Tag Archives: expeditions

What’s the worst that could happen?

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I’d be happy to never have to fly in one of these ever again.

I never intended for the expedition to end with me pulling one of my students out of a river after a packhorse fell on top of her while crossing. We were in Kamchatka, Far East Russia, one of the remotest corners of the world, surveying forests. This was to be our last day in the field. We had just broken camp and begun the day-long hike back to the village where we would collect our samples, have a farewell party and make our way back to the UK. Instead we ended up requiring a helicopter evacuation and spent much of our remaining time dealing with Russian hospitals and insurance claims.*

On the other hand, we had planned for this. Well, not for this precise eventuality, but we knew what to do when it happened. Actually our Plan A failed, but we were sufficiently well-prepared that Plan B came through. This played a major role in ensuring that the student in question returned home safely and made a full recovery.**

At this time of year the thoughts of many ecologists turn to where they will be next summer as they begin putting together grant applications. This is therefore the right time to start planning not only for the fun parts — where you’re going, what data you’ll be collecting, who will be coming with you — but also asking what’s the worst that could happen, and being fully prepared. It’s your responsibility to keep your team safe, even if sometimes they don’t like being told.

I sit on the grants committee of the British Ecological Society. If you’re applying to us for funding in the current round, you’ll notice that there’s a box for you to comment on safety planning. This is not merely a procedural step. I’ve been known to shoot down proposals where there has clearly been inadequate consideration of the hazards involved in a project. You don’t need to have direct personal experience of the site or procedures (although that helps), but you need to convince us that you’ve taken good advice and planned accordingly. Why should funding bodies care about your risk assessment? Apart from a genuine concern that fieldwork is conducted with high safety standards, there is also a potential reputational risk if a trip that we’ve financed goes badly wrong.

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Hey, don’t judge the quality of the plaster cast. It did the trick for as long as we needed it to.

My experience comes from not just living through a crisis on an expedition, but participating in or leading a large number of trips in which nothing serious happened. There were problems and near misses, and we learnt from them. I’m also on our university panel for assessing remote field trips from many different faculties. We have people working in war zones, refugee camps, polar ice-caps and coral reefs. It’s rare that any location is declared entirely unsafe to work in (but check the latest warnings from the FCO); with good planning we’re happy to send people almost anywhere. So here are some general guidelines.

1. Know the rules: the Royal Geographical Society no longer publish their excellent Expedition Handbook in hard copy, but the good news is that the chapters are freely available online. This includes six chapters on Health and Safety; there’s much more good advice elsewhere on the website. If you’re in the UK then the regulatory standard for activities outside the UK is BS 8848. This is the legal standard by which you can expect to be judged if anything goes wrong, so make yourself familiar with this.

2.  Training: having someone with medical training is essential. This doesn’t need to be to professional standards; there are specific courses that cater for the types of situation you’re likely to encounter on expeditions, as well as guidance on what you need to know. It’s just as important to know how to deal with the trivial stuff as it is to recognise when you need to call for help or evacuate. This is a standard much higher than a normal workplace safety course. First Aid training is intended to help you keep someone alive until the ambulance arrives, ideally within the hour. If the ambulance isn’t coming you’ll need a higher level of competence. I would ensure that at least two people are trained, not only in case one of them gets injured, but because when you do have to look after a casualty it helps to have several people taking turns.

Also consider leadership training, especially if you haven’t had much expedition experience. I’ve not done any of these courses but a quick online search suggests that there are plenty out there.

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Any ambulance is super if it turns up.

3. Insurance: most holiday travel policies will not cover a remote casevac (casualty evacuation). You need to make sure that you have specific cover for the activities you’re doing and the full costs of evacuation and medical care. I’m lucky that our university provides this, though only on condition that we meet stringent standards for our planning.

More to the point, a helicopter won’t even take off without being certain that someone is going to pay them. They don’t fly on goodwill and hope. Just as important as having the insurance is knowing who to call to access it, and making sure that the agencies coming to your rescue know that you’re a paying customer. Find out where the helicopter station is (or the coastguard, or whoever you’re relying on for rescue), and it does no harm to drop in right at the start of the trip and let them have your location and insurance details.

4. Get advice. Within the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel guides are a useful first point of reference. Others who have been before you will be a trove of useful insights, including things you perhaps haven’t thought of yet.

Most importantly, always talk to locals. They will have the greatest awareness of specific hazards and how to deal with them. For example, I don’t worry overly much about brown bears in Kamchatka because I know that in the areas where we work, they won’t have encountered many people, and the only ones they will have seen are hunters. This means that they’re relatively timid: they run away if they hear you coming, and they avoid our camps. I would be much more cautious in Yellowstone, where bears are habituated to the presence of humans and associate us with food. Bears are always a risk but how you respond to this depends very much on the local context.

5. Buy the right equipment. We didn’t have satellite phones in Kamchatka because it’s still a militarised zone and they’re banned. We did, however, carry an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), and while these are more common on ships, there are lightweight ones that fit easily in a rucksack. You’ll need to register it first with your local in-country agency and check on the regulations for wherever you’re going. Another alternative is the SPOT messenger, which are small and easy to carry, but global coverage isn’t quite complete. I would strongly recommend having multiple methods of summoning help, and even with all this modern technology, I still insist that everyone on my teams carries whistles and flares.

6. Complete your risk assessments and ensure everyone has read and agreed to them. Your workplace will have a safety officer, an agreed procedure and a set of standard forms. Moan as much as you want about this — everyone does — but don’t let that get in the way of actually doing it. The process exists to protect you, your colleagues and everyone working with you. Don’t omit any local guides, staff and collaborators: they also have a role to play in overall safety. (As an illustration, our accident was directly caused by the local guide.)

