Understanding Mountain Sports Accidents


Since 2012, the Petzl Foundation, a longstanding partner of the UIAA, has funded research into mountain sport accidents. Its long-term aim is to improve prevention. Due to the lack of accurate information and the absence of communication, several social science research laboratories have joined forces to launch an international study related to mountain sport accidents.

As reported at the recent UIAA General Assembly, the UIAA is also reinforcing its commitment to the study and collation of material on accidents and near misses.

The Petzl Foundation has closely supported a doctoral thesis on the Accidentology of Mountain Sports, which was recently finalised after ten years of research on mountain accidentology with the University of Lyon 1. A summary of the thesis’ findings can be found here and are partially detailed below.

Doctoral thesis on the Accidentology of Mountain Sports: the primary results

The past three years of research, led by Maud Vanpoulle come at the end of ten years of collaboration on mountain accidentology with the L-ViS laboratory of the University of Lyon 1.

The first objective of this research was to refine our understanding of the inherent risks found in mountaineering and alpine ski touring in order to develop appropriate risk management techniques based on scientific knowledge. The second objective was to translate the primary research findings into preventive recommendations for practitioners, supervisors and technical training managers.

This research has made it possible to identify the recurring circumstances at the origin of accidents in mountaineering and ski touring, the contributing factors to an accident situation, and the profiles of the most affected practitioners. The researcher has also shed light on the different relationships to risk held by mountaineers by identifying three dimensions around which they position themselves to give meaning to their commitment to the mountains:

  • the acceptance of and the value of risk;
  • a feeling of vulnerability linked to doubts about their ability to manage the situation;
  • sense of control and a willingness to manage risk.

2018-2021 : 3 years of scientific research on mountain sports accidentology

Since December 2018, Maud Vanpoulle has been hosted at the Petzl Foundation to complete her PhD on mountaineering, climbing and ski touring accidents in order to better understand them. The objective is to refine the understanding of the processes that lead to accidents in mountain practices, in terms of typical scenarios, recurring risk factors and victim profiles, to identify risk prevention measures.

The study has three main goals:

  • Quantitative analysis of mountain rescue data, centralized by the National Mountain Safety Observation System (SNOSM). SNOSM data is currently the biggest data source in France for mountain incidents. The goal of the study is to identify the most risky activities, victim profiles, recurring circumstances of accidents and their location. This statistical picture must bring solid foundations for realistic preventive measures.
  • Qualitative analysis of SERAC’s incident and accident reports and encouraging people to share their experiences. The mountain community can use the SERAC database to share their own experiences and read about those of others. SERAC is a tool to learn and reflect about past events which mountain federations and professionals are now starting to use. The goal now is to further analyze the reports in order to base preventive measures and training on realistic detailed situations.
  • To better understand the role of conscious engagement in a risky situation. Accidents often happen to experienced mountaineers who are able to analyze the risks they are taking. Through qualitative interviews, we examine individual perceptions and acceptance of risk, as well as personality-types that may influence their engagement in a situation, even though the risks have been partially or completely identified.

The first analysis for alpine rock climbing reports is available here

The first analysis for snow, ice and mixed climbing reports is available here

The first analysis for skitouring reports is available here

Further details, including findings of research from earlier stages of the project, can be found here.

Download the summary of the main results of Maud Vanpoulle’s thesis

Main photo courtesy Petzl Foundation.