Mistakes Get Made — The Mind On Avalanches


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Dear Lou:

Cory was a friend and my wife’s cousin. He worked ski patrol on Ajax (Aspen Mountain) for years. He’d spent a year patrolling at Chamonix and had an impressive climbing resume. He was a pro with tons of avy experience and always preached safety. And both Kate and I are at a complete loss as to why he showed such an error in judgment.
 

So I guess my question to you is this: What goes through someone’s mind, with that much experience, when they make that decision to ski an out of bounds run like Power Line – alone – on a day when avy danger is super high? Why do it? He’d skied a million runs, he had to know the danger was high, and he absolutely knew the danger of skiing out of bounds alone, so why do it? What compels us to throw caution to the wind and take that mad plunge? What is it that entices us to chase a powder run on an avy prone slope by ourselves, in complete defiance of our sanity?
 

Your old NOLS student,

David Clark

Hello David,

As always, good to hear from my former NOLS or Outward Bound students!

Out of respect to Cory and his circle I’m hesitant to do too much guessing at what went on in his mind. But I’ll tell you, here is what used to go on in my gray matter when I’d do things like that:

First, after many days skiing and living in snow country I’d definitely get a sense that I was somehow intuitively blending with the environment and was able to make judgment calls based more on emotion than logic. I think some of that was valid, but could never figure out how one could draw the line between the valid emotions and hubris. Confirmation from your knowledge base is definitely key, but you’re basically trying to get the left and right brain hemispheres to talk to each other, and sometimes that is difficult.

Second, I used to practically live on those same runs Cory was on, and their nature changes radically. When they’re getting skied a lot, as they eventually do, they become skier stabilized and very safe in terms of avalanches. And I used to go back there by myself on occasion. Looking back I feel like an idiot for doing that as there are more hazards than avalanches back there (e.g., just breaking a leg by hitting a tree could kill you if no one is around to help). But at the time, it just felt “right” and felt like an extension of my lifestyle. Bear in mind I’m talking about me in my 20s, no kids, a hardcore “extremist” taking it to the limit on everything from ice climbs to avalanche slopes. Which leads me to the following.

Third, as life progresses and one has family and kids, you usually transition from the spunk of youth to a more sage approach with risky sports such as backcountry or slackcountry skiing. I can honestly say that happened to me, and I’m certain happened to Cory. BUT, if you still participate in this stuff there is always an element of risk. You can make mistakes, and you can fall into your youthful habits since the inner teenager is always lurking in the wings. Even now, as cautious as I am, I’ve been in numerous situations over the past years where I should have made a different initial decision and only avoided dire consequences by grace. In other words, mistakes were made.

My theory is that judgment mistakes are indeed frequently made in risk sports, and due to whatever combination of luck and grace your theology or philosophy allows for, we get away with those mistakes much of the time. Then sometimes we don’t.

Everything we know about Cory says that he tended to use good judgment. I believe that. But everyone can make mistakes.

Perhaps most importantly, I truly believe that familiarity with terrain can trap a backcountry or slackcountry skier in overconfidence that leads to mistakes. As can the general culture and ethos of a place.

Those slackcountry runs where Cory died on Aspen Mountain are treated by hoards of skiers as if they are controlled inbounds terrain. Even though a number of deaths have happened in that terrain, you see people back there all the time skiing solo (usually with no backcountry gear). While Cory certainly knew better than to ski such places by himself, and certainly knew it was the highest hazard day of the season so far, it is possible he let that ethos intrude on his decision making process. Bringing it back to my own poor decisions, I can say for certain that’s happened to me up there — more than once.

One solution to this is to make personal safety rules for places or activities you frequent. It’s like a pilot who always does his walkaround. Always. For example, one area I spend a lot of time in has a road that passes under numerous avalanche paths. I’ve made it a personal rule to not drive that road or ski that area during storms with any more than a few inches of accumulation. That little personal rule has saved me several times from the fate of other skiers who have barely escaped death from massive avalanches, and still had their vehicles trapped up there for days waiting for the snowplow to clear slide debris off the road.

