Authors Note: This article was started in the closing days of January 2021, just after the Square Top (Park City, UT) avalanche fatality and just before the world came a bit unhinged. From 1/30-2/8 the US saw a streak of 16 avalanche fatalities, a number unmatched since 1918. But really this article started long before that, as a 20+year avalanche educator, my goal has always been to provide tools so people can make appropriate decisions based on their personal risk thresholds. A conversation with a student in mid-January turned a nagging thought into one I couldn’t shake. We are missing the mark with messaging in a significant chunk of our target audience. To be clear, I am not trying to sound defeated or defeatist, quite the contrary actually. I am acknowledging that we do quite well, and what we do DOES save countless lives, but I am also acknowledging a gap that we need to find a way to address. As the events of early February unfolded, this piece evolved from my own stream of consciousness into a collective one. You will see excerpts from various conversations I’ve had in person, on social media and thru text. The goal here is to evoke thought, not to condemn or discard any efforts to date. Thanks.
It all started with an Instagram post. As a few details leaked my way via various sources on the morning of Jan 31, I was filled with a sense of dread. First for my friends and former co-workers on The Park City Ski Patrol who would be first making Square Top safe, and then venturing to recover and transport another avalanche victim. Second, I couldn’t help but think this was potentially someone I know. The limited info I had, certainly seemed to point in that direction. (Turns out we had met, but I can’t say I knew him, but a few friends were quite close to him).
2021-01-31 From Instagram:
Took the time to sit and be still for a few minutes this morning. Thinking about my friends who are gearing up to go outside and recover another avalanche victim in the Wasatch. It’s a thankless and depressing task and I appreciate what they do. I’ve been an avalanche professional and educator for nearly 30 years. I watched the evolution of our understanding and the messaging around it, I’ve learned, evolved and tried various ways to help people understand the nuance of snow and tried to provide methods and tools to help people make better decisions.
In the last two years I feel as if the message keeps missing the mark. Despite best efforts, we (educators and forecasters) sound like nagging parents, Chicken Little screaming ‘the sky is falling,’ or even worse, Nancy Reagan preaching to ‘Just Say No!’ I think the harder we’ve tried to not sound like this the more we actually have become what we set out to never be.
I don’t have the answers. It isn’t closing access or more signs. It isn’t more apps and gadgets and it isn’t over dramatized ‘scared straight’ type videos and forecasts. As the backcountry explodes, more accidents will occur, is just the law of averages…
Anyway, to those mourning the loss, I know it hurts and it sucks and I’m sorry for you. For those going in to do the dirty work, make sure you take care of yourselves and each other. And for everyone else, chill the fuck out. It’s a ski run and it ain’t worth dying for, not in a lean year or a fat one. It’s about coming back for more runs day in and day out, year after year and hanging up your boots when you can no longer walk up the hill.
So what? In the coming days, this post would trigger dozens of comments, conversations and reposts, some very public and some very private. As details became public, and subsequent avalanche events began to occur, something was very evident, these weren’t novices, unknowingly walking into the lion’s den. These were people with experience and education. They carried the requisite tools and seemingly understood the forecast. The avalanche in Utah (Wilson Glade) on 2/6 would be the scene of a both heroic rescue effort and the greatest single loss of life incident since the early 90’s (Talking Mountain Cirque, La Sal Mountains Feb. 12, 1992). I’ve been at this a long time. I only remember a handful of accidents involving 2 or more people, but three mass casualty incidents in one week is still hard to fathom let alone digest. Sprinkle in six more accidents involving single fatality (including one in New Hampshire) and you have the most devastating single week the US has seen in modern times. I am a critical thinker; I’m also not satisfied with good enough. My brain has been in overdrive. I don’t expect it to find a solution, but I believe we need to take a hard look at how/what the messaging around avalanche safety is delivered.
Let’s face the music. As a species, humans are generally not great decision makers. We make incorrect or wrong decisions all the time. The good news is that we are generally quick learners, we make a mistake, we look at the other possible outcomes and try again a different way, often succeeding and putting the two experiences into our memory banks and moving forward, very rarely repeating the same mistake. And herein lies the problem with avalanches. In so many cases the person (or people) who made an incorrect choice, are never afforded the opportunity to evaluate, learn and try again. Each venture into the mountains ad each line dropped, is a potentially one and done event. There is no opportunity for hindsight and those not involved are left trying to put the puzzle together.
In the next few days, numerous avalanche professionals would start conversations with me like this:
“What a dark week….”
“This is kind of an out of control week. Head is spinning a bit heading out to teach last day of L1 today”
“Is this the new normal?”
We’re all thinking it. What could we have done better? Could we have done anything better? Have we unlocked a door into the mountains that people may not have been ready to step through?