7. Do you have a code of conduct and sexual harrassment policy? If not then you are placing members of your team at risk, so you need one, then demand that everyone has  read and understood it, preferably by forcing them to sign a form.

8. Follow through: risk assessments often make noble claims about how they’re going to keep in touch with people back at base, fill in log-books, text GPS locations on a daily basis, call a named contact at the same time every day… all these promises. Some of them are overkill, and I’ve stopped believing many of them. Safety planning isn’t there just to satisfy your insurers, and it shouldn’t be forgotten the moment you get to the field. Make time to role-play a casevac as part of the on-site induction, then conduct regular self-assessments and checks throughout your trip.

Most of all, remember that safety planning isn’t about removing risks altogether, but knowing how to reduce them and cope when the worst happens. Our story had a happy ending, and has since been used in courses as an example of best practice, but only because the groundwork had been put in place long beforehand. Start now.

* Here’s a newspaper report from the time; it’s not wholly accurate but you get the picture.

** Kim is now completely fine. As evidence, here’s a recent photo of her quite deliberately putting herself in harm’s way:


Honestly Kim. Will you never learn?




The most important day of my scientific career

You might imagine that the most important day in my career would be linked to a significant achievement. Perhaps my PhD viva, or my first paper being accepted, or when I was offered a permanent academic job. It could be the day on which I had a Eureka! moment of discovery*. It’s none of these. Actually it took place when I was an undergraduate, only 20 years old, entirely alone and a long way from home. No data were collected. I spoke to no-one. And yet I can trace my whole academic trajectory from that day.

The location was Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula that protrudes from the far eastern edge of Russia. It’s 12 time zones from the UK, and even nine from Moscow. This is the wild east. I was there as part of a University of Cambridge expedition to visit the newly-created Bystrinsky Nature Park, which had been designated part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage Site. The region had only recently been opened to foreign visitors; a few years previously it was closed even to Russian tourists. There had been almost no work published in the international scientific literature since the great botanist Eric Hultén‘s Flora of Kamchatka, completed in 1930. It had nevertheless fascinated scientists, anthropologists and explorers since at least the pioneering expeditions of Krashenninikov (1711–1755). We were treading in noble footsteps.

The main difference was that we were idiots. That doesn’t mean that we were stupid; more that we were young, naive and nowhere near as well-prepared as we thought we were. I’m still very relaxed about sending undergraduates off to far-flung parts of the world in much the same state because it was such a formative experience. We learnt more through throwing ourselves into it than any lecture could have taught us. So long as you’ve made reasonable plans and thought about safety, go for it.

At the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

Younger and with much longer hair, at the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

As the flight landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only notable town and regional capital, a full moon was bathing low clouds with an ethereal glow, punctured by the immaculate conical peaks of the volcanoes. I distinctly remember watching this mystical landscape beneath us and thinking — before I had even set foot in it — I must find a way to come here again.

Our chosen project was to examine the spatial patterns of the local forests. I’d read that they were a mix of birch and larch, which I was assured by the legendary Peter Grubb was impossible, since both species are highly light-demanding and unable to recruit beneath a canopy. It turned out that they were exactly as Hultén had described (which is documented in a later paper). Sadly we never published our findings; they were used for our undergraduate final-year projects then shelved as we moved on to other things. I have since returned, however, and am still following up on those first hazy impressions.

Enough of the background, what of the most important day? We had been surveying a forest of stone birch (Betula ermanii) a few kilometres east of the village of Esso. Stone birch is unlike any European birch — the wood is incredibly tough and the trees have a gnarled, low-branching form as a result of heavy snowfall in the long, cold winters, which gives them an interesting architecture. If anyone ever asks for my favourite tree, or favourite forest, then I can wax lyrical about them, but for now I’ll save that for another post.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the Uxychan valley, west of Esso, Kamchatka.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the upper slopes of the Bystrya valley, south of Esso, Kamchatka.

Our small team had finished work in the area and decided to head back to the village for a clean-up, change of clothes, hot meal and indoor bed. I wasn’t quite ready yet though, and opted to remain behind alone. Earlier in the trip we had attempted to climb the small mountain to the east but turned back in poor weather. I was determined not to be defeated and wanted a second shot.

It was that night that I had my epiphany. Alone in the forest, sat by a roaring fire and surrounded by nothing but trees, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I sat and wrote a letter to a friend **, drank the remainder of the vodka and watched a curious mink dance through the branches above me in the flickering light ***. Nothing much happened. I sang a few songs to keep myself company (and the bears away), went to bed and passed an uneventful night. There is no doubt in my mind though — that was the crucial moment to which I can trace back my passion to work in, describe and understand the architecture of forests. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to ever since.

The next day, almost incidentally, my strike at the summit was successful. I climbed back down, collected the tent, and walked back to the village to rejoin the team around nightfall. I revisited the same peak in 2008 on another expedition. Being especially eager to see it again, I reached the summit long before the students and other scientists. This was fortunate because I promptly burst into tears. That wasn’t the only time I cried with emotion on that expedition; the second time was a few month later, on what was the best day in my scientific life so far, almost exactly ten years after that solitary night in the woods. But that’s a story for another time.

* I’m still waiting for one of those. Or at least one that doesn’t, a few days down the line, turn out to have been completely misguided.

** An interesting side-story in itself. She was at the time on another expedition in Papua New Guinea. Not only did she eventually receive my letter, she replied, and I received it — perhaps the only time that letters have been exchanged between Kamchatka and PNG. This was of course long before the days of global internet and constant e-mail access. She is now a well-known conservation biologist in her own right and has probably forgotten our correspondence.

*** Mink were introduced to the peninsula centuries ago by fur-trappers and were once one of its most important exports. They are now fully naturalised, and with so little hunting taking place, they have almost no fear of humans.