Understanding mountain sports accidents

Since 2012, the Petzl Foundation has funded research into mountain sport accidents. Our 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.

JANUARY 2015 • Updated in March 2019


Incidents and near-misses: the first lessons and suggestions for prevention

Since its launch in December 2015, the SERAC database on has been collecting reports on incidents and near-misses experienced by mountain sports enthusiasts. The ultimate aim is to develop preventative actions based on the scientific analysis of the scenarios reported. In January 2017, researchers from the Laboratory of Vulnerability and Innovation in Sport (Lyon 1 university, France) published their first suggestions drawn from the SERAC database, and the results are promising.

After an 11-month test period on, the SERAC database already contained 184 reports. In a report published in January 2017, researchers at the Laboratory of Vulnerability and Innovation in Sport in Lyon identified the main factors causing the events reported in an attempt to improve our understanding of the typical scenarios that can result in hazardous situations. In particular, they found that:

  • past experience can not always be relied on as an indicator, see page 10
  • pressure from an adventurous group sometimes persuades the leader to make decisions that he would not otherwise make, see page 12
  • some opportunities seem too good to miss, even when all the warning signs have been identified, see page 13

The report also describes the profiles of contributors. The most active category in SERAC are men aged 26-35, relatively experienced or even experts in their field, participating in more than 15 excursions per year. A large part of the study focussed on ski touring accident scenarios, a category topped by avalanche events (63% of ski touring reports). For mountaineering and climbing, the most reported event was the fall of a climber (47% of reports), followed by falling rocks or ice (34%).

The research work confirmed the pedagogical value of incident or near-miss scenarios. Unlike accidents, they enable identification of the factors that enabled an actual accident to be avoided. Growing numbers of reports in the years to come are expected to refine our knowledge of accident-generating scenarios. The goal is to build a database of collective experience and to encourage the development of a stronger risk-management culture.

Incidents and near-misses in mountain sports, The first lessons and suggestions for prevention
The report (PDF format) can be downloaded here

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This video sequence gives an idea of the possibilities offered by the graphic representation of events with the software Storybuilder (see pages 22-23)

Sharing stories of near-misses to improve accident prevention

In 2014, research funded by the Petzl Foundation on mountain sports accidents clearly showed that the study of near-misses helps us better understand accident-generating scenarios. Since December 2015, mountaineers have been able to tell their stories about near misses in the mountains using an online form, which is now being tested on

This form was created by researchers at the University of Lyon, France, with the support of mountain professionals and volunteers from the Camptocamp Association. In spring 2016, it will be on the new updated version of the website, which is funded by the Petzl Foundation.
The purpose of this online form is to collect as many stories as possible in order to build a “collective experience”. Mountain sports enthusiasts can now read about, and learn from the misfortunes of others. In addition, the researchers plan to analyze the data with the intent of developing new preventative action strategies.

Glacier du Geant ©CC-by-sa Cermygian
Glacier du Geant

The process of creating this form has been a real balancing act! Too many boxes to fill in scare away potential contributors and too few boxes don’t give the researchers enough information to work with.

Researchers from the Innovation and Research Center for Sport were inspired by websites which collected mountain accident and near-miss data, such as in Switzerland, which was co-created by the Swiss Alpine Club and the Swiss Federal Bureau of Accident Prevention. A Master 2 student at the University of Lyon 1 explored how the methods widely used in industry and in hospitals could be implemented in collecting feedback on experience in the world of mountain sports.

Accidentologie des pratiques sportives de montagne : proposition d’un outil de retour d’expérience, Maud Vanpoule
Download report in French : Maud Vanpoule,
Accidentologie des pratiques sportives de montagne :
proposition d’un outil de retour d’expérience
Université Lyon 1, STAPS, CRIS. 2015

In addition to the study of the accidents themselves, the analysis of accidents and near-misses  enables the researchers to identify sets of circumstances that may lead to an accident, as well as the recurring risk factors, which provide essential information to build effective prevention programs. The scenarios studied are of particular value in that they allow accident prevention trainers to use real material from real experiences. To date, these sources of information have not been used in accident prevention training and it is hoped that incorporating them into training courses will reduce the number of mountain accidents. The researchers also revealed that the majority of near-misses reported did not have serious consequences, which actually made the researchers’ work easier, as those telling their stories expressed themselves in a more factual manner.

