a 1996 tragedy that cost eight lives on Mount Everest, one obedient climber nearly froze to death waiting far too long for his guide to turn up. The guide himself was among those who had died in the storm that day.

So, while "competency reserve" or the lack thereof can affect adults, children who are largely under orders in some adventure activities may be more severely affected by their lack of autonomy in such situations to save themselves.

"Objective risks" are risks that are present but less controllable. These include assessing avalanche risk on a loaded snow slope (a science and art in itself), as well as the risk from being exposed to rock or icefall from an inherently unstable source.

In such a situation that demands a judgment call, a group of adults with similar skills and experience may have a debate about the route to take; less so if an experienced guide calls the shots when dealing with a group of neophytes.

On Pisang Peak, a relatively straightforward 6,000m alpine climb in Nepal, one mistake by a guide led to 11 deaths in 1994. His mistake: roping up a large group of inexperienced climbers together. One fell and dragged the guide and the rest to their deaths.

Had the group's "competency reserve" been greater, the climbers may have raised some questions about that stupid move prior to the accident.

The challenge for any group leader in managing risks is increased where you have a higher amount of objective risks on the journey.

Some practical considerations, especially with children and risk activities in a mountain situation, might include:
- Having a subjective and objective risk assessment of the activity - from the route, guides (if any), and competency of the party participating in the activity.
The earthquake in Sabah was a highly exceptional occurrence, and few, if any, of the internationally recommended safety procedures could have protected anyone from a shower of falling rocks. One would be better off looking at the safety procedures and protocols that cover the other 99 per cent of possible risks in the actual activity;
- Understanding the gap between the goal and the competency of the group - the greater the gap, the closer the attention one should pay to the guides' skills and experience;
- Being aware that for mountain climbs, once above 2,500m it is recommended to limit subsequent vertical height gain to about 300m a day; and
- Understanding that altitude illnesses are hard to recognise in children who are unable to report classic symptoms.
Managing the risk aspect of mountain activities will be an ongoing challenge.

Some adventure-learning organisations in Singapore have touted their activities as "safe adventure". My opinion is that there is no such thing.

You can control risks only so far. However, to withdraw from taking any risks is to deprive young people of experiencing rewarding and enriching lessons of the outdoors.

As the poet T.S. Eliot put it: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."

Veteran climber David Lim led Singapore's first Mount Everest expedition in 1998 and is a leadership speaker and consultant.

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