3

This is a very subjective question but the goal is to make a somewhat comprehensive Wiki-style list of, let's call it "mission abandon criteria", that should prompt a team to turn back.

In a siege style expedition, most of these conditions can be withstood given the luxuries of a larger team and longer time at hand. However these things cannot be handled by a group doing an Alpine style climb, with a single rope team (2-4 members).

Good examples that should definitely cause a team to abandon the mission -

  • One team member falling ill - hypothermia, altitude sickness, edema, etc.
  • More than one member developing an injury - sprain, etc. (?)
  • The team has had to emergency bivouac for X hours already in bad weather and there's no sign of the weather letting up
  • Critical equipment failure
  • ?
  • ...
  • It wasn't alpine but I'll throw out one that surprised me: The party was at about 11,000' and cleared a ridgeline that had been shielding them from the worst of the wind, at that point it was so ferocious that a 90-pound female (small, Asian, not a weakling) was struggling too much with it and could barely progress. – Loren Pechtel Dec 31 '19 at 5:13
  • I am not convinced this question will find a form that will attract useful answers. Currently we're seeing single anecdotal remarks and opinions, not all of them seem to be based on experience. This question touches on a very safety critical topic, so a high standard in answers should be a must! – fgysin reinstate Monica Jan 7 at 7:23
  • not only for alpine, but in any out-an-back hike I have a latest turn-around time: at time X, the party must start going back, no matter what. (with variations for loops and linear trails) – njzk2 Feb 9 at 5:29
7

IMHO your turn around point "developing hypothermia" is too late.

AFAIK, hypothermia usually doesn't happen out of the blue: there's a typical mix of exhaustion and not enough food, usually also accompanied by dehydration. There are also vicious cycles involved (being at one's limit and already slightly cold, possibly behind schedule, and therefore not making a break and in consequence skipping rest, food + drink => accelerating exhaustion).

The turn around point should be well before that: when group/buddy check reveals that someone

  • is too tired/slow already considering the way still to go (and the way to go back!), or
  • that their clothing is not sufficient and they cannot borrow from someone else (e.g. they already wear everything they have while going => no safety margin in case more clothing is needed e.g. because of prolonged waiting* periods due to an accident/rescue/whatever.)
    * waiting isn't quite the right word, I mean anything that leads to less overall physical activity because circumstances necessitate slow, deliberate moving and thinking in between.

  • doesn't (the group as a whole doesn't) have sufficient food or water

Disclaimer: my knowledge/experience is less from moving in Alpine environments than from camping/wilderness tours, multi-day tours and more remote than many parts of, say, the Alps are. Which both means that the tour is "operated" further from the personal limits/with more safety margin than many Alpine day tours do.

Also, there is the famous tradeoff whether you want to become a famous mountaineer or an old mountaineer - remember there are very, very few famous old mountaineers.

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6

I believe it's close to impossible to draft a checklist that would work in every situation. The best recommendation I have (after 40 years of experience in mountaineering on 4 continents) is that you should slowly increase the difficulties and dangers of the trip and go with a partner you know well and that knows you well and then use common sense and experience and turn around rather once too often than too late. You can always give it a second try but only if you survive. We turned around more than once and afterwards you could always have continued but would it be worth the risk?

If it does not feel right for you or (not 'and'!) your partner, it's time to turn around. That's why I only go to big mountains with a partner I know well and I trust.

In general bad things happen if at least two things go wrong. Here is a list of things to watch out for:

  • weather and terrain conditions
  • loss of orientation
  • mental condition of each team member
  • physical condition of each team member

I put mental in front of physical condition. If you get into a unplanned condition it's most important not to panic. Think before you act! Think through potential dangerous situations before they happen so that you already "know" what to do. Prepare for each trip: Get as much information as you can (maps, GPS track, recent conditions, weather forecast, backup plan). Be prepared for bad weather: extra layers of clothing, headlamp in case you get into the dark, be prepared for an unplanned night outdoors (often times waiting out the night and trying the next day is better than getting in danger when trying to find the way in the dark).

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  • Sir, thank you for your advice, it is well taken. But for a new mountaineer, there is always the risk of over or under estimating the situation. Hence the question seeks to make a sort of checklist - e.g. if such conditions happen/prevail, consider aborting the mission. Of course, such a list will never be exhaustive, and common sense in the mountains will remain imperative, but a starting bullet point list might be nice for newbies. – Yogesch Feb 8 at 4:59
  • 1
    I see your point and I'll try another more general answer. Mostly I believe thing go wrong if not a single problem occurs but two (or more) problems show up. – Bernd Feb 10 at 9:43
  • "...if not a single problem occurs but two or more show up" Good point. One problem can often be overcome if you are well prepared or experienced, or maybe just determined (but don't let determination increase your danger!)… but with more than 1 problem the difficulty seems to increase exponentially. So that's essentially another bullet point: multiple compounding small problems. – Loduwijk Feb 10 at 18:18
2

Abandon the trip if...

  • someone in the group demonstrates behavior that threatens the group,

  • someone in the group is found to be lying about their status.

First involved dangerous brandishing of a gun - I like guns but he was being irresponsible. Second involved people saying they were warm and dry when they weren't, up until they were dangerously wet and cold - we cancelled but not soon enough, someone took a nasty tumble which could have been avoided if we monitored them better and cancelled when it was obvious they were lying; fortunately the injury was minor.

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2

Short answer: As soon as it's determined that continuing could run the risk of someone getting into trouble or sustaining an injury.

We had to abandon a cave-surveying expedition this past summer because of heavy snow. The expedition spanned two weekends, on the first weekend I was worried I was going to get sun burned on the approach to the high-altitude cave. Exactly 7 days later we started the approach again in the rain, by the time we got above treeline it started to turn into snow, by the time we got within a 1/2 hour of the cave entrance we were pushing snow halfway up to our knees.

I wasn't the trip leader on this expedition, but when the mountains had suddenly disappeared into a whiteout of heavy snow fall I told the trip leader, "I think someone needs to make a call here..."

These were the concerns I brought up:

  1. Several people in the group we not dressed for the weather. Several were not wearing waterproof footwear or clothing and were already soaked and cold. Not exactly how you want to start the day inside a cold damp cave.

  2. The snow had already accumulated to mid-knee. There was no telling how deep was it going to be when we resurfaced after spending the better part of the day underground.

  3. The terrain was treacherous enough when dry, but the wet snow cover presented an increased danger of slipping, and a level of difficulty for planning foot falls on the loose talus underneath, especially while carrying a heavy bag. It also made it more difficult to navigate the terrain, and presented a greater risk of someone taking a tumble down the mountain.

All things considered, it was determined that continuing ran a potential risk of hypothermia or injury to one or more members in the group. We turned around at that point and began a slow, wet and slippery descent.

The circumstances are not going to be the same for every situation. You need to consider size, strength, and ability of your group, as well as your level of preparedness. There were a number of people well prepared for the weather on my trip who could have continued, in fact there were three who did continue, set up camp and waited out the storm inside the cave, but they were the only ones who packed in sleeping bags and extra gear.

Ultimately, the decision should rest with the group leader, who has hopefully studied the conditions, is aware of the abilities of the group, and is prepared and trained to respond to any number of emergency scenarios. Sometimes it's wise to make the call even if there's a level of uncertainty that it's necessary to do so. You'll rarely regret playing it safe.

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