Review and diagnosis

To gain an insight into the reality of mountain sports accidentology, a group of sport accidentology researchers has listed and cross-referenced accident data sources worldwide. The initial phase of their research led to the publication of “Accidentology of mountain sports - Situation review & diagnosis” in December 2014.

We believe that information given about prevention, as well as mountain technical training, could be made more effective by using factual data related to the frequency of accidents, risk factors, and better knowledge of situations which typically lead to accidents. Many mountain professionals believe that better knowledge is the basis for effective accident prevention.

In France and elsewhere in Europe, many organizations collect accident data. However, this data is often scattered, inaccurate and incomplete.  It is difficult to use this data effectively. For example, how many accidents occur during abseiling, belaying or because of bad weather? What was the skill level, experience, and composition of the group of mountaineers involved in any given accident?

This work aims to identify with accuracy the actual danger and the chain of events that lead to any given accident, by investigating mountaineering, canyoning and ski touring accidents. This study will go beyond the statistics and seek to identify the scenario types, the natural phenomena, objective hazards, and technical issues that either led to a near-miss or to a serious accident involving multiple victims.

This first phase of research resulted in a report entitled “Accidentology of mountain sports Situation review & diagnosis”, and is downloadable here.

Cover "Accidentologie des sports de montagne"

When reading this document, we learn that:

  • The Mont-Blanc mountain range (French side) alone accounts for more than 30% of deaths related to a mountain sport in France, almost half of which occur during mountaineering. See page 10
  • The number of unharmed accident victims should also be taken into account since it represents a little more than a third (36%) of those rescued. See page 14
  • Mostserious or fatal accidents appear to involve locals, who would be expected to have sufficient knowledge to analyse the risks adequately. However, they are particularly exposed due to the large number of mountain excursions they undertake. See page 22
  • Among thevictims rescued in the Mont-Blanc mountains, menaccount for 81% of deaths, and more than 80% of deaths in the Austrian mountains are also men. See page 22
  • Accidents generally occur during descent, in many cases away from the main passages considered to be the most difficult. See page 32
  • The so-called objective dangers (falling rocks or ice, cornices breaking, etc.) are responsible for only 3% to 4% of emergency rescue operations in Switzerland. See page 32
  • 59% of climbing injuries (on equipped routes) do not cause serious injuries. See page 43

extracts from "Accidentology of mountain sports" © O.Moret / P.Magnier

Summary of the study “Accidentology of mountain sports Situation review & diagnosis”:

  • The prevention of risks related to mountain sports requires detailed knowledge of the accident mechanisms.
  • The situation review presented herein results from the collection and cross-referencing of existing data, in France and abroad, concerning sporting accidents in the mountains. It intends to improve our knowledge of the scope of the phenomenon, victim profiles, and the explanatory factors and contexts that favour accident occurrence.
  • This report corresponds to the first phase of a much larger project. The summary produced suggests various areas for improvement in the field of accidentology. The second phase will implement a regular analysis methodology of accident data in order to identify the recurrent causes of accidents and enable the reconstruction of “standard” scenarios.

We hope that this improved knowledge of how sporting accidents occur in the mountains will enable us to make progress in terms of preventive measures, information and practices. 

Accidentology of mountain sports, extract © O.Moret

What are the differences between accidents, incidents and near-misses?

illustration : Accident, incident, quasi-accident, quelles différences ?

An accident is an event that led to one or more physical injuries, whether a rescue took place or not. Where an event causes an injury, it may be considered an accident regardless of the severity. 

An incident characterizes an event that occurred without causing injury. Examples: a fall or an avalanche without physical consequences, nearby rock fall, etc.

A near-miss is a situation in which no specific event occurs, but several elements were present to make the situation potentially degenerate into an incident or accident - "it was close!” Example: being temporarily lost, not having the necessary equipment, to realize at the last minute that a knot hasn’t been tied correctly, to find yourself in a state of exhaustion, etc.

Updated in March 2019


Vignette du projet Recherche scientifique sur l’accidentologie des sports de montagne FRANCE - SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ON MOUNTAIN SPORTS ACCIDENTS

The Petzl Foundation continues to fund research into mountain sports accidents, with the University of Lyon 1. Maud Vanpoulle, a PhD student (...)

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