Bad Weather = Poor Visibility = Hypothermia & Injury. The most likely cause of a serious incident in the alps is actually a mix of a few things... Here is a classic scenario: Party heads out, or run into 'pea soup' visibility. The poor visibility is due to the approach of a low pressure cell. The moisture is (depending on the dew point) on or near freezing when airborne yet settles on the party as wetness. Welcome to the Australian Alps! Simultaneously the party is moving slowly, groping its way through the terrain. Sketching out a route. Typically, the competency of dealing with the conditions vary, the party has trouble staying intact. Goggles are fogging up and compounding the situation. The route leads to a descent. Some have skins, some use pattern based skis, the split boarders are busy but slow. There is a pause for change over. People are standing still.
At this point it's worth adding that some people instinctively pull out down jackets, other stand visibly steaming. The 'steamers' are over dressed. If, when stationary, a person doesn't require additional layers to stay warm in cold conditions, then it is likely they would be too hot (and wet) on the move. This is a real key indicator of experience. Yet quickly, the 'steamers' who are actually wet through from within are more susceptible to the wind chill and begin cooling while the other, dryer members do the opposite and warm...
From here, the party commences the descent. On a bad day... two things that happen are: A) One or more members of the party becomes visually isolated from the rest of the group. Yelling to relocate the member is drowned out by the wind and everyone wearing head wear, helmets, goggles etc. Each in their own world of audio interference. B) Someone crashes, easy to do... there are no visible cues from which to judge the pitch of the slope or the speed of the descent. This, coupled with a touch of snow blindness from removing the steamy goggles. It was a face plant, and the hilt of a shovel on the persons pack has whacked into the back of their head. Not so bad but wow those scalp injuries bleed out heaps.
Enter stage right: Panic, stage left: Distress & trauma. On with the show...
Either way, now you have a nasty mix of circumstances. And people standing around, wet and cold, (and stressed) with increasingly addled cognitive ability, as the collective body core temperatures drop. Not to mention lost party members or a requirement for first aid. "Is this really happening?" one member of the group says to himself...
This is not a rare circumstance. The amount of stories, that have some or all of these contributing factors, out in the community is quite alarming.
"Is this really happening?", mountain says: "Yes, you have entered into and extremely hazardous theatre, and the hazards have compounded into a critical situation. Too late to act like you didn't know".
it's real deal Ernest Shackleton meets Joe Simpson, with a touch of Stalone, thanks to that head injury. But no body will be stepping in and calling 'Cut'.
Fortunately with resilience and grit, most instances are tales of 'self extraction' against the odds. Sometimes, they are not. Damaging experiences that tarnish the mountains for everyone involved (not withstanding the rescuers, official or not). Not just on the day, but in some cases, for years.
Chicken and Egg
Without these experiences, how can you become experienced in dealing with these conditions? It's a chicken and egg paradigm. So now we get to the evidence based stuff: Having a designated Leader is key. In the detail of the worst situations we have come across, the missing core element was decisive leadership at the point in which key decisions became critical. In short, too much time wasted when a call needed to be made. This time was what really crippled everyone involved.
The 'leader' may be the most experienced generally, in a given area, or in a equally experienced party, simply a designated role. Every party needs a leader like every movie needs a director. And on reading the detail of the role of the leader, in reality each party member should be formulating the same considerations as the leader 'based on the experience', to create a consensus. The difference between a leader and an instructor is wether a reason for a decision is communicated. The leader, the person who calls the shots, maybe just for a day, or for the whole trip. It's your crew, you can decide on how to structure the dynamics. And, the leader may only need to 'step-up' when the conditions demand it. A good dynamic is to allow the group consensus to rule. Until it is stated by the leader that they are 'taking over' as conditions or lack of consensus require. Talk about all this in the car on the way, or on the approach march.
A good leader will have the limitations of her/his group keenly involved in all decision making. The decisions themselves include terrain choices, based on observations and assessments of the conditions, forecast and apparent. And that these decisions should, where possible, have alternatives and contingencies. The observations should be intelligence garnered whilst on the move:
Aspects and relation to snowpack,
Prevailing weather direction,
following a bearing (GPS or Compass),
estimated distances travelled based on altitude where possible
rising or dropping barometer,
improving or deteriorating visibility.
Importantly a leader needs group sensitivity. Listening and asking: How is the party faring? Deciding when to stop, regroup, set camp, turn back (often facing reluctance), descend to better visibility, simply march on and or call for assistance.
The leaders contingencies include emergencies (particularly immobilisation) and inform all decisions. 'Are we in a location accessible to a snow-mobile?' (Airlift is usually out of consideration given the conditions). This can mean the difference between a 2hr rescue or a 48hr one and decisions should be made accordingly. Can we get to a defined geographic location (numbered snow pole) to aid rescuers, or find shelter from prevailing wind, down on a leeward aspect or at a hut... the list of contingencies goes on and on and comes from the leaders foundation of experience and familiarity with the area.
So let's reflect at the scenario and through the eyes of a leader. What could be done better? Weather Outlook? Antifog for the goggles?, a party on one 'set-up' (pattern, skins or split)? Two way radio at front and back of the group? Maintaining strict visual contact between members travelling in a strict order? Travelling close on the flats and ups, ride in short pitches down with each member in check? Sounds nice but it actually takes practise. So then, really, without having practised... chicken = egg.
Overseas ropes are used, for crevasse rescue, but double nicely as big group tethers. The rope are gathered with shock cord. You might not need the rope but the shock cord effect still works. When the member was lost or injured the first course of action would be make shelter and stay put. Pitch a tent, dig a wall, that can become a shelter. We all know 'never break the group' unless of course you then have to break the group. Don't sweat it, do it, but be smart. Again mobile or CB radio coms are good. The goal is: Send out a search party... send out for assistance. At this point each party members efficacy comes down to personal awareness and observations along the route in. Everyone needs to became the leader you see...
leaving early gives you the best chance of getting to your destination, that's simple. Really, these are the kinds of conditions you would expect us here on the site to call as 'Extreme' and not heading away from shelter / safety was likely the smart thing to do. For parties 'Out There' it is the time constraints placed on a group by external factors that compels a party onward into danger. Thats probably the very root of 90% of these types of incidents. TXT:"Sorry, wont make it to work, caught in a blizzard' sounds like a good excuse and course of action.