Three Myths of Avlanche Survival — Followup and Myth 3


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Whew, that got a bit grim there, but probably worth it for all of us. In my case, after years becoming risk comfortable as a rock and ice climber, I definitely fall back into old bad habits sometimes when it comes to avy terrain. Thus a wakeup once or twice a winter is a good thing — and best the no-doze comes from blogs and video rather than the real thing!

So thanks everyone for the library of interesting and useful comments. While the designers and engineers who make things like beacons don’t tend to listen that much to “public” advice, they do pay attention on occasion. So let’s hope they see our call for transceiver reliability and simplicity. As for “soft” myths such as the warm fuzzy burial and avy dogs as saviors, let’s just try to keep it real. To that end, the “Dozen More Turns” movie came out about a year ago and while most of you have seen it, it’s worth embedding above to round out this blogpost as a resource.

Avalanche backcountry skiing.
Someone asked for it, so here it is. Me, 1982, after getting “nail” removed from my femur that was broken in avalanche. If you haven’t seen the story of my worst screwup, it’s always here for the reading.

The one thing “Dozen More Turns” keeps me coming back to is our own group decision processes. Beyond what happens AFTER an avalanche (dogs, beacons, what have you), the process leading up the “accident” is oh so critical. The movie addresses this. The guy who died, Blake, for some reason decided to go above and beyond where the group had decided was safe to ski. If he hadn’t done that, his child would still have a father and his friend would still have a leg. Just that simple little push against the envelope; something most of us have gotten away with. But something we’ve got to be on guard for all the time.

As for avy survival myths, I’d say my last for this series of posts (#3) would be the aftermath. Myth: You get dug out of the snow and ski to the bar for a hot buttered rum. Reality: If you survive, you’ll possibly have life threatening or at least immobilizing injuries (or loose enough gear to strand you). The ramifications of that are obvious. Backcountry skiers should have first aid training, and carry some sort of communication device to help bring in a rescue if it gets to that point. Without those two things, you’re living in a myth if you think you’ll be able to deal with an avalanche accident in any effective way.

So thanks again everyone for your participation. Feel free to comment more if you like. Guest blogs are welcome as well if you have any avy learning experiences you want to write up.

Comments

24 Responses to “Three Myths of Avlanche Survival — Followup and Myth 3”

  1. Chris February 7th, 2008 10:46 am

    Hey Lou –

    If you don’t think beacon training should occur in avy classes, where should it happen? The fact is, knowing a beacon’s limitations and how to properly use it can give you the chance, even if its a very small chance, to save someone’s life. Maybe your gripe is more along the lines of beacons being sold as some foolproof safety net, but I’ve never taken part in an avy class where they were depicted this way. Mainstream media and maybe ski resorts and guiding outfits may push this idea, but, in my experience, no one providing avalanche education has had this opinion. Beacons have always been taught to be your last resort if you screwed up in your decision making somewhere else.

    In my opinion, avy classes spend far too much time on snow science. Digging pits, looking at snow crystals, measuring temperature gradients, doing 6 different stability tests, etc. are not things the typical person is going to do every time they go out. The best avy class to me would simply be nothing more than going on a multi-day tour with an avy educator/guide as a mentor. Each night would be spent doing planning/decision making regarding the following day’s trip. Then, while out on the tour you spend time on things like route-finding and terrain recognition, human factors, doing quick stability tests, do route-finding and terrain recognition again, then do route-finding and terrain recognition yet again. Introducing these things in real-world situations, where they really matter, instead on in a classroom will be way more useful. The class would progress such that the students are making all decisions toward the end of class.

    As for human factors, I really question if you’re going to change someone’s attitude/behavior during a 3 day class. Show all the gruesome pictures you want, a few days later most people will forget about them. If it does have an impact on someone, they probably weren’t the type of person who would be out there taking crazy risks in the first place.

    Anyway – just my $0.02
    - Chris

  2. Lou February 7th, 2008 11:05 am

    Chris, my opinion is they should do beacons in class, but human factor, route finding and hazard assessment are more important and should get the most energy. The avy teachers we know are doing a pretty good job with this, it’s what we’re all doing on our own that’s sometimes skewed.

