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.

3 responses to “The king heuristic”

  1. I used to live in CO and skied 200+ days a season, usually both XC and Tele daily, while grooming nordic trails for room’n’board PLUS a Summit Pass. I naturally incline to the outback but was leery due to 2 expert pals dying early on in my BC explorations. One neat thing about moving back to my homestate of Michigan has been the amazing homestyle tree skiing we have free for the taking. All we need is access to a nice wooded slope. A morning of skiing down and then up the uptrack is so wonderful — a grin machine that is basically beyond words (but I try at my OYB site). It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does the word goes out and we seize the day. Maybe it’s more special that way. We follow the shade around a compass-range of pitches, mining every foot of cold fresh snow. There’s something for everyone, with fallen trees making nice rails for the more skilled. Meeting up at a fallen tree at the top for a hot snack break (venison stew, say). Stashing beers along the way, to snatch up as needed. All we need is a few acres, but we often have more. All our own. Sometimes it’s right near trails that tourers use and we’ll scootch to the hidden side of a tree until they go by. Secret stash! Sometimes we get 1/2 mile steep pitches that hurt our necks to look up, that go beyond our vision — as good as out west. Well, all things are relative, but powder is powder! Easy access, usually. Lots of wild, too — marten tracks, say.

    But here’s the thing: zero avalanche danger.

    I’m pleased as punch.

    Good luck out there!

    I sure wish the BC media would give FULL respect to the *non-mountain* aspect of BC which is certainly more than 3/4’s of the BC snow world. It’s a hilly snow world in Nor. Am., just not very mountainous. And it’s full of both turns and tours. Just no need for helicopters or beacons. I want reparations. Not just a mention, but full coverage every issue.

    Thanks for your blog — it is strictly great. Come ski/explore the Midwest sometime. I bet the U.P. would have something nice for you, or, say, the Petoskey area of the Lower Peninsula. Actually, SE MI would, too, but you’d have to catch it right. : )

  2. I think folks just want to have it all. Lots of people like to make turns. That is why they ski. Most of those folks take lifts. They don’t mind the really high prices, or the noise, or any of the other unpleasantness of lift skiing as long as it gets them more turns.

    There are plenty of people who like to cross country ski. I think most of those folks ski groomed terrain (if the ski magazines are any guide). They are willing to pay the extra cost and perhaps limit their experience a bit to enjoy the speed and ease of use of a nice groomed area.

    Then there are the people that just want to get back there. A lot of those folks snowshoe, post hole, ski and (now) fat bike. For the most part, they are just trying to extend their hiking/biking/rafting experience into the winter. They mainly just want to get into the backcountry because the backcountry is really pretty and really wild.

    Of course, people want to combine these. I personally love touring. I love to cruise along in the backcountry on skis, even though I’m not making any turns. This is essentially cross country skiing for the backcountry. For the most part this is safe, just because steepness in general is to be avoided (because it is very difficult on flimsy skis).

    But I don’t blame the folks that want to make turns while enjoying the backcountry. You get the best of both worlds. In the Spring, for example, the snow can be really consolidated and safe, allowing for easy and safe turns. At the same time, the views are magnificent. The video is basically showing that. It isn’t my cup of tea (I would rather have a nice tour covering a lot more horizontal miles) but I can understand the appeal, and I think it is reasonably safe.

    I think the problem occurs when people want the great turns more than they want the great wilderness experience and they aren’t willing to sacrifice either. This is what happened at Tunnel Creek. I remember that day well. I remember it in part because I knew that I wasn’t going to go anywhere into the backcountry that had a bit of avalanche danger. In one of his books (which I have lent to a friend or I would quote it) Steve Barnett mentions that avalanche accidents are rare for the Northwest because of our typical weather patterns. Basically, we get our snow in big dumps that consolidate quickly. It is very easy (in general) to figure out when their is a high avalanche danger. Essentially, he said, no one goes out in those days. Why would they? Visibility is horrible. You are better off staying at a resort (if turns are your things). That is what my brother did that day. I did some low elevation, low pitched cross country skiing (which was safe and wonderful). But these skiers wanted to have it all. They wanted to make turns in a great place on great snow in the wild (or least close to wild). They weren’t alone. There were two other accidents that day. That is very unusual for the Northwest. Unlike the Rockies, our snow was stable a few days later (skiing safely in the Rockies is more challenging because a slope can stay dangerous for weeks).

    I can’t but think that the accident on Tunnel Creek (and the others that occurred that day) were the result, in part, of really, really wanting to get some good skiing in. The article didn’t mention the fact that the last couple weekends, and the winter in general that year, was not very good for skiing (up to that point). In other words, folks wanted to get out because they hadn’t gotten out in a while. The same thing happens in other accidents. Folks plan a trip to a big mountain (like Rainier) that is relatively safe in good weather, and they decide to go up there anyway, despite the forecast. You plan a vacation, and you feel like you need to go. That was the other big set of accidents to occur last year (in this neck of the woods).

    Getting back to your original post, I too wish that there was a different emphasis placed on the sport (or mix of sports). Part of the problem is that the Mountain Dew crowd dominates the sport. Of course it does. Who isn’t awed looking at these pictures. Showing someone just cruising along, enjoying the beautiful scenery makes for a tougher sell. I find this image heavenly:, but maybe it wouldn’t appeal to your average youngster. The same is true of biking as well. Lots of folks ride miles and miles of mellow terrain to access great backcountry wilderness, but what gets the video is someone coming down something steep.

    I find it especially frustrating that there is so little interest in touring. There are at least two magazines dedicated to cross country skiing. Occasionally there will be an article or two about ungroomed touring. Likewise, I imagine some of the backcountry ski magazines occasionally describe a low risk, low angle tour. But for the most part this middle ground, which I find so appealing, has little coverage. California, Washington and Oregon seem to have a lot of books, but I have found little in the way of good touring information for the Rockies. If there is a bright spot to all of this it is that snowshoeing (at least in the Northwest) seems to be booming. I’m sure many of these folks will notices someone like me cruising along and think “hmmm, that doesn’t look that hard, or that crazy, maybe I’ll try that someday…”.

  3. […] not going to say I told you so. I’m not going to say much of anything, other than that anyone who does serious backcountry […]

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