Avalanche Class

Ritual

“For in truth habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, stealthily, the foothold of her authority; but having by this mild and humble beginning settled and planted it with the help of time, she soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes.” – Montaigne

It’s fucking cold out there. The wiper blades barely keep up with the snow and wind, I can vaguely make out the trailhead sign in my headlights. I sit and contemplate why I’m here, there are a thousand reasons I could’ve stayed in bed this morning, it’s my day off and I have plenty to do, my feet and back hurt and I don’t remember the last time I slept more than 8 hours straight. But, the storm and snowpack don’t care. We are forecast to put another significant load on a house of cards snowpack, it’s midweek so most of the world will stay out of the mountains until the storm ends, but something calls me. A curiosity to try and understand the puzzle. Will this be the event that brings the world tumbling down? There is also a desire to share information and possibly teach someone or many, and maybe I find the missing piece that keeps people home and safe on a day they don’t belong up here….

 I grudgingly pull on my boots, the familiar dance around my steering wheel, savoring every bit of heat I can absorb before launching into the dark and cold.   I go through the same rituals, I check my gear, my pack, my attitude and my plan.

 The first ten minutes’ suck, they always do. My body is older and more beat up than it used to be and it takes a bit to get things moving. The cold air burns my lungs and the snow sticks to my beard. I think about my bed, my computer desk, the hot coffee I left on the counter and the breakfast I didn’t finish. Then my brain wanders to the bills I need to pay, the 23 things I need to do before class this weekend. Then a particularly strong gust of wind brings me back to where my head belongs. Focus, it’s game on. Back to the ritual.

Rituals, habits, beliefs and routines are a constant part of our daily lives, it’s just part of being human. We arrive at our rituals and habits in various ways, through education, experience, trial and error, near misses and accidents to name a few. I tend to break my backcountry decision-making tools down into four separate but overlapping categories:

Habit – I’m not sure you can even classify this as decisions or decision making as much as routine acts. Something triggers an action that results is a specific reward. It could be as simple as thirst triggering the reminder to drink water or pulling on a puffy at the top of the skin track to retain warmth. I’ve been in these spots so many times, I rarely consciously think through the action or the outcome, I just respond to a trigger.

Guts (Intuition) – Spend enough time around someone who has made a career of avalanche hunting and eventually you will observe them justify and decision just because “it doesn’t feel right”. Intuitive decisions are often instant judgements and reactions based on tacit knowledge and/or prior experience.

Heuristics – A fancy word for cognitive short cuts or rules of thumb that simplify difficult decisions by substituting them for easier ones. We all use daily to replace difficult decisions with easier ones.

Experience – Probably our greatest teacher in the mountains. Last time I ran into A, B was the outcome. I feel like I often subconsciously put these experiences away and they become the foundation of my gut feelings and intuition.

And so, I continue up the hill. No longer paying much attention to the act of putting one foot in front of the other, unknowingly following the contour of the mountains, making calculated kick turns to avoid or manage the next crux on the skin track ahead. Instead I am just stuck in an almost Zen like state of observations. Wind direction, speed and gusts. How much snow is moving, where is it coming from, where is it going? Is the new snow forming a slab? IS it reactive? How quickly is my skin track being filled in behind me, if at all?

Habits and rituals work most the time if the known variables stay the same, or if we are able to observe the correct variables for the situation at hand. I find my rituals to vary from the mundane to the complex. It starts in the kitchen. Hot water gets started for coffee before anything else. Without coffee, there really is no point in making decisions. My good friend and mentor, Don Sharaf, and I share a very similar morning ritual, he spelled it out like this;

“I like to start the day with a cup of coffee at a less than frantic pace.  A slow perusal of the local and regional weather and avalanche conditions updates my understanding of the 3-5 different snowpacks that I’m attempting to follow. The pace picks up quickly from there, but taking it slow at the start of the day gives me a bit of perspective on the day.”

Once my plan is made and its time to walk out the door, my habit turns to a checklist. Mostly a gear run through at this point. No one likes to end up at the trailhead with their boots still on the dryer or their skins still hanging to dry. It also helps keep my mind focused on the objective and all the variables I may encounter between the trailhead and wherever I have chosen to go.

Approaching the ridge crest. The wind has picked up and visibility is less. I’ve been here many times, I can almost negotiate this terrain with my eyes closed, and there are moments the wind and snow make me feel blind. It’s time to be hyper-vigilant. The familiarity trap is set and I’m walking right into it. This is not the normal weather I see here, the storm came from a slightly different direction and where I normally see cornices and drifts, I’m crossing patches of dirt and grass. Time to change the ritual. Trial, error and previous experience are suddenly less relevant, it’s time to approach this as a beginner, with an open mind and keen observation.

 Drew Hardesty, from the Utah Avalanche Center, provided this input “I thought about it a bit, but it led me down a slightly different path.  It has more to do with two things – group think for myself and looking at the world with open eyes…. or a “beginner’s mind”.  The first I mean the old Mark Twain about “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I like this.  If I can remember this, it helps me try to look at things more objectively and my own opinions with skepticism.”

During long bouts of high pressure, or seasons when we lack a persistent weak layer or deep slab problem, our experience and expertise allow us to safely move through the mountains most of the time. You can’t ever really turn the risk know to zero once you choose to go out, but you can get pretty close. It’s when things begin to change that experts start getting into trouble. By approaching these changes with a “beginner’s mind” we can avoid falling into the trap of trying to outthink or outsmart the avalanche conditions.

