In the United States the 2010–2011 avalanche season got off to a rough start near the end of November. On Monday, the 22nd, a Colorado ski patrol director was buried and killed, becoming the country’s first fatality of the season. The following Friday, a snowmobiler in Utah suffered the same fate. Both men were experienced and knowledgeable about avalanches; yet both made simple but conscious mistakes that probably cost them their lives. There are lessons that we can learn from these tragic accidents.
(If you want to learn more about why and how we act irrationally, check out Dan Ariely’s 2008 book, Predictably Irrational. Ariely is an economist, and while I don’t think he’s a powder hound, he is interested in why we make the decisions we do. Here’s a link to a New York Times book review (click here).)
Past performance does not guarantee future results
Before the lifts opened on Monday, the Wolf Creek Ski Patrol Director and a 16-year veteran of the area was skiing alone. The ski area reported he was doing “control work,” which typically in a ski area means undertaking actions to reduce avalanche dangers. Logic dictates that one does not do “control work” alone, but that day he was alone. When he didn’t answer his radio, fellow patrollers went looking for him. My point is not about his doing control work, but about expecting the unexpected.
Within ski areas, ski patrols use monitoring and the combinations of closures, explosives, and compaction (skiers and riders making lots of turns) to manage avalanche terrain. Over the years, patrollers gain significant knowledge and a feel for the behavior of avalanche paths under certain weather and snow conditions. Patrollers do a tremendous job of reducing avalanche dangers, but still they cannot eliminate the danger. That morning the patrol reported 32 cm of new snow, some of which fell with strong winds the evening before. Conditions that morning were not unlike many mornings at Colorado’s snowiest ski area, but something was different and that something was missed or dismissed, and that “something” had probably more to do with human actions rather than the weather and snowpack.
In hindsight, it’s easy to question why was he alone, but in reality the situation was likely far more complex involving past memories and experiences. Ski patrollers, working alone, often check terrain in the morning, just like many solo backcountry skiers seek out powder slopes. That morning he was doing what he has probably done (and without incident) for years. In other words, he thought he was behaving rationally.
In many similar avalanche accidents [link to the report of another experienced avalanche victim from last winter], victims thought that today’s conditions were typical because they had experienced similar conditions before. This is a dangerous mental trap because such perceptions can lead us to feeling certain, but sometimes with false confidence and in a situation where uncertainty can reign. When we feel certain, we sometimes get blindsided.
Knowing it’s dangerous is not enough
Take for example, the snowmobiler who died five days later in Utah. Two experienced and “high-end” snowmobilers purposely left their avalanche rescue gear behind because they had “no plans to ride steep hills.” The avalanche danger was rated “considerable.” Recent heavy snows and strong winds created deep and dangerous slabs, and the pair knew it. Before the two headed out, they made a deliberate decision to not take their rescue gear. Their rationale: if they had no intentions of riding steep slopes, they figured they didn’t need their gear. Tragically, they were dead wrong. (This line of reasoning is not new or unusual. Years ago when avalanche beacons first came out, some Canadian heli-ski guides and other backcountry travelers would choose on some days not to carry transceivers, so they wouldn’t be tempted to tackle dangerous slopes. Last winter a certified alpine mountain guide, traveling solo, seemingly applied the same logic, but with tragic results. She was struck by bad luck when hit by a natural avalanche. Her turned-off beacon was in her pack.)
One of the riders decided to try to partially ascend a 37-degree slope. Just like expert, excitement-seeking skiers and snowboarders, high-end snowmobilers don’t necessarily consider a 37-degree slope as very steep. But for a slab avalanche, 37 degrees is just about perfect. His friend didn’t see the avalanche start; only the powder cloud as it tore down slope. When the snow settled, a lone snowmobile track headed into the debris. Some other riders happened upon the scene and helped search. Eventually, they found the snowmobile. Using a single probe pole, they later found the buried victim. Burial time estimates ranged from thirty-five minutes to an hour and thirty-five minutes.
These two snowmobilers were not the first victims of avalanches who deliberately left behind their rescue gear. In the unexciting locale of the kitchen table (or truck cab) such action seems reasonable and rational — no gear means no steep slopes which means no avalanche problems. They left the trailhead feeling confident in their abilities to avoid avalanche dangers. Unfortunately, however, we tend not to behave in rational ways, especially when we feel the freedom of the mountains, cold air, deep powder, and excitement. The pull of instant gratification often overwhelms one’s own sensibilities, even for safety.
Usually, when dealing with steep slopes and snow, no avalanche results, so people tend to feel that making an exception is acceptable. Just like the patroller from Monday’s accident (and many others like him), the snowmobiler’s experience told him, today is no different from other days, so despite not having rescue gear, the situation is safe. False confidence is reinforced by past experiences. When people start feeling certain of their situation, that’s when uncertainly can spring its trap.
What can you do?
Here are a couple things you do to help you stay out of harm’s way. Regarding the first accident, it’s easy to say one should never work or travel alone in avalanche terrain, but surviving an avalanche is luck, and just because you have a companion doesn’t guarantee survival. The more important matter is to never let your guard down. When you work or play in avalanche terrain — any slope steeper than 30 degrees — be ready for the unexpected because avalanches may happen at unexpected times. To expect the unexpected, keep asking your self, “What am I missing?” This approach will keep you from being surprised.
Secondly, avoidance is always the best practice to stay out of avalanche troubles, but when you know conditions are dangerous, always be ready for the worst. As I wrote above, surviving an avalanche is luck. But if you don’t have the gear, you can’t be lucky. Years ago, avalanche sage, Knox Williams, advised me to “always carry avalanche rescue gear, but travel as if you left it at home.” To that, I can only add that you and your friends should also know how to use the gear. It can make a difference.