  3. Keith February 7th, 2008 1:00 pm

    As an engineer, the concept of beacon “reliability” strikes me as a whole can of worms that the manufacturers wouldn’t even want to get into. The biggest problem is how one would define a reliable beacon. As an analogy, I think of how the auto industry has developed crash safety ratings. Everyone has seen the footage of cars getting shot into concrete walls or being backed directly into poles, etc. to measure their safety. Yet, how often will real life accidents happen like that? Most often damage occurs haphazardly due to evasive maneuvers. Likewise, how would one decide the most appropriate test for beacon durability? Engineers love to argue this stuff until they’re blue in the face, but they’d never achieve a consensus. The dream of a fail-proof beacon is pie-in-the-sky; four-letter expletives happen.

    A manufacturer will ask “how often have bodies been recovered with a beacon that conclusively failed due to damage caused by the avalanche?” That number will be very small, and well within the noise of manufacturing defects that ALL products have. To that end, the manufacturers don’t see a problem worth socking tons of money into. As well, stories of new beacons failing on their first day while old analogs are still going strong fall on deaf ears; without context or corroboration they’re just hearsay. If you’re prone to fumbling, flinging or sitting on expensive electronics, the beacon makers don’t really care.

    With winter backcountry travel being a niche of a niche sport, beacon manufacturers aren’t getting rich off their sales. If one particular beacon is unacceptably damageable, the free market would rapidly weed it out. It seems like consumers have spoken and the current systems have passed muster for the silent majority.

  4. Randonnee February 7th, 2008 1:14 pm

    Again, thank you Lou for this discussion, and for allowing many to express their various thoughts and experiences. There is a lot of good information presented here from Lou and bloggers. Indeed this is a unique and valuable discussion, in my opinion unmatched in the “avalanche communty.” At events such as avalanche seminars there is often an established institutional view that is rigid and with “cotton in the ears” or a “let’s hear what is cool from those who are cool” approach at times. WildSnow demonstrates integrity in independent thought and mature consideration of various viewpoints.

    As far as beacons go, back in the day I wrote a Job Description including the requirement that a Professional Ski Patroller will recover in practice a transceiver buried 2 ft. or more in an avalanche path in less than 5 minutes- and that was in the days of using transceivers with earpieces. Five minute recovery, or out of a job. That never happened, the majority of the (very motivated) Patrollers got it down to 3 minutes. All the use of this modern technology and probe-use fascination, according to what I read on Forums, does not come close to the above. Again, I see this as tragic degradation of effective use of technology as a result of marketing by the manufacturers and their pimp mouthpieces, the print ski media.

    I believe that bomb-huckers with a few years’ avy control work at an area with lots of activity gain understanding and expertise not obtainable by snow study or guiding. To follow that, I feel that excellent avy education may be obtained by going around a ski area that has just been controlled that morning, check the results, learn the terrain, understand the entire snowpack history and weather data. Secondly, safely do some ski cutting in the backcountry, use a rope for safety. See if you can correlate your study and observations with any avalanche activity that can be produced. The one aspect that is most difficult to obtain is the constant nagging in the mind of an experienced bomb-hucker that it could go, surprises happen, unforseen snowpack dynamics are possible.

    In regard to a “Dozen More Turns” my view is that a person with a high degree of expertise and knowledge lacked self-control and as a result did not use the solid judgement of which he was capable. This is a dynamic that I have recognized for decades. It really does not matter how “good” or how “expert” one is if self control fails to be exercised. I saw similar behaviors luckily without serious consequences. I observed back in the day on occasion Patrollers who came to work for few hours of avy control with big and sensitive results in the morning unable to control the impulse to go backcountry skiing later that morning. Some of those young Patrollers would return from backcountry skiing with exciting stories about taking big rides in avalanches. Another example of a person with considerable and valid avalanche experience and expertise unable to exercise the appropriate self control.

    A lot of this stuff is on a thought track in my head where I constantly nag myself when I ski backcountry.

