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,
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.