That Four Letter Word We Know Too Well — Risk

Post by blogger | June 15, 2016      

Cam McLellan

Weighing those pros and cons.

Weighing those pros and cons.

I recently finished writing a 36 page, 9000-word paper as part two of the three-part Canadian Avalanche Association’s Operation Level 3 course entitled “Applied Avalanche Risk Management”. Normally one wouldn’t associate a PhD-like assignment with what I do, working as an ACMG guide for a living.

But with the industry growing at an alarming rate, it’s really no surprise that risk management is becoming a hot commodity as far as avalanche courses go. Reflecting on what this course has taught me and applying risk management to my daily ski routine, what I do for work and for fun, it has begun to show a new side. It has renewed my interest in alpine travel more than I thought possible.

Now by no means is this a full play by play or total recapitulation of my course and nor is it a shortened summary to entice readers into possible future attendance. This particular article is my take on how this concept of “risk” plays out in the day to day activities that we all love to partake in: backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

“Risk” is “the effect of uncertainty on objectives” as defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). As backcountry enthusiasts, we are continuously subject to adverse and inherent risks on a daily, hourly and even minute by minute basis when out in the boonies seeking the deepest possible pow turns. Whether it’s a risk of frostbite, avalanches, injury, fatigue or any of the several thousand possibilities that we deal with in a day, that risk is out there and we accept it. We welcome it. We search it out.

The usual question is “Why do we seek this out?” Why the heck do we seek out the possibility of being subject to a catastrophic event like an avalanche? Why do we accept the fact that we may lose some digits or the loss of feeling to frostbite — for good? Why is going until we can’t move such a welcome idea? Are we just not that bright?

We accept all of the above and actively head out anyway because it’s just too much fun. If anyone out there feels otherwise about nose deep blower pow you are nuts! (I’m kidding of course).

Well now that we’ve figured out why the heck we head out every time we think the skiing or snowboarding is worth it. The next major step is figuring out how we manage all those parts of the day we try hard to avoid. To save you from the overly dry parts, here’s a few key terms that are applicable to both recreational and professional contexts and make a surprisingly significant difference in your decision making skills once you understand what they mean and how to apply them.

  • 1. Risk Appetite and Perception
  • 2. Operational (or Personal) Risk Band
  • 3. Risk Treatment
  • Risk management.

    Risk management.

    My daily routine both during work and personal ski touring days changed immensely after understanding what these terms meant and how to apply them. I can honestly say that my decision making not only improved but was highly refined at the end of this past winter and having put these concepts into practice. Towards the end of this winter began to use these terms in the stages they are listed above and have developed a simplistic yet refined approach to decision making that I will explain below.

    Stage 1. Risk Appetite and Perception – Whether you’re a group of two or ten buddies or guiding a full helicopter of guests: risk perception and appetite are two things you need to understand. This understanding must occur not only on a personal level but as an entire party. Risk perception and appetite in my mind are the fundamentals of group dynamics and managing this is key.

    Risk perception is our take on what could potentially happen to us given certain factors but this is easily influenced by bias and experience (i.e. the hard charging buddy to the green beginner telling them the slopes ok to shred together when, they should be spreading out).

    Risk appetite on the other hand, is what an individual or group is willing to pursue or retain in order to reach an objective. Both these factors must be balanced and continuity is key regardless of group numbers or context in order to have a successful day.

    Stage 2. Operational (or Personal/Group) Risk Band – This particular stage comes after an objective (or two) has been chosen, weather forecasts and avalanche bulletins have been looked at in great detail and a general plan has been decided on for the day.

    Operational (Personal or Group) Risk Band is a way of determining how much or how little risk you and your group are willing to take given the current conditions and your objective. Defining a risk band for your group focuses on the given day’s objective and helps refine your plans to optimize risk (think cost-benefit) and get the most out of your day.

    This is a key step in any trip itinerary; from what I’ve seen over the years it is usually the “make or break” factor. Knowing what you will do and won’t do ahead of time adds to the ease of decision making and maximizes your time in the deep fluffy pow!

    Stage 3. Risk Treatment – This step is all too familiar to most folks. Risk Treatment (or more commonly known as risk mitigation) is what we do during the day to keep ourselves safe. Be it spreading out on steeper terrain, skiing one at a time through avalanche terrain or making the decision to pull the plug and leave our objective for another day. Knowing these tactics is one thing, but practicing them is another and the key to success. Education is always the way to go when it comes to learning about these things but the real crux to mastering any form of risk treatment with regards to backcountry winter pursuits is to practice, practice, practice.

    To some folks these may be terms that have been used for quite some time. To others this may be a totally foreign and brand new concept. I’ve personally found these three stages to be of the utmost importance in any backcountry endeavour. Managing risk is something that I, personally, will be learning and re-learning for a long time. It’s a very dynamic concept that requires patience and even then… more patience. For now, hopefully these concepts will be of use to folks who take it upon themselves to have a read through my words. It’s an amazing thing that we all love, skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry. We just have to make sure we do it safe.

    (WildSnow guest blogger Cam McLellan has an infectious love for backcountry skiing and sharing his passion with others. This has been life for Cam as he knows it since a very early age. Realizing that he could turn this passion into a job, Cam actively pursued a career as an ACMG guide straight out of high school and hasn’t looked back. Moreover, he has actually never “worked” a single day in his life since then. Follow him on Instagram, camskiguide.)


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    4 Responses to “That Four Letter Word We Know Too Well — Risk”

    1. Bruno Schull June 16th, 2016 12:55 am

      Hi Cam–thanks for an interesting topic. I think about these things more in relation to climbing than skiing, simply because I do more climbing than skiing, but of course there is a great deal of cross over. It was a little hard for me to understand your key points–probably because it’s difficult to condense a long technical paper for professionals into short article for the general public. I tried to translate your key points into alternative language, to see if I could express what they mean. I might be way off, but here was my attempt at a interpretation/translation.

      Risk appetite and perception
      How much risk people are willing to take in general in pursuit of their sport, and how do they identify and understand risk in the mountains. Some people will be ready to take lots of risks, and others will not. Some people will identify and understand lots of risks, and others will not. For example, some people constantly seek out activities with more risk, while others try to avoid risk as much as possible. And some people see lots of risk around them, while other people see less risk. I guess an important point that you suggested is that risk perception is based on knowledge and experience. A beginner might be completely unaware of very real risks, or, alternatively, so afraid of everything that they see risks where none exist. And a skilled skier or climber might be very tuned in to real risks, but could become complacent, or loose touch with how the environment might be viewed by beginners.

      Operational or personal risk band
      How much risk is a group, or individual, willing to assume in pursuit of a specific goal, or in a specific situation? For example, “Are we, or am I, ready to climb and ski this slope right now, or not?”

      Risk treatment
      How we manage risk, or how we try to make skiing and climbing safer, usually by trying to reduce the likelihood and/or the consequences of a incident. For example, “Let’s stop here to put on crampons or helmets.”

      Is that roughly correct?

      It would be very cool to read about some specific examples from your guiding or personal adventures