The king heuristic
The conversation among the group shouldn’t be, “How much risk can we take and get away with?” It should be, “How can we be 100-percent safe and still have fun?”…People say you have to go and ski powder—that’s the sickest. But maybe that’s the hype that’s killing people. -Drew Tabke
I have yet to ski in avalanche terrain this winter. A big part of this has been my fatbike obsession, and a smaller part has been nordic skiing for fischer trips. But in the end, the biggest part has been a profound ambivalence about backcountry alpine skiing as such.
You might be surprised that Mr. Tabke, originator of the quotation above, is also the freerider in the this video. The short but very interesting interview from which those words were taken can be found here, and is of course worth a few minutes of your day (as is this article, from back in 2005 and only more relevant today). It should be noted that the interviewer, Megan Michelson, was one of the skiers involved in the now infamous Tunnel Creek avalanche this past February.
Avalanches are at the top of the heap of what outdoor adventurers term objective hazards, rock and icefall in the mountains taking the number two slot. It’s a curious term, highlighting the extent to which the danger is categorically beyond human control. And this is, of course, what I struggle with. It is just as simple to get killed mountain biking or paddling whitewater or rock climbing. Indeed there have been plenty of times nordic skiing when a neck-snapping crash into a tree was a blink away. Most people ignore the proximity of death while driving to work, both because of the modest probability of objective danger and because excessive preoccupation on this subject would be paralyzing.
In the end, I wonder about the conceptual validity of objective hazard. Rock climbing and paddling can be extremely safe, provided skill is well matched with conditions. Expert practitioners play the same game, merely with a finer edge. There are certain sorts of climbing, for instance, where the sphere of control is broader and less thoroughly circumscribed, and these areas are unsurprisingly less widely practiced. Why is it not the same with skiing? Mr. Tabke seems to be saying that his brand of skiing, which appears outwardly dangerous, is in fact more predictable than the sort of powder skiing which is accesible to even a hack like me.
It seems to me that the terms of engagement for backcountry skiing need to change. Powder skiing may be the most intoxicating form of human-powered locomotion, perhaps that very allure should be cause for greater caution. I’m content with substantial risk provided that my own theoretical sphere of control encompasses at least 99% of the activity. Backcountry alpine skiing can be this, provided that psychology and terrain choice are brought to the forefront, where they belong. But that is not how the sport is most widely practiced and conceptualized today.