Another rule we have here at the Dawsons is that we never ski slackcountry alone. Yeah, I didn’t have that rule in my younger days, but it’s now followed religiously and I’m hoping (to be honest, praying) my son sticks with it for himself as well. (Disclosure: I have no problem with ski touring solo in non avalanche backcountry terrain, I’m speaking here of going for powder turns in areas with potential slide hazard.)

It was interesting to me to see that recent blog comment about Mount Baker, and that they make a big effort to have all their slackcountry skiers use a buddy system. Seems like we could use that here as well.

I’ll close by saying Cory’s accident is eerily similar to that of Meta Burden, who took off by herself from the top of Aspen Mountain in 1972 and died in an avalanche on a run in that same general area known as Kristi (which is now part of the controlled area). Meta didn’t have near the knowledge Cory did, but both accidents certainly involve that momentary impulse to go ahead and ski short but somewhat sweet slackcountry powder runs that are just a quick little hit from the top of the resort, with an easy return to the lifts — but to do so by yourself while forgetting or at least rationalizing away how much hazard there might be.

Comments

11 Responses to “Mistakes Get Made — The Mind On Avalanches”

  1. powderjunky December 16th, 2008 10:29 am

    I think it’s in the resorts best interests to check people out of the gates. A small number resorts, as you mentioned, like big sky and bridger, already do this. For the others that don’t: Most resorts have unpaid mountain host patrolling around as customer service on skis, maybe some of these folks could monitor the gates as well.

    Last year i brought this up with a JHMR ski patroller as to why they don’t check people at the gates and he pretty much scoffed at the idea.

    Sure most experienced folk will think it is a hassle, but compared to all the other “hassles” in the world I personally think we could all live with it.

  2. Todd Goertzen December 16th, 2008 4:12 pm

    Lou,

    Your comments are finely tuned and truly considerate of the situation surrounding Cory’s death. As stated – it would be insensitive to guess as to the thinking of another. Your responses to Mr. Clark’s questions, framed in your experience, are “write” on.

    Regarding slackcountry – No disrespect to Powderjunky but I agree with your sentiment – “One solution to this is to make personal safety rules for places or activities you frequent.” Making a personal commitment to play by certain rules (beacon & shovel, partner, prob, extra cloths…) makes more sense then checking people at public land access gates. Working at a CO ski area through the 80’s and early 90’s the issue of backcountry access gates was non-stop including having people arrested for crossing our federally mandated “Executive Closure”. The Peak 7 slide in Breckenridge (which Cory was a rescuer on) spurred much of the debate.

    The consensus as of 2008 seems to be – these are your public lands, have at it, you’re on your own. It’s the “on your own” part that seems to be the hang up. As someone’s Mom used to say – “it’s all fun and games until someone puts an eye out…” People love skiing untracked powder. Slackcountry offers many more opportunities for first tracks then inbounds skiing. It’s your land! Have at it! Then – the unthinkable happens – you’re on your own! Caught in a slide or smacked a tree, broke a binding or cliffed out… you’re on your own. There are a number of people who venture out a BC access gate, fully prepared to deal with any of the above. The majority – especially those yo-yoing the slackcountry – are not prepared. “It’s not REALLY the back country is it?” “The sign says not patrolled – but I’m sure they do some control work right?” The concept of “on your own” never sinks in.

    Back to the question of why – given all the levels of knowledge and experience – does a person “defy sanity”? Lou, your third point speaks to it. The activities we pursue have inherent risks. I’ve been in a number of situations where to this day – I felt I was in no risk – None. My wife on the other hand – outside looking in – saw enough potential for something bad to happen, to crawl out of a sick bed to come looking for me. By yourself you see the situation in your own honest light. Is that some sort of temporary insanity – maybe, but it’s true to you. You think – sure, there are those “inherent” risks – but nothing really risky (the perfect argument for a partner?). Confidence trumps inherent – and the risks become non-existent.

  3. g December 16th, 2008 6:41 pm

    Looking at the caic website, picture and topo of the accident, it was truly a wakeup call. Can’t imagine how many times I have considered such a slope, [small opening at top, surrounded by glades, going into glades] to be fairly risk free. Many of us, who have hundreds of days in the backcountry, some time have a tendency to minimize the risk in our minds because the actual risk area is only 3, 4 maybe 6 turns. I have not skiied this area, but that looks to be the case, perhaps i am wrong. in any event, this is a bad deal. i know it will cause me to think again when in the same position i have been in numerous times.