The ridge is almost unbearable. The wind gusts seem to steal the air straight from my lungs and the snow flakes feel more like ice daggers against my exposed cheeks. My desire to stay here much longer is only subdued by my desire to poke Mother Nature right in the chest a few times, just to see what I can get away with. It’s foolish. I’m alone, no one really knows where I went or what my plan is. But I’m an avalanche hunter and an adrenaline and knowledge junkie. One little ski cut or cornice drop can’t hurt right….

 So how do I manage my risk and exposure? How have I kept myself mostly on the right side of the snow all these years? Is it luck? Am I that good? Do I just know something no one else does? Erich Peitzsch, former Director of the Flathead Avalanche Center in Montana, provided this wisdom “one thing I really try and do every time (whether work or play) is simply step back from the stoke of what I’m about to do (or dread if it’s raining), take a breath, think hard about what I’m planning on doing and how it fits within my risk tolerance bubble (always shrinking and expanding), who’s going with me/what are their limits as well as mine, and remind myself that I am always willing to say “it’s time to turn around”.”   I think he sums it up really well. I ask myself the same three questions at the top of every run I take:

  1. Am I willing to turn off my transceiver, throw it in my pack and leave all my rescue gear on the ridge? If not, why?
  2. If this slope slides and I am killed, what will my mom read about me in the paper? What will my friends say?
  3. Lastly, I run through ALPTRUTh. It’s just a way for me to make sure I’m looking at things objectively and not through some sort of skewed face shot colored lens.

Dig a pit. I’m out here to see if/how the new snow is behaving. This is a good a use for a snowpit as anything. Find a spot. Safe, Representative, polite – another ritual from years of teaching and learning. Don’t put your pit in the center of the ski line and don’t get buried digging one, you’ll look like a damn fool – I hear Kimbrough’s voice in my head every time and chuckle, he provided this wisdom to me via his own poor judgment and unfortunate experience. It’s another ritual, I dig every pit the same, whether teaching or looking for answers. I probe first, shovel like I’m in a rescue. Quick layer ID, ECT, Shovel shear and gone. If I find something that warrants further investigation then so be it. The snowpack is hugely variable, I have no interest in the minutiae of a particular spot, I want to focus on the big picture and try to understand all the variables around me. Things are more stable than I expected. The threshold has not yet been crossed, there may be a window for an unplanned ski run here…

 Erich continues “At this point in my life/career, one question I always ask is “How much uncertainty is there?” If I can’t answer it or if there is simply too much, I “turn around” and think about how much fun skiing with my boys always is. That usually provides the answer.”

I do the same. It’s just a ski run, there isn’t a snow-covered mountainside on this earth that is worth dying for. I also find myself a tad selfish and just wanting to enjoy that great run again and again and again. And so I decide to ski. A mellower, yet still sufficiently steep, low consequence bowl. I ask my questions, I come up with 5-7 of the ALPTRUTh criteria. Time to reassess and make sure I’ve arrived at my decision consciously and objectively. I feel good about the decision, I give myself a little insurance with a small cornice drop and follow it with a ski cut….

 Don adds his second ritual “Ski cut every run.  Whoa, did he say that without the normal caveats of not too deep, not a hard slab, not a high consequence run… Yes.  Assuming I don’t have shots available and that I have already chosen a run that has good stability I’m going to double check my decision by making my first “turn” a ski-cut.  If I’m wrong, I would rather be wrong at the top of the run than in the middle of it.  All that being said, I tend to avoid high consequence runs with deep slabs or hard slabs unless I have full confidence that it won’t slide.”

The skiing is ok, the wind has made it slightly variable, maybe even a bit adult. But I’m outside and there isn’t anyone else around as far as I can see. At the bottom it continues, skins on, drink some water, puffy jacket off and back to the top. My senses and focus are once again tuned to the world around me and the subtle clues it may offer to this complex puzzle. I write a few notes and snap some pics. The snowfall intensity has increased, the front must be near. The journey back to the car is uneventful, the skiing still fair but luckily getting worse. Did I learn anything that will make a difference today? Maybe, maybe not. Often the pertinent negatives are just as important as the positive results. It all gets written down for the final part of the ritual. The sharing of info. Pics, pit results and overall obs get sent to the UAC. The plan for tomorrow begins to take shape…

 Ritual and habit are great tools that help us make better decisions and stay alive in a world that would love to eat us up. Just don’t get so stuck in them that you forget your “Beginner’s Mind” every now and then. I think my buddy Don sums it up best:

“Be grateful.  Too often I go out for a run for the exercise and not for the sheer enjoyment of being in the mountains.  It’s a little more difficult when your backcountry summit looks like the top of a ski area, but remember that few people have the good fortune to be outside enjoying the view and air that you are.  If I treat the backcountry like a gym, then I’m going to lose the best part of what backcountry skiing can offer.”

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Jake Hutchinson

Jake Hutchinson

What's your favorite part of a big day in the backcountry?


The since of standing on a ridge or peak, with nothing but the view, maybe some wind, maybe some sunshine and realizing how lucky I am and how nice it is to be out of the noise we surround ourselves with.

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