  5. Jimmy D February 7th, 2008 2:08 pm

    Lou, I just watched “A Dozen More Turns”, very powerful. What a sad story. Having worked as a patroler at a large ski area here in the Sierra, I know people who have taken rides and been injured in avalanches. It always amazes me to hear backcountry noobs say the Sierra does’nt get big avalanches.
    I have also been a wildland firefighter for the last 14 years. With every burn-over tragedy, the common denominator is “the human factor”. The self control aspect that Rando talks about seems like it is the hardest thing to moderate, even more so with competent individuals. Avalanche incidents and wildfire burnovers are alike in that respect.
    As far as beacons, probe poles and avalungs go, I think of them like I view a fire shelter. Last resort gear, have them, know how to use them, better to never need them. Anyway thankyou for having such a great space and ski safe on that awesome Continental snowpack.
    Jimmy D
    South Lake Tahoe

  6. mike s. February 7th, 2008 2:52 pm

    Via Amber, who produced the film “A Dozen More Turns”

    the film can also be found at
    http://www.lifeonterra.com/episode.php?id=77 for part
    one,
    http://www.lifeonterra.com/episode.php?id=78 for
    part two,
    http://www.lifeonterra.com/episode.php?id=79
    for part three.

    i think it is a much better viewing on this website,
    much better quality and resolution.

  7. Brittany February 7th, 2008 8:12 pm

    Thanks for the reminders, Lou. It’s always good to keep reminding us how important it is to have our avy-brains turned on. Hopefully we’ve all heard a lot about the slides and high avalanche activity on the Front Range this year to keep our avy-heads on this season!

  8. cory February 7th, 2008 8:25 pm

    Another one to check out: Out of Ophirica on youtube

  9. Jayleech February 8th, 2008 1:55 am

    Lou,
    Thank you for posting this. It’s a much needed reality check.
    JL

  10. Lynn February 8th, 2008 10:04 am

    Sobering movie for sure. Doug Chabot comments throughout are excellent.

    One thing that always sits in the back of my mind is slope angle, slope angle, slope angle, okay that is three things. The last three fatalities (snowboard, ski and snowmobiler) in this state have been with crown fractures in excess of 35 degrees.

    Agree on the comments above, all the avy gear is nice, but if I am using it for real, my party has screwed up.

  11. Michel February 8th, 2008 10:25 am

    Hi Lou,
    It is great to see such an open and frank discussion on the issues, especially regarding the gear and the myths that are seemingly perpetuated. I read the series of three with great interest. I should preface by saying that skiing-wise my experience with avy terrain is little to none, but I would certainly like to gain more knowledge. Difficult given I live in the vertically-challenged Canadian East.

    However, having ice-climbed and done some alpine in the Canadian rockies, winter climbing on Mt. Washington, even in rock climbing it seems to me that many of the common human-factor elements unfortunately seem to pop up in many aspects of outdoor pursuits, especially the ones that marketing hacks have sold as being “extreme” or dangerous.

    What is interesting to me, and perhaps is another problem (compounded by the gear sense-of security issue), is the perception of danger in BC skiing: with rock and ice climbing for example, ability and knowledge seem to act together with the nature of rock and ice itself, to act as a certain barrier. I generalize here, but that sense is not immediately apparent with BC skiing, as the images of pros surfing the powder, and beauty and relative calm of the terrain (regardless of our knowledge of the potential danger) seems to lull one into a certain false sense of security.

    Again, gross generalization, but how many people would buy some mountaineering gear and head onto a glacier? I hope I was not the only one, but when I learned and was taught to climb, it was religiously drilled that it may be fun, but there are very real and potentially deadly consequences to one’s actions.

    Backcountry seems to be the new frontier for skiing, it certainly seems marketed as such. This is what seems worrisome since there does not appear to be a debate on backcountry and avy safety accompanying this growth. I have been a long-time boarder and a new telemarking convert (all inbounds), but I agree with the comments on how the sport is sold to us, without appropriate appreciation for what the consequences are.

    This knowledge debate has always fascinated me, and although it may be a little dry, and perhaps old news, this article on heuristic traps was very interesting:
    http://avtraining-admin.org/pubs/McCammonHTraps.pdf

    I guess to come full circle is simply to applaud the author and all contributors to furthering the debate, as it points to the fact that gear can only be a tool, and is only so good and useful without the proper knowledge of it, but most importantly, without stressing the fact that gear can not, and will never replace good, sound judgement.

