Mountain Recreation and the Art of Risk Management
We go to the mountains for countless reasons: spiritual well-being and enlightenment, physical challenge and demand, beauty and adrenaline, we go because the mountains call to us as humans. We don’t need to expose ourselves to the risks associated with mountains, yet we do it anyway. Most people aren’t out there to make money- yet they are willing to take fantastic risks. As we enter another backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering season and with a few deadly winters behind us, I feel compelled to share some of the safety-related conversations that have been occurring with more increased frequency each year.
As a backcountry skier or snowboarder chances are it’s the simple experience of being “out there” that keeps you coming back time and time again. The freedoms and emotions we all experience high in the mountains are exhilarating and the adrenaline rush of a ski descent only adds to this feeling. The physical activity, the bonding with friends and mountains can quickly become habitual. It is easy to overlook that these experiences don’t come without risk and understanding risk and how to manage it is fundamental to one of my favorite words – longevity.
Success in the mountains is all about good decision-making and good timing. These two concepts go hand-in-hand. I see people make bad decisions in low-risk situations and get away with it and I see people make sensible decisions at the wrong time and pay with their lives. For example one avalanche rescue I was involved in last year was where a group skied a southeast face on a hot afternoon and one member paid with his life. This slope likely would have been fine in the morning, prior to the sun warming it. It came down to poor decision-making and bad timing. The only solution is to make the right call at the right time and even then Mother Nature has a diabolical way of reminding us that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We all know the goal out there is to have fun, however, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, we pro skiers are in the “Business of Fun.” But often times I tell people that being a professional skier, guide, and alpinist, means that you are in the business of risk management. And in this segment of that business, when you blow a call, you don’t just lose the deal, or lose money, you can lose your life.
So how shall we deal with the frequent exposure to risk we find ourselves when out in the mountains? What is risk? Risk is the potential of a chosen action or activity to go wrong. In the world of finance, risk means precise mathematical assessment of probability.
In the backcountry that equation is not so precise, it can be surprising at best and fatal at worst. If risk can be measured, quantified, and even controlled in the world of finance and business, then why can’t we do a better job of it accessing snow?
For this topic I stole some techniques from the insurance industry and developed a process called the “M.E.A.T Method”. M.E.A.T helps me manage risk by organizing my thoughts and options each day I’m out in the mountains. It goes like this: When you stand atop a line you want to ski, you have to make some choices. Hopefully you have done your due diligence and have a clear understanding of the snowpack stability, your partners’ ability to execute rescue if necessary, and your ability to ski without falling or causing yourself undue harm. Once you have those aspects covered, it’s time to consider M.E.A.T:
M= Mitigate. Get on the slope and perform a ski cut (studying proper ski-cut techniques, backcountry travel and avalanche courses before any backcountry excursion is a of course a must), cut a cornice, throw a bomb (patrollers only please), make the snowpack susceptible to impact. Do whatever you can to stress the snowpack in order to access it without putting yourself at risk . Chances are the snow will give you some valuable information when you “influence” it.
E= Eliminate. Don’t ski it if the feedback you receive doesn’t prove 100% safe. One of the most important of the “human factors” in the backcountry is humility. Never be afraid to say NO and if there is even the slightest about of doubt turn around. If we don’t expose ourselves to the risk than there is none.
A= Accept. If you’ve done your research and you feel good about the slope you are about to ski and your ability to ski it responsibly, then have at it.
T= Transfer. This is just another way of saying “you go first.” The risk at this moment is transferred to someone else while you sit back and try to soak up as much info about the line, the snow, and your partner’s techniques as you can. ALWAYS ski one at a time or if it’s very low angle spread way out. Avalanche accidents with multiple burials are almost always preventable with proper group management.
Remember backcountry skiing is an art, not a science. Yes, of course snow science plays an integral role in our decision-making. And although we have great tools at our disposal these days such as the web , excellent avalanche and weather forecasts, and technology and gadgets to help us breathe when under the snow or stay on top of it all together, we are still humans, and human error is perhaps the biggest risk we encounter. Being humble and respectful in the mountains is non-negotiable. Keeping expectations low is a healthy way to carry oneself in the backcountry. That way you are more often pleasantly surprised by the results of the day than disappointed that you didn’t summit or ski the line you had hoped to.
Finally, look at the probability of an event, or accident happening and then measure it up against the costs. I’m certainly willing to accept more risk on a line where the run out is short and clean and I have four awesome partners to back me up than I am on a line where there is secondary exposure such as a creek bed, massive cliff, or tree line, or I’m guiding and responsible for the group standing up top. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen here?” on every line you ski. Understanding the costs associated with you actions is key to the decision making process. Incomprehension is a form of consent – the less you know the more you go. Comprehension is a form of constraint – or a motor that you can throttle back.
Also understand that with increased exposure, meaning with increased days of backcountry travel the probability of something bad happening goes up. For me personally, understanding that my risk is higher than most due to the frequency with which I’m “exposed” to that risk, is fundamental to my own decision making.
The bottom line is longevity. We all want to grow old and be able reminisce with our buddies about the good old times we had out in the mountains. Don’t short cut life by being ignorant of risk. Take the time to learn and understand your personal tolerances, and always surround yourself with people who know as much, or more than you do. Leave all egos at home. And finally, be a sponge. Absorb all the information that Mother Nature is giving you (she doesn’t hide anything) so that you can be the best risk manager you can be.
Athlete Chris Davenport is a professional skier and mountaineer, guide, author, and has been featured in over 30 ski films. When not traveling the globe in search of inspiring lines to ski he recreates at home in Aspen/Snowmass with his wife and three sons.