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Opinion: Published in The Sunday Times, June 28, 2015

The tragic fatalities of trekkers and adventurers on Mt Kinabalu following the earthquake in East Malaysia this month has 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 any event. These includes trips to ski resorts, hiking in countries with developed emergency and evacuation; as well as to more remote destinations. In assessing “risk”, it’s important to separate what’s know as ‘subjective’ from ‘objective’ risks.

Subjective risks refer to risks that are known, and to a quite a degree, manageable. These include, but are not limited to rate of acclimatization; or upward progression of altitude. Often, the faster the ascent, the higher the risk of adults and children  being affected by acute mountain sickness (AMS) and the more serious extension of AMS, like fluids accumulating in the lungs ( high altitude pulmonary edema) or brain ( high altitude cerebral edema); both life-threatening conditions.  Only one study has shown that children are more susceptible to altitude based ailments, and this is also only when they have had prior or pre-existing upper respiratory tract illnesses. There is no conclusive evidence to indicate they are either more or less susceptible than adults to altitude problems; as outlined by Ad Hoc Committee of the International Society for Mountain Medicine in 2001.

However, there is an issue with what I term “competency reserve’ that is of greater concern where children are involved. Unless advanced in self-awareness and sufficiently articulate in the presence of peers or a mixed group of peers and adults, young children may have an issue articulating how they feel, or drawing 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 away that may mask more serious symptoms. In general, the larger the gap between existing competencies of a child or adult , experience and knowledge of a situation  in the mountains,  the greater the onus on a mountain or trip guide (formally contracted or otherwise) to ensure that the ‘controllable’ does not spiral downwards into an ‘uncontrollable’ situation.

In cases where children are significantly guided and helped to an adventure activity; the loss of the guide or access to such adult-based decision-making can render the individual confused, frightened. In 1996, during the infamous tragedy on Mt Everest, one obedient client of a mountain guide nearly froze to death because he waited far too long for his guide to turn-up. The guide himself, had disappeared in the storm that killed eight climbers that day. So, while ’competency reserve’ or lack thereof can impact adults, children who are largely under orders in some adventure activities may be more severely impacted by their lack of autonomy in such situations to save themselves.

Objective risks are risks that are present but are less controllable. These include but are not limited to assessing avalanche risk on a loaded snow slope (a science and art in itself), a well as being exposed to rock or icefall from an inherently unstable source; is another example. In such a situation of judgment, a group of adults who share similar skills and experience may have a debate about the route they take; less so if an experienced guide calls the shots when dealing with a group of neophytes. On Pisang Peak, a relatively straightforward 6000-metre alpine climb in Nepal, one mistake by a guide led to 10 deaths. His mistake: roping up a large group of inexperienced clients together. One fell and dragged the guide and the rest to their deaths. If the ‘competency reserve ‘ of the group had been greater, some questions might have been raised about this stupid move prior to the accident. The challenge in managing risks for any group leader 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 Kinabalu 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% of possible risks in the actual activity
-    the greater the gap between the goal and the competency of the group, the closer one should pay attention to the guides’ skills and experience
-    a conservative gain in altitudes, especially over 2500m
-    understanding that altitude illnesses are hard to recognize in pre-verbal children who cannot report classic symptoms

Managing the risk aspect of mountain activities will be an ongoing challenge. Some adventure-learning organizations in Singapore have touted their activities as “safe adventure”. My opinion is that there is no such thing. You can only control risks only so far. However, to withdraw from taking any risks is to deprive young people from experiencing rewarding, and enriching lessons of the outdoors. AS TS Eliot put it:” Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go”.

David Lim was the leader of Singapore’s 1st Mt Everest Expedition and a leadership speaker and consultant