    À plus,
    Michel

  12. BJ Sbarra February 9th, 2008 12:21 pm

    Hey Lou,
    Did you get a chance to check out the snow pulse avalanche airbag at OR? we’ve got a post about it on our site, wondering what your thoughts are. obviously it’s too expensive to be mainstream at this point…

    http://www.skiingthebackcountry.com/blogs/Snow_Pulse_Avalanche_Airbag.php

  13. Lou February 9th, 2008 12:57 pm

    BJ, yeah, it really looks good but a bit costly and heavy. That the worth of that kind of stuff depends on just how much risk you’re really getting yourself into.

  14. Walt February 10th, 2008 1:05 am

    Aside from the one poor judgement call in the movie, “A Dozen More Turns”. I think another overlooked message is the danger of what can happen to you using non-releasable telemark bindings (They were all telemarkers) in avalanch terrain. That guy almost died and that wouldn’t have happen had he been in releasable AT or telemark bindings.

  15. Lou February 10th, 2008 8:15 am

    Hi Walt, good point. I’m not sure they were all on tele gear in Dozen More Turns but the guy who lost his leg seems to have been. In my opinion, in avy accidents over the past decades there has been a thread of severe lower leg injuries of people using non-release bindings. More, I firmly believe that in terms of avalanche survival having binding release (on snowboard or skis) is at least as important as using a beacon and shovel. Backcountry culture is in denial about this, or else I’m totally off… But I think the industry has been irresponsible are even negligent to have been selling non-release bindings all these years. I’ve believed that from the start, it’s one of the reasons I quit tele many years ago, and I still believe it.

  16. Rando Swede February 10th, 2008 8:56 am

    I couldn’t agree more about the tele binding releasability issue you mentioned. I was a tele skier for 15 years. Then, I went on an avalanche rescue with our SAR group. Two skiers caught. Tele skier sustained major leg injuries. The AT skier lost a ski and spent a night out but was A-OK when we got to him. He was inscredibly lucky. However, seeing the result of non-releasability was major factor for my switch to AT.

  17. Walt February 10th, 2008 12:59 pm

    Thanks Lou and Rando Swede for confirming what I intuitively suspected all along. But it is good to hear it from the experts. I too was a telemarker for over a dozen years and just gave it up because it just didn’t make sense. Non-releasable bindings was a big part of it. But now that I am an alpiner only. I feel that I am treated somewhat differently than when I was a telemarker. I was wondering if anybody else has experienced this phenomena? I am not considered nearly as “cool” as I once was, even though I can ski twice as fast and with way more control than ever before. There seems to be this attitude in ski towns that telemark is somehow “cooler” for the backcountry crowd than AT gear. They don stickers on their cars that say things like “Randonee …French for Can’t Tele”. Yet I’m always waiting for them at them bottom. They say things like “telemarkers parallel because they can, not because they have to.” By the way, in the movie, some of the guys were making those backseat “telellel” turns so it just looked like they were AT skiing. But you could tell by how they were flailing that they had to be on tele gear. We all know that telemark is an inferior turn, otherwise we would see it in at least one of the events in the world cup or in extreme skiing or freestyle competitions. But we don’t … not if they want to win. But if somebody wants to do it, well, to each their own. You just really should be using releasable bindings and for Christ’s sake, leave the safety leashes at home when going into the backcountry. (I see that all the time.) But I just don’t get their attitude when really the opposite is true. One thing I realy notice is that chicks who move to a ski town are really susceptible to this trend. Women, in general (though not always, of course) who choose to learn to telemark (many of whom never even learned to ski with traditional alpine gear first) are not that strong of skiers to begin with. So, why on earth do they choose an inferior technique and bindings? I believe it is because of the culture and mentality in ski towns that persuades them to do so. So, I have created my own bumper sticker: Telemark … Nowegian for ski more slowly, yet more unsafely and with less control … but, hey, I’m “cool”.

