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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Late February Update: AK

The February storm finally let up for a few days. Since there hasn't been a break in the action, there aren't any persistent weak layers. The snow has been quick to heal after storms this year.

Alas, I was tethered to the cubey! The photos and stories were coming in; folk were getting it and I had a serious case of FOMO. It was too much; I needed out. On Wednesday I made for the door at 3:15. Turnagain was too far for this late start, but Hiland Road in Eagle River would fit the bill. ER hadn't received the massive dumps that had buried Turnagain; my expectations were low but skiing is skiing is awesome even if it sucks.

The sky was cloudy with patches of blue, and I hoped to luck into some decent light. But throughout the drive the weather continued to worsen. It was snowing hard at the trailhead with 3" fresh. Poor vis and heavy snow convinced me to hit up the low angle bowl just West of Mountain Harp. As I climbed it got deeper and deeper and it became obvious that I had lucked into some deep powder. Who needs light when you have 18" of blower? Probably someone, but not me.

Oh, that was a rhetorical question?


Oh, was rhetorical too?

Enough already! Time to schuss! It was still pounding . The sky, air, ground were all grey. Nothing to focus on except the the faint hint of skinner trailing off into the sky? It would have to be enough. Effortless turns complemented the powder that billowed over my waist with each turn. I was shocked. Hoots and giggles rang out throughout the blind descent until I hit the road. Stunning!

I had to return on Thursday. I put out the word out but no one believed me and again I had it to myself. The plan was to follow my skinner, but that was buried by another un-forecast storm. Usually I bring the rock skis for ER, but today I had the 194s and it was just as deep as the day before. More giggles and squeals and yawps. Their loss.

Turnagain had got 9' in the 2 weeks since my last visit and the CNFAIC proclaimed: Low! Hubert has a penchant for the South Facing shots on Eddies. 1,500', steep, and plenty of room. No more willows, rocks, cliffs, or anything.

We ran into Paul and Anthony at the top of Run #1. It was #3 for them but it was bliss for all. Still no vis, but with conditions like this, seeing is not really that necessary. So you go and trust in the slope, the equipment, and muscle memory. And the super hero snow let's you get away with it time and time again.

Nothing to See Here

The light was so poor, we failed to notice that dusk had arrived. But being the the last car in the lot is not necessarily a bad thing.

Saturday morning was forecast to be sunny, but there was a weather advisory for the afternoon. Get the morning sun and then get an afternoon nap. Mountain Harp was calling again. Harp is the easiest 5er in the CSP, and draped with a dozen high quality lines. It was calm and sunny in the car-park, but by the time Chris W. and summited the wind was ripping. The extra layers were going on. Something was brewing out there. The sun was still shining as we dropped into a sheltered slope just East of the peak.

The wind was howling but the prodigal sun had returned! The glorious sun! The rare sun out for a short tryst in the mountains! The blessed sun! Hello, friend! Oh, and the snow was excellent, but that sun, that wonderful sun. ER continues to deliver.

Looking Up 2,000' of Goodness

We climbed West back towards the summit ridge. It took about an hour but, in those 60 minutes the sky went from blue to a menacing gray.

Climbing Out with Hanging Valley in the Background

It was time to go, but we still had another 2,000' of powder sprawled out under our tips. The light was garbage but we were used to that. Nothing but smiles as we dropped back into the ping-pong ball, but I was secretly cursing that fickle, shy bastard in the sky.

- U.K.