  4. Lou December 16th, 2008 8:32 pm

    G, that report simply blew me away. It shows how when the snow is this unstable, just about anything can go big and deadly. What’s more, if it’s true Cory was skiing without a beacon and was found buried, with his location pinpointed by a ski on the surface, then I’m at a loss for words. That just seems so uncharacteristic. I didn’t know Cory well but he always seemed like the kind of guy who was prepared at least at some level. And even when skiing by yourself it’s only responsible and fair to still have a beacon if for no other reason than to help your recovery go faster and thus save your family from unnecessary angst and rescuers from unnecessary time and risk. Luckily he was found quickly anyway, but it could have been otherwise.

    Link below.

    http://avalanche.state.co.us/pub/accidents_co.php?accident=20081214_aspen

  5. Wildcat December 16th, 2008 9:46 pm

    WOW! Those pictures are frightening. I am always paranoid before skiing wide open bowls, couloirs, chutes below treeline, etc. However, those pictures show an area that I would look at and think that I am still okay because I am in the trees. I would have never guessed that something that small and that gladed would have the potential to slide. Very scary and a very good wake up call to us all to be careful out there.

  6. Halsted December 16th, 2008 11:30 pm

    In a round about sort of way Cory’s death may wake-up a lot of local folks (and “Turons”), and make them think before they go out into the backcountry. And in that way, a few lives might be saved from becoming avalanche victims.
    For me Cory’s death is a reminder that, ALL OF US not immune to avalanche accidents or tree wells, etc…..

  7. Mark December 16th, 2008 11:43 pm

    Sad stuff. That small slope is similar to numerous slopes we’ve all probably skied at resorts and elsewhere and hardly gave a second thought. Pretty eye opening.

  8. Lou December 17th, 2008 8:23 am

    A meter thick slab on top of sugar changes the whole picture of what’s safe and what is not. While getting our Christmas tree yesterday, I could cut small test slabs off just about any pitch I cared to mess around with. When you see that kind of instability, it goes beyond what even most avy forecast rating systems are designed to handle. It’s the “go to Acapulco and come back in two weeks” rating.

  9. David Clark December 17th, 2008 12:08 pm

    Thank you Lou. When we lose someone we love very much the grief often compels us to search for answers as to why – and somehow I knew you might be able to shed some light on what happen to Cory. Which you did.

    Though it has been forty years since I last sat at your feet and learned from you I want you to know that I carry your lessons and stories with me every time I hit the back country. And I use them all the time. Little things like “the safest way to cross an avalanche slope is not to cross it at all” or “in the winter you never let yourself get cold” are Lou-isms that have helped me and others return safely from many an outdoor adventure.

    Thank you again for helping us understand what happen to Cory. It doesn’t ease the pain of the loss, but it does help put to rest some of the mystery as to why it happen.

    Much love to you and your family,

    David Clark

  10. Ed Cross December 21st, 2008 5:42 pm

    G’day Lou,

    Trust you and family are well.
    Cory’s memorial was a wonderful tribute to him.
    Re your reference to Mita Burden. I was involved in the incident (hasty search, probe line, cpr). There were indeed many similarities to Cory’s accident.
    Of late, I have become very active with the Aspen Poets’ Society and recently found this poem from December, 1972.

    Avalanche

    Why do we hope?
    Why does the avalanche run?
    What can we be
    To seek, have fun
    Lose friends; watch one weep?
    Over a soul, was never his to keep
    Nor mine, or hers
    As I see it
    Was as if she took a fit
    Which wasn’t her
    Angry or otherwise
    Agitated
    I believe it was something fated
    Or at least in God’s mind
    In any case
    Was fate unkind?
    Mita lived for life
    And love
    And snow
    What we reap
    Is what we sow

  11. Lou December 21st, 2008 6:47 pm

    Nice to hear from you Ed! And thanks for sharing that poem. I’m amazed you were on that rescue — you must be older than I thought (grin).

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