On not getting hurt by an avalanche

(Wherein I throw most caution related to my modest amount of training, knowledge, and experience to the wind.)

While there’s no doubt that this knowledge can lead to
better decisions, it is disturbing that the victims in this
study that were most influenced by heuristic traps
were those with the most avalanche training.

-McCammon, 2002

If you haven’t, in the course of your avalanche education, read the aforementioned article, you ought to.  Today.  Even if you live in Alabama and hate snow, it’s required reading for any outdoor adventurer.  Beyond conclusions specifically related to analyzing avalanche fatalities, McCammon’s thesis tells us that increased knowledge and experience (not the same thing) can in many circumstances lead to more risk, not less.

I’ve thought for a while that avalanche education and safety in North America is, at this moment, deeply flawed.  While airbag packs, avalungs, 500 dollar beacons, PLBs, and Spots can all contribute to a greater margin of safety should you, your partner, or other people in the area get caught in an avalanche, they are all strictly reactive tools.  I do not think a very simple part of the proper backcountry equation has been emphasized enough: if you got caught in an avalanche, you almost certainly screwed up.

A lot of avoiding avalanches (or other backcountry dangers like rockfall, lightening, flash floods, strainers, and foot entrapment) has to do with knowledge of the phenomena in question put into evaluative practice in the field.  Measure a slope angle, observe the situation, and know that it is avalanche terrain.  Recall your knowledge of the areas weather history, dig a pit, generalize that data to the area at large, and make an estimate of the snow’s stability.  Decide to ski, to go elsewhere, or go home.

The first ambiguity, and the reason all of the aforementioned technological wonders exist, is that even the best estimate can be imperfect.  The generalization made from snow observations here to the slope 100 meter away can be a very good one, but can never be definitive.  It only makes sense to be suspicious.

But another factor is often at play, on which I would submit is not an appropriate factor in decision-making; namely, the extent to which the merits of the ski run in question stack up against the risks.  A hypothetical 2500′ vert of waist deep 40 degree cold smoke could have safety hazards comparable to a 1500′ slope of 35 degree boot top, heavy powder.  The former is sure to engender more powder lust than the later, and perhaps is likely to tip the decision-making balance in favor of assuming more risk for greater reward.

It’s a nasty human problem, in that the most kinaesthetically satisfying method of human-powered travel brings with it a necessary level of ambiguity and danger.  No other activity that I’m aware of (big wave surfing?) brings reward and consequence along so directly in lock step.    I’d like to see us disentangle the two more plainly, and establish a consensus that mature skiing means not skiing a slope with a high degree of avalanche danger, no matter how sick the line.

We need more videos like this one, discussing the intricacies of decision making in a very concrete way. A wide base of knowledge is a prerequisite for accurate evaluation, which is in turn necessary for sound choices. Backcountry skiing’s tendency to hold expert knowledge close to it’s chest increasingly strikes me as irresponsible.

Paradoxical perhaps, given the note with which I started.


2 thoughts on “On not getting hurt by an avalanche

  1. Bruce Tremper calls it the “Human Factor”. (I highly recommend his book “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”, if you don’t already have it) In nearly every accident or incident there was a bad decision. In hindsight, it’s usually pretty clear what that decision was (we ignored the red flags, and so on) but in the moment, it can be hard to see the danger right in front of your face.

    There is a BCA video out there where a snowmobiler get buried, wearing a helmet cam. It’s pretty intense footage. His partners rescue him, and the ending is happy. But then text appears on the screen to the effect of “know how to use your rescue gear.” Which is obvious, and important.

    But it struck me that that was the advice, rather than “learn how to avoid avalanches, so you don’t need to use your gear.”

    Good thoughts.

    1. Indeed! Dare I say that the commercial side rears its ugly head far too often?

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