A student in mid-January called me a hypocrite. He alluded to the fact that I kept preaching to people not to ski things, but I was out skiing. I was taken aback. I don’t think I ever said not to ski something, I thought I always encouraged people to make appropriate terrain choices for the avalanche problem. But if this is how my message is landing, something has gone horribly amiss in the delivery.
“I feel like we are all doing what we can. But how does the cultural shift occur where people stand back and say – “I cannot manage this problem.” It would appear people believe they can be their own expert and outmaneuver a problem in the terrain.”
-Text message from a fellow educator
So let’s talk margins. The concept that you give yourself enough room that a fall won’t carry you over the edge, a minor mistake will stay a minor mistake and we live to ride another day. I like to think of margins as the padding that helps protect me from human bias and decision-making folly. Run a wide margin, you may miss out on a good ski run, run too narrow a margin and your day could go to absolute hell.
I’ve always looked at avalanche education as a way to help people set appropriate margins, give them tools to go out and enjoy things with some peace of mind and confidence. Which means we are by default, helping people narrowing margins. My question, is a moderate level of knowledge, reinforced by some years of experience (we rarely get feedback that we ‘got away with it’), fooling us into thinking we know more than we do? Does shrinking the margins even more and by default, pushing people to an edge that will not tolerate mistakes?
We are a fragile species. Ill equipped to survive the wild world around us without clothes, tools, shelter etc. We are also an irrational one, which will observe signs of obvious danger and justify our actions based on training and experience or a tolerance for risk. We also have a tendency to see what our limits are. Great deeds of daring risk takers are legend; look no further than the success of the movie ‘Free Solo’ for proof of the value of risk taking in modern society.
Dopamine. It’s the drug of choice for nearly all of us. The dopamine hit from an epic powder run is amazing. The dopamine hit from attaining a summit for the first time, or enjoying a post ski day beer with the amigos is pretty epic as well. Dopamine is how we use positive reinforcement to train dogs, and in the same way it unwittingly trains us. Each ski run we make that doesn’t have a consequence subconsciously reinforces a behavior. It’s like bad dog training. If my dog, Colt, gets away with a particular behavior or action multiple times, he no longer thinks of that behavior as having a negative consequence. If I reward said behavior, he begins to enjoy it and it becomes normal and is performed without much thought. But if I come home one day and decide that particular behavior is no longer desired and punish him for performing it, he is completely lost and confused. He did the exact same thing that has rewarded him so many times in the past, but this time he was punished. What gives? Skiing the backcountry is no different, with one major exception – we have no way to truly know how close we were to getting punished on any given day, therefore we begin to get desensitized to danger and consequences. When things go wrong, we are hurt and confused.
Each like on our Instagram feed is a tiny hit of dopamine. A comment or like from a respected peer of athlete is even bigger. This is a huge part of why social media has such a grasp on us. And like all drugs, over time we require a bigger dose to get the same pleasure. People want to see photos of the steep and deep, big air, pushing on in the face of punishing weather conditions and the occasional blooper shot. The pictures of turning around or group discussion aren’t that sexy. While I don’t think social media unduly influenced any of the recent accidents, I do think it plays a part. Information overload. We have more information about current and past conditions at our fingertips than ever before. Mapping apps to show us slope angles, access to remote weather stations and cameras, current avalanche observations, and the social media feeds of all of our friends and influencers. I think it’s too much. Decisions are no longer being made about the snow under people’s feet; they’re being made with all of these other factors in our heads. Someone is skiing X today, so I should be able to ski Y. Ski destinations once described as ‘Supertours’ that we planned for days or weeks in advance, now happen as an afterthought before sunrise, before people go to work. Going fast in the mountains can be the safest way to move, it can also be the most deadly – you just don’t give yourself time to absorb and quantify all of the information the mountains have to share.
I’ve rambled enough, although I could go on. As each thought spills out of my head, three more pop in. I know that for the majority of the users out there, our education paradigm is working well, and I also know that however or wherever we evolve it, it will likely continue to work for them. I’ve never been satisfied with good enough. I will continue to ask hard questions, I will not shy from critical thinking and evaluation in an attempt to preserve feelings. Feelings mend with time, but dead is dead and it’s game over. In the end, people made mistakes, choosing inappropriate terrain given the avalanche problem and snow conditions of the day, causing accidents in which 16 people died. This isn’t shaming, this is fact. In some of these cases the avalanche conditions were less subtle than an oncoming train and in others they were a little trickier, but still not completely unforeseeable or unpredictable. So, as I always have, I will dissect and evaluate the reports, I will read the witness statements that are available and I will continue to look for the key to unlocking a better way to communicate with more people. In the end, I have no illusions of grandeur that I can save humanity from itself, nor will I walk away from a career I truly enjoy. But if I can help one more person to make a better decision than I did yesterday, we are moving the right direction.
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean for exercise.
One day, the old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing.
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the boy replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”