Do You Feel Lucky?

There are several dimensions of luck, and the diametrical differences can perhaps be best contrasted by the timeless words uttered by a fictitious police inspector and a 1st century (and very real) Roman philosopher. Oddly enough, both messages apply to our reasoning with avalanches.

“…you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya, punk?”
— “Dirty” Harry Callahan

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
— Seneca

Last week Doug Chabot shared the story about an avalanche accident that occurred in 2008. In Doug’s piece he answered the question of why some people survive avalanches and some don’t with a simple word: luck.

Avalanches are capricious assassins. Small, very short running avalanches of no more than 10 vertical meters have struck with the same deadly consequences as avalanches falling 1000 vertical meters. Some victims have been swept unscathed through thick stands of trees, while some unlucky victims hit the only tree on an otherwise empty slope. In other cases, pairs of skiers and climbers standing close to one another were swept down together, right next to one another. In the runout zone where the avalanche stopped, one person stands up and shakes off the snow, but their friend lies buried close by under a meter of snow.

Certainly, it’s lady luck that decides who lives and who dies. Avalanche transceivers, RECCO reflectors, rescue dogs, airbags, and AvaLungs may help you. But, none of these devices guarantee survival. In the US, of those people reported buried and equipped with transceivers more people will die than survive. Of the reported 112 buried victims equipped with avalanche transceivers from 1999/2000 to 2008/2009, only 44 (39%) survived.

Believe in luck

I believe in luck; it gives hope, and like Doug, I have been a benefactor of lady luck more than I care to admit. To believe in luck is a reasonable expectation for mountain travelers, but you have to work at being lucky; however, you never want to rely on luck.

It takes hard work and time to develop the skills, knowledge and to gain the experience necessary to tackle steep slopes. Being smart opens the doors to bold lines and adventures. Making not-smart decisions means recklessness and folly, which may end with tragic consequences. A problem with avalanches is that vast majority of the time the snow on steep slopes is stable. Otherwise avalanches would be pelting down everywhere and all the time; serious accidents would happen continually, and our local avalanche forecast centers would be well funded.

Instead, snow and avalanches are mixed up in clandestine relationship. At best, it’s as solid as Dagwood and Blondie. At worst, it’s more like working with Charlie Sheen. The outside cover snow conceals an internal structure that can be strong and weak at the same time. Consider that a medium-sized slab, one meter deep and the additional weight of a person, a measly 0.001% of the weight of the slab, in the wrong spot can fracture the snow like a pane of glass.

Our thinking of “luck” is misplaced

Too often we think of luck in regards to getting caught or not caught. A year ago January, a backcountry skier was buried near Bozeman (Montana). The skier and his partner seemed to do all the right things, “We skied another slope, had dug our pits to check the snow, and did everything as carefully as we could. We reached the end of our luck, I suppose.” The buried skier went second, so it seems that luck guided the first skier but abandoned the second. I’d argue, however, that instead running out of luck that he (in particular) and his buddy relied on a huge amount of luck, once he was buried. He survived and most buried people don’t!

So when it comes to thinking about luck, don’t think about luck in terms of getting caught or not. Think of luck in terms of surviving.

Put yourself into a situation to be lucky

In the mountains we need to put ourselves into situations to be lucky, and by this I don’t mean just physical locations but also circumstances. Some circumstances for increasing your luck include carrying rescue equipment and knowing how to use it. But any advantage may be lost if you continue to tackle steep slopes with unstable snow. Consider the circumstances of a solo rider. Skiing with a partner puts you in a situation to be lucky. But your luck might vanish if you become separated or if you both are caught.

A couple of weeks back in southwestern Colorado two brothers were caught. One was buried and the other partly buried. Avalanches do happen, even to the best and most careful, but it’s a serious error when two are caught. When avalanches trap a pair of people and bury one, it’s not uncommon for the buried one to die. Valuable minutes are lost while one digs free before he or she can look for their buried friend. It should be no surprise how such a situation can end badly. So back to the brothers, but this time the buried skier put himself in a situation to be lucky; he had an AvaLung. It took his brother 30-40 minutes to uncover his face. When everything went bad, it seems that because the skier had and was able to use his AvaLung, that he put himself into a situation to be lucky.

Black Diamond Equipment has a first-hand account of another use from earlier this year in Austria.

Sometimes, however, luck doesn’t always work out. Sadly, a tragic accident occurred last weekend in Alaska. Two savvy backcountry skiers were caught; one was buried. Though the other skier was not even partly buried, he was injured so much that he could not search. He was prepared and used some sort of personal locator beacon to notified rescuers. He tried to be lucky, but luck was not on their side. I should note that his friend was buried so deeply that it is very unlikely that even the best textbook rescue would have saved his life.

Don’t rely on luck

The Dirty Harry approach to thinking about luck is probably not the best way to ensure a long and rewarding existence in the mountains. But it does serve as a reminder for how to think after all trips into the mountains. Always after an adventure consider the reasons for your successful (because no accident occurred) trip. Was your success due to luck, smart decisions, safety margin, or some combination of the three? If you’re regularly mentioning luck, you ought to reconsider how you go about doing things in the mountains. If, however, you never mention luck, you probably ought to ask some more experienced people for their appraisal of your actions. False confidence or over confidence can be just as destructive as relying on luck.

Luck can be fickle. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, so you never want to rely on luck. If you do, you may be painfully or terminally reminded of luck’s unpredictable nature. So think of luck as Seneca did 2000 years ago: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Do this by learning all you can about avalanches, make smart travel decisions, go one-at-a-time, get first aid and CPR training, and invest in and learn how to use rescue equipment (beacons, probes, shovels, RECCO reflectors, airbags, Avalungs, mobile phones, etc.). And, make sure your friends do the same. This puts you in situations to be lucky, but travel as if you left your gear at home. That way, hopefully, you will not have to rely on luck.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading.
Dale Atkins

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2 Responses to Do You Feel Lucky?

  1. Mark Nelson says:

    Reminds me of the 95 rule (I think from Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, correct??). They explain this situation very well; if you don’t know anything about anything whatsoever, 95 percent of the time you spend in dangerous terrain, nothing bad will happen to you. That other 5 percent, you get a full-on casino cheating beat down by Michael Corleone and his famiglia, then probably end up buried in the desert.

    If you try to live by the 95 percent rule when in terrain, you can expect to be dead shortly. I forget the exact numbers, 100 days in, then a statistic certainty well before those 100 days are over.

    In climbing, I think of the live by luck as the 5.13 gym rat rule. “I can climb 5.13, so all this talk of gear, anchors, good belaying, using protection systems, communication….whatever. I’m God’s gift, so get lost.” Usually most of these people are out of serious climbing within 5 years of their start due to the commitment required to maintain proficiency in technical terrain. Or they’ve eliminated themselves from the gene pool all together. Which does suck.

    Though I will say talent is a very important part of mountain travel, speed is safety and falling is not an option in certain situations. Sooner or later, you do find you need more than just talent; hopefully not at that moment when your life and family are flashing before your eyes. A poignant moment for me was hearing a kid lose it and scream for his mom as he fell over a thousand feet. Not a good day.

    I would say along with time spent in exposure working terrain, a seriously high amount of education, instruction, practice, and kick-butt climbing partnerships has helped hone in my talent to be able to survive. Even so, I still get the hebee gebees just getting 20′ off the deck, much less 2000’+.

    Good article, Dale. As Usual.

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