Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reflections on Recent Avalanche Incidents

First, I want to express my condolences and sympathy to the friends and family of all of the avalanche victims this year. One of my closest friends passed away in an incident in January. I know what you’re going through and it sucks. The sudden removal of these titans from our lives is devastating, and for many of us this has happened more than once in the past year.

Second, these are my thoughts and are not directed at any particular incident or person. Rather my commentary focuses on the response of the skiing community and how we can better ourselves in the backcountry.

Third, these thoughts are not ground breaking and you may be way ahead of me in this journey, but if it can help one person, I don’t mind insulting the intelligence of the masses.

After every incident everyone wants to know why. There is a vacuum of information that is quickly filled by conjecture, mistruths, poor assumptions, and occasionally accuracies. Avi reports are dissected, weather station data is downloaded, data pits within 250 miles of the incident are analyzed, and judgment is passed. All of the data (real, assumed, and inaccurate) is laid out in front of the user in black and white without emotion. It becomes an Avi 101 case study where the answer is already known. Knowing the outcome will influence how you interpret the data.

Making a hypothetical decision when you know the outcome is easy. The data will miraculously and unambiguously “fit” the foregone conclusion. A logical path to the inevitable is laid out right in front of you. People are quick to judge and flaunt their “superior” avi savvy and decision making skills. In their mind there is no way they could have made the same mistake. Well, I say fuck these people.

Standing atop a slope, you are not dealing with a textbook problem. You are in a dynamic situation. Recent deaths have highlighted the fact the back country incidents aren’t just for the uninformed. Well educated, strong ski mountaineers (real mountaineers, not a “Sugarhouser” ski mountaineer) with 1,000 days in the backcountry are falling. All of these folks could have read the “after incident report” and come to the logical conclusion for 2 reasons:

1. They have clear understanding of Avy 101 concepts
2. The reports are written as morality plays with clear causes and effects emphasized for

In the days after an incident from the safety of a warm cube, office, couch and with the luxury of unambiguous data that fits the conclusion of the incident, people judge and take cheap shots and belittle our friends and family unjustly.

“They shouldn’t have gone.” Well, no shit Sherlock. Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Einstein. Now, go fist yourself.

We are asking the wrong questions. People are focusing on weather, terrain, and snowpack: Avi 101 stuff. These are topics our fallen brothers know inside and out. Yet this often is the focus of the discussions. Yes, these topics are important and are the basis for a strong foundation, but if the discussion solely focuses on the black and white basics, an opportunity for growth will be lost.

Back in December, I went for a ride in an avalanche. I swam and came to stop on top, breathed a sigh of relief, and then got hit by a second wave. Fortunately, I remained on top. It shook me up and it was embarrassing, but a good friend encouraged me to analyze the incident so others could learn. I focused on the Avi 101 problems that we all know inside and out.

This was the wrong approach. We need to start focusing on:
· Why did I think I could out manage the risk?

The human brain is hard-wired after millennia of evolution to make poor decisions in the back country. Social moors impact more than they should. Herding, barn syndrome, trusting the leader, safety in numbers are all traits that have helped humans survive in a cruel world, but work against us in the backcountry.

Two excellent papers:
(click to read)

Human Factor
Heuristic Traps

So the next time you are trying to understand an incident don’t focus what is already well understood (Avi 101). Devote your efforts to understanding why an intelligent, rational, thoughtful individual chose to drop in. Put yourself in their shoes on top of a mountain with trusted friends, laughing, living, smiling. Take it all in. The warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, the promise of powder, the joy of the mountains, the freedom, the anticipation, the excitement, the anxiety, the stoke. Then ask: What would I do? It’s not nearly as easy as working out an Avi 101 black and white story problem in front of a glowing monitor.

This sport is complex and the human brain can be your greatest ally as well as your greatest nemesis. After every successful tour, reflect on where your brain helped you and where it worked against you.

· How was my snow pack analysis?
· Why didn’t I stop in a “safer” location?
· How was the spacing on the ski itself?
· Was I too close the person skinning ahead of me for ease of conversation?
· Why did I drop in before my partner finished buckling his boots?
· What were the red flags and were they given enough emphasis?
· Should we have skied that?
· And on and on

This sport will give you positive feedback for poor decision 99 out of 100 times. This is not a healthy feedback loop.

Congratulate your successes; learn from your miscues. Discuss with your touring partners strategies for improvement. Reflect on what you could have done better and the next time: Be better!!!

We’re not the type of people that can stay on 30° slopes our whole lives. We will ski terrain that has the potential for consequence. But it has to be the right day. Remember the Avi 101, but also remember your personal shortcomings. Take 10 extra seconds to ponder the possibility that your brain is not working in your best interest.

Again, this is not meant as a criticism of the fallen, but as hope for the living. We all have to be better. I can’t take much more of this shit.

- U.K.


  1. Wtf is a "sugarhouser" mountaineer? .... Is that worse than a "cottonwood heights" mountaineer?

  2. Thanks for this, it is spot on. Skiing is fun and a necessary part of many of our lives but check yourself and your decision making abilities before and after a tour. All the knowledge and education in the world is trumped by poor decision making. Everyone who steps foot in the BC is bound to make a poor decision for themselves or group at one time and chances are will get lucky. Bad decisions with analysis are one thing, bad decisions with ignorance is plain stupidity. Know your reasons for making decisions and trust your gut instinct. I feel sorry for the friends and families of people who lost their lives skiing and am well aware that this could happen to any of us. I feel more sorry for those who straight up ignore the signs and don't check themselves before venturing out. Bottom line, I know you're (the reader) a great powder skier and the snow was rad. If the conditions are questionable, wait. The safe skiing you'll do at 80 years old will always be better than the sweet pow shot on questionable snow you're skiing now. Nobody gives a fuck that you ignored your brain to ski something rad that anyone can ski at a safer time. -Shredder

  3. Nice write up. We all know what we should and shouldn't do but it's always good to hear it again, thanks!

    Also, I live in Sugarhouse and love the term "Sugarhouse Mountaineer." Hopefully I can live up to the name!

    1. Nothing but respect for you guys. Love the JD/Sherpa blogs.

    2. Ski in peace my friends...and whateverelse you do...I have your back