I always forget to look up. It’s been a problem since childhood. For example, I’d neglect to gaze skyward while catching fly balls in the little league outfield. A goose egg on my scalp drove that lesson home. One winter, I was walking outside the gym when giant icicles dislodged from the eaves and rained down on me (perhaps that time it was lucky I didn’t look up.) But my first lesson about looking up as it pertains to outdoor recreation came in high school.
It happened on a backcountry hut trip with the outdoor program, when my science teacher and trip leader hid an avalanche beacon. This was my very first experience with a beacon search. Each student in the group found the beacon in the snow, some faster than others. Finally it was my turn. I switched the borrowed transceiver to search and followed beeping sounds and visual displays to where I surely thought the buried beacon was. I dug and I dug at the spot but there was nothing. Frustrated and confused, I gave up. My teacher smirked and told me to look up. There, hanging from a tree branch directly above my head, was the beacon. Everyone laughed. That stung. But the experience taught me a lesson, the same lesson I always keep forgetting.
To me, that lesson is much more complex than simply looking up. Nowadays, it’s a critique of our modern society. We humans are so keyed into what we are individually doing that we often, if not always, miss the big picture. Nobody is looking up because we are all looking down, typically at our smartphones. As muscle memory builds, looking down has become second nature for us all.
Well, at least smartphones and muscle memory are my dubious excuses for a not-looking-up incident I experienced just last year. I took an avalanche rescue course as part of my continuing backcountry safety education and to prepare for an upcoming recreation level two class. I felt like I was learning a lot and excelling in all the scenarios. But when the beacon search portion began, I got serious déjà vu from my high school days. I watched as all the other students found the buried “victim” (an old beacon strapped to a plywood-backed chunk of foam) in under 5 minutes. Then it was my turn. With the beacon freshly buried in a new location, I pulled out my transceiver, switched it to receive, and began my grid search.
It didn’t take long to pick up a signal. Following contour lines the visual display presented, and hearing the beeps get louder and more insistent, I zeroed in and found the burial in practically no time. Feeling proud, I dug the foam wood up and held it aloft in victory. The instructor skied down to me and said I did a good job. But I also screwed up big time. As I had made my way down the imaginary avalanche debris, I failed to notice surface clues that were hilariously obvious. One of the victim’s skis stuck straight out of the snow. A few yards down from there, a ski pole rested on the surface.
Part of this exercise was to mark any clues en route to where the victim was buried. But because I was a “beacon zombie,” I missed them all despite the instructor making zero effort to hide them. I was so zoomed into counting down distances to the buried transceiver that I treated my beacon like a smartphone. I thought the information it provided was all I needed. I was wrong. I failed to look up and observe beyond the device.
In backcountry skiing, looking up applies to more than just beacon searches. I’m guilty of staring down at my ski tips while skinning, when I should have my head high, eyes scanning the mountains for any sign of snowpack instability, recent avalanches, or changes in the weather. Being alert to one’s surroundings is crucial. In fact it could mean the difference between a great ski day, and a fatal one. All it takes is engaging a few neck muscles and tilting the cranium aloft.
Painfully aware of my own shortcomings, I was curious if gazing at my ski boots like some emo gaper was a problem all my own, or if others in the tribe have similar issues. So I took my pal Adam backcountry skiing and suggested we do a beacon search for practice. When he turned his back and promised not to peek, I skied down a slope and hid my beacon. Finished, I called up to him, showed him where the crown, sides and toe of the imaginary avalanche was, and where the victim was last seen.
Within minutes, Adam quickly triangulated his beacon search to within a meter of the signal. He dug and dug and dug at the spot but couldn’t find anything. I stifled my laughter. Adam gave out a frustrated yell, cursed a few times, and gave up. I smirked and told him to look up. There, hanging from a branch just above his head, was my beacon.
Maybe I did that to him as some sort of revenge for my high school embarrassment. Or maybe I simply wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in the epidemic of not looking up. But all I really succeeded in doing was pissing Adam off. Another lesson learned? Don’t mess with Adam.