Today, on WildSnow Myth Busters:
Avy Myth #2, If I’m buried in an avalanche, I’ll just snuggle in my nice little snow hole till my friends dig me out.
In my experience, quite a few backcountry skiers don’t understand the ferocity of snow avalanches. Sure, most probably read the accounts of popping bones and exploded internal organs. But in many cases those stories don’t seem to have much effect on the common view that once buried you’ll just puff on your Avalung till your friends tickle you with their probe poles.
So where does Myth # 2 come from? Denial and wishful thinking are certainly part of it. But a specious undercurrent in the whole skiing ethos supports the story.
Public service and industry advertising contribute. How many times have you heard the mantra “bring shovel, beacon and probe” as if those three talismans will insure your survival? Page through a magazine, and you’ll see ads for shovels and beacons that imply such gear has a remarkable effect on your personal safety. Reality is they’re just backup systems with a high failure rate.
And what’s going on with avalanche education? Formal training has gotten better over the years, with less emphasis on beacon drills and more on judgment and “human factor.” But when we do informal avalanche safety training we still focus too much on beacon drills, when we should address issues such as shoveling, judgment and acceptable risk. As an example of the worst in avalanche education, consider what’s going on with avalanche rescue dogs.
What they call “avalanche dogs” are really nothing more than cadaver finders — if they’re actually trained to be much more than an excuse for a ski patrol pet. Nonetheless, the constant bombardment of PR these dogs create is something to behold. You know, the cute photos of them riding the lifts or romping at the patrol shack. It all seems to imply that you can get buried and lie there waiting for your furry friend. All they need is the barrel of brandy dangling from the dog’s neck to make the fantasy complete.
Avy dog demos fuel the mythological fire. I was watching one just the other day. They’d have a kid climb into a snow hole, then cuddly fido would bound up to the opening and nuzzle his way in for some face time. There they were, educating children in a lie, training them that being buried in an avalanche is a snuggle in a snow cave with a pet ready to come lick your face. I call BS on that whole deal, and submit that anyone doing this sort of thing is doing a disservice to avalanche safety education.
(Note: S&R dogs provide a useful function and every ski patrol should have one or two — it’s how they’re used for education and PR that I’ve got a gripe with.)
The benign avalanche burial myth also comes from the fact that the dead tell no tales. In the general ethos of backcountry skiing, our knowledge of what an avalanche ride is like comes from the percentage who survive. They tell stories of outrunning a slide, or how scary it was to be buried but how nice it was to be dug up. The morbid side is there, but in the end it’s the survivor stories that tend to define our point of view. Thus, we don’t see avalanches the way we view the business end of a gun — though we frequently need that more brutal point of view.
Comments? Should we show kids movies of real avalanche brutality, or let them cuddle with ski patrol pets? Are we looking at snow slides as brutal life-changing events, or something less?