  18. James February 10th, 2008 3:23 pm

    Holy smokes Walt…I agree with some of the above commentary, but why so bitter?? I’ve telemark skied my whole life, its just what we did. I don’t know if “inferior” is an accurate way to describe the turn, especially without providing context. You’re right, the now trendy nature of telemark is disheartening when you see people getting on tele gear just to be seen on tele gear and not giving much thought to the nature of the turn, not doing it right, and therefore skiing out of control. But the same can be said for many of the new Rando crowd too. Its just “cool” to be a bc skier. Unfortunately, for many, its not “cool” to take it slow, learn to ski, learn about snow and weather and preparation, get experience……stay safe!!! I’ve got a new bumper sticker for ya Walt….”I tele skied for 12 years but was never any good at it so now I’m on AT gear and spend my afternoons critisizing the telemark turn.” Its kind of long, not very catchy, and has spelling mistakes but turns out teleskiers can’t spell very goood either!

  19. Bob Lee February 10th, 2008 8:57 pm

    Jeez Walt, all through your rant I was wondering if a telemarker stole your girl away. By the time I got to the end, I was sure of it.

    Try no to get so worked up, it’s all skiing.

    And here’s a somewhat shorter idea for your bumper sticker:
    Telemark: Norwegian for “Hey, wait for me!”

  20. Walt February 10th, 2008 10:52 pm

    Well… James and Bob,
    I did clarify in my “rant” … or so I thought … that I have nothing against telemarkers other than by skiing in the backcountry without releasable bindings, they are not just a liability to themselves but to those they ski with and your rescuers as well. (as you recall in the movie, those air force dudes risk their lives to save that guy.) No telemarker has actually done anything to me, therefore I am not “bitter” and I’m not sure where’s that coming from. If telemarkers used releasable bindings, who could say anything? Sure, it’s still not as good in my opinion. But snowboarders could say the same thing about alpiners. So that argument is irrelevant. My point was if you are just starting out, why bother to tele AT gear is so much more advanced and safer? Back in the day, we didn’t have much of a choice other than to tele if we wanted to ski in the backcountry. But now that isn’t the case. By the way, James, I was better than most when it came to telemarking, but I’ll say the same thing everyone else I know who has made the switch. “I’ll never go back”
    But Bob, your idea for the sticker is better for sure but you are wrong about everything else.

  21. andyw February 11th, 2008 3:23 am

    RIP.

    Just getting into ski mountaineering myself, this is a sobering reminder of what we all face. I don’t want to say thanks for posting this but I will say so long as there are lessons learnt. Very sobering and humbling.

    Safe skiing everyone.

  22. adymerski February 11th, 2008 3:03 pm

    nothing is always the right thing to have happen. I took a ride on a large slab last year with non-releaseable telemark bindings. I was able to ride on my ass and my ski bases which provided additional floatation. See Dale Atkins “brazil nut effect.” I’m sure there are instances when one would want to lose gear. I sure didn’t.

  23. Geof February 12th, 2008 12:22 am

    ADY…

    Your situation was pure luck… some avy stories are like yours. Glad you made it out!

    The movie illustrates a growning trend in the “younger” generation to push the limits without regard to potential outcome. Personally, Blake made a stupid mistake IMO. ESPECIALLY given his new responsibility reality (child on the way) I became a father 13 yrs ago. I have to admit, it has made my prudence much sharper.

    It is a difficult task to weigh risk and responsibility in the games we play. The very nature of BC skiing, climbing etc is risk. To what degree we choose to push is a touchy subject. When do we say “no- it’s too risky” especially when adrenalin is clouding our minds? We are junkies for the most part… more is better… then the time comes.

    To the beacon discussion: I agree with Lou. Beacons, really, are pretty much common sense. My beacon won’t even register unless it’s pointing in the proper direction, which is usually downhill-ish. In the time I’ve spent with friends “finding” each other it’s never failed nor been difficult to use. I hope though, I NEVER have to use it for real…

  24. adymerski February 13th, 2008 10:52 am

    It sounds like you got it all figgered out G altho I question anybody that has it all figgered out. Lots of luck, maybe, but not pure luck. I “fought like hell” when I had to and remained calm. I was not buried and stood up when it stopped. A passive ride would have had a much different outcome.

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