With avalanche season at hand I make it a habit to read “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper to get my head back in the game. Always, I’m left haunted by his most powerful statement that “We have already met the enemy and it’s us”.
In the past few seasons there have been many avy incidents where experienced friends and professionals have died, or had very close calls. These are people who “should” have known better and their deaths drive me inward to ask what happened. Not to judge or blame, but because I fear making the same mistakes. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert, or an avy professional; I just play one on TV. Thanks to some great teachers like Brett Kobernik and Tom Kimbrough, I know I don’t “know” and never will “know” snow or avalanches. It’s truly an art with a little science thrown in. But, I’ve found myself writing about this fascinating subject because I want to dig deeper into the complex process and discuss aspects that don’t seem to be receiving adequate attention.
Observation and the heightened awareness it brings is the main thing I love about being out in the mountains in winter. We are forced to be aware and alive. To venture “safely” it is foremost about observing and inquiring into what is going on. Most of the attention is paid to examining the external world. How much snow fell last night? What weak layers exist? What are the terrain traps? How are conditions changing throughout the day? These are all questions that need to be asked, especially for the beginner. With some education, time and patience it’s quite easy to observe and predict the snow beneath us, and the world outside of us. What doesn’t appear to be so easy is processing the information clearly and lining it up with our desires, motives and our internal world.
“Human factors play a significant, if not dominant, role in avalanche accidents. Indeed, results suggest that only 4% of avalanche incidents might truly be called “accidents” insofar as there were no hazard indicators present.” -Steve Larson- Human Factors In Avalanche Incidents
If I am the problem then I am the solution, but what to DO about it? The discussion seems to fizzle out at this point. In level 2 avalanche courses the heuristic traps are briefly mentioned. Why is that, when this should be our main concern? It doesn’t work to just tell myself, “don’t fall prey to the heuristic traps.” That’s like saying don’t be human. What steps can I take? Running down the heuristic traps as a checklist seems too tedious and I can never remember them all off the top of my head. To simplify and cover the bases I think it’s adequate to be aware of motivation. If the primary goal for the day isn’t to align the travel and turns with the current terrain and conditions then I’m in danger of bringing the house down.
It’s time we break out our shovels and dig around inside to see what’s going on. Our inner world needs to be observed just as keenly as we do the external hazards in order to see where strengths and buried weak layers may lie. I believe the internal is just as important a place to “know before you go” and much more important for those of us who have years of experience and can read and “know snow”. And the process continues during the day as moods, thoughts and desires change. It’s important to keep probing into motivation? How do I feel about this? Where is my head? Would I ski this if I were alone? What is my gut telling me? This is a great benefit of touring, that it gives one time to take everything in and process it.
Continue checking in with yourself and with others. Asking your partners how they feel is very important, and then ask them what they think about the snow. There is a difference between the two questions. How do the two line up? Check in before decisions are made, before a peak is chosen, before a skin track is set, before the descent is made. Make decisions in the moment because in each new instant there is fresh information from inside and out that will determine the next move. And finally, I have a mantra I repeat at the top of every descent. It helps clear my head, forces me to choose the slope from the right mindset, not because I’m rushed, not because I’m tired, not because it’s being filmed, or the snow is really good, or any of the endless number of ulterior motives.
There will be a time for all things to be skied, pay attention to what lies beneath the skin and the snow to reveal it. Before heading out, head in.
Whether it’s deep powder, big lines or technical descents, Noah Howell has dedicated the past fifteen years to exploring new terrain and adventuring on skis.