“Trust, but verify.”
“I trust myself. You need that to survive.”
– Yoko Ono
I will go ahead and state the obvious: it’s been a challenging year. Of course we’ve got the pandemic that – if we’ve been lucky, and not gotten it – has severely limited our social interactions and made us into Zooming homebodies (if we have been able to keep our jobs). And the ski season has been challenging as well: across the country the dry December and January wreaked havoc on snowpacks, and now – as I write this in early February – the resulting weak layers and sizeable storms have created challenging to devastating avalanche conditions from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest, through the Intermountain region, and even in New England. But at least we can’t travel to places like Hokkaido (even by their standards, it’s a big year), Canada, and Europe to ski! So we do what we can, stay optimistic, and go out with people we trust.
Trust. It’s kind of a loaded word, and these days it takes on a far more significant meaning. For example, we got a weather forecast, and how much do we trust it? Forecasts are generally created by “forecasters“ – people – who are looking at lots of different computer-generated weather models, all with algorithms built in to take in information from an incredibly complicated “system” (the atmosphere) to analyze in their different (magical?) ways and spit out their respective outcomes. The forecasters then analyze these models’ outcomes and try to come up with the best combination, whether the models agree or not. We take “the forecast” for granted, and generally we have come to trust it. However, if you’re reading this, there’s no doubt that either the forecast, the timing of the weather forecasted, or your perception of it have been badly wrong and you’ve been caught out woefully unprepared and been soaked/frozen/miserable. How much we trust the forecast gets reflected in our gear/clothing choices for the day – or week, when the forecast gets a little less trustworthy, and God forbid we don’t take too much to make our packs too bulky/heavy, and if things start changing in a way we don’t anticipate, we have to start trusting….ourselves.
How much do you trust yourself? As the old saw goes, good decisions come from lots of experience, and experience comes from lots of bad decisions! The more times we put skins on at a trailhead and head up into the mountains, the more able we are to anticipate what will happen that day; i.e. we grow into trusting our knowledge, strength, skills, and fortitude in what we all know can be a ferociously unforgiving environment, especially in winter when short days, cold temps, and plenty of moisture in the air and on the ground can combine to compound any problems that you face. When you’re a nooby so many things are threats: weather, snow, cold, avalanches, cornices, tree wells, wind, ice, crust. It’s a chaotic and challenging environment. But over time we are able to develop an understanding of those threats and actually engage in a relationship with them; in anticipation of the threats we intuitively learn to bring the appropriate clothes and gear and confidently skin our way into the chaos, trusting ourselves that the decisions we made at home and our ability to read the terrain, weather, and conditions of the mountains will get us through another enjoyable day. And, of course, it helps to have partners that you trust.
I am no psychologist, but it seems to me that friendship comes easily, but trust does not. It needs to be earned, I’ve heard. The other side of that coin is that trust needs to be developed over a relatively long period of time, but it can be lost in an instant. When we head into the backcountry with a partner, there is an inherent level of trust, whether it’s an old pard or someone new to your pack. With the former, it’s comfortable, easy: longtime partners are able to anticipate each other’s strengths, attitudes, ideas, and coping ability. When you go out with someone new, it’s natural to be wary, since there hasn’t been enough time or opportunity to develop trust. Will this person want to jump into that wind-loaded couloir off the ridgeline instead of skiing the adjacent nice 30-degree line? Will they work themselves into a such a lather on the skin track climb that they’ll be soaked in sweat, and in that little pack they brought there’s no puffy jacket? Will they want to go in too early, or stay out too late? Once I was introduced to a guy who “gets out a lot” by a friend who said the guy was looking for ski partners, and after the guy showed up a half an hour late because he was hung over and was still feeling a little loopy from the mushrooms he had the night before, I didn’t quite trust him to either keep up, ski well, or dig me out of an avalanche. I haven’t seen him since.
But we’ve all met people who somehow engender trust almost immediately. From the start, they just seem to be doing things right: they go the appropriate speed, they have the appropriate demeanor, they have the skis, pack, boots, and bindings that aren’t too big nor too small, a quiet confidence, an uncanny ability to both be constantly scanning the scene and the group, yet take the time to almost uncomfortably look you in the eyes to make sure you’re not only worthy but still “there,” and paying just enough attention to you that when you do something stupid, he or she will swiftly and calmly dig your ass out.
The other side of that coin is placing too much trust in someone. The “expert halo” heuristic of ceding all responsibility – and thought – to someone more experienced has been cited many times as a big reason for avalanche accidents, and in some ways is more fraught with more complexity than not having enough trust.
These Covid days have created a whole new level of trust, or perhaps more appropriately, distrust: if you get together with your friends for a ski tour and maybe carpool to the trailhead, can you trust that they have been “good” about limiting their exposure? Can you actually trust yourself that you have been good? As with skiing a 38-degree slope: was I good in my stability assessment, or was I just lucky? Have I really been good about washing my hands, wearing my mask, and trying to avoid unnecessary human contact, or have I just gotten lucky? It seems like the last year has created almost a wild, mountainous environment of imminent danger lurking……around the corners of the grocery store aisles! I like to think that perhaps we “mountain people” have dealt with the coronavirus a little better than citified folks, because we have spent more time in a wicked environment and are more accustomed to taking risks and trusting ourselves in the face of those risks. But just as avalanches, long icy chutes, huge-but-fragile cornices, and trees that don’t get out of the way of your Big Mountain turns don’t care how good of a skier you are, the coronavirus doesn’t care how much you trust your knowledge or instincts or tactics or partners; if you make a small mistake, you’ll get bit. And just as in the mountains, the trust in your own decisions may affect your trusted partners.
It’d sure be nice if we were like the weather forecasters and had our own personal supercomputers generating our own personal Big Data to run algorithms to model our potential outcomes. But apparently our respective and collective emotions, motivations, and experience are even more complex than the atmosphere, so we have no models, much less model agreement. But into the chaos of mountains – and grocery stores – we go, hopefully with trust developed in our partners, but most importantly, with trust in ourselves.