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HomeNL-2016-07 Safety Minute

Safety Minute
July, 2016
Harmon Everett

Groupthink Off the Edge of the Cliff

Don’t let your feelings that you are with a very capable group of people lead you into danger. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any of us.

As mentioned in this Newsletter last year, and in the National Geographic, and in various news reports around the world, the founder of the North Face company and noted outdoorsman and mountain climber, Douglas Tompkins, died while kayaking across a lake in southern Chile.

He was with another mountain climber and the founder of The Patagonia company, Yvon Chouinard, also Rick Ridgeway, a noted mountain climber and filmmaker, Jib Ellison, a veteran river guide, Weston Boyles, an outdoor filmmaker, and Laurence Alvarez-Roos, a kayaker and raft guide, who was captain of the US Men’s whitewater rafting team for 6 years.

The point is, this was a group of some of the most experienced outdoorsmen in the world, with some of the best equipment, and he died while KAYAKING ACROSS A LAKE. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any of us.

They knew that storms form swiftly in that area, and that the water temperature was 38º F. But who among us hasn’t paddled in cold water in areas with storms?

Ken Anderson, who paddles with a group in Washington State along Puget Sound, says that the group there requires everyone to wear dry suits every time in cold water. The group with Douglas Tompkins was not wearing dry suits, but were wearing Patagonia outdoor clothes, and PFDs.

After several hours of paddling, the wind picked up with gusts as high as 50 miles per hour, and his kayak was being pushed out into the middle of the lake. Evidently, a rudder had broken, and it overturned. Several of the other boats had made it around a cliff and into a small bay, and the rest of his group could not see what was happening.

Also, as the overturned boat was being blown toward the middle of the large lake, Tompkins and his paddling partner decided to abandon it and swim to shore. The wind and waves kept pushing them out to the middle of the lake.

The group did have a satellite phone, and summoned a rescue helicopter, which arrived soon, and rescued the men in the water, but by this time, Mr. Tompkins had been in the water for two hours, and died soon after reaching the hospital.

So. They were some of the most experienced outdoorsmen in the world, with a satellite phone, access to some of the best equipment, and still, one of them died, paddling across a lake.

If it can happen to them, it can happen to any of us.

Don’t let your feeling of being a capable person, in with a group of other very capable people, give you the feeling that you and your group can handle any emergency that you might encounter. Equipment breaks. Storms arise that are beyond anything you have ever experienced. A Category 5 Hurricane used to be defined as: after it has gone through, there isn’t anything left. I’ve been paddling when a tornado went across the river I was on, and once we rounded a cliff and saw a waterspout a hundred yards or so ahead of us. And sometimes three or 4 things go wrong at the same time, and then you get distracted by something else that is happening, and that is when the disaster happens.

John Rich, the Waterline Newsletter Editor, also skydives, and mentioned that he has seen occasions where a group of skydivers are discussing the weather conditions, and when he has spoken up and mentioned that he was concerned and possibly going to decide not to go, that other members have realized that if John, with all of his experience is worried, then perhaps they should be worried, too. They were relying on John going along, to be their assurance that things would be safe, until he had spoken up. This is groupthink – relying on the other members of the group to assure you that a course of action is safe.

Don’t be that guy.

Take the precautions you need to be safe on any adventure. Don’t relax and let your feeling that you can rely on the rest of the group to keep you safe.

I’m not saying don’t go on adventures. I will admit that I’ve gone canoeing in Michigan in the winter during a flood. At 1:00 AM in the morning. And survived. But I probably wouldn’t do it again. Or at least I would take a flashlight and a PFD. Prepare for the conditions you might meet, and don’t let the group make your decisions for you.

The author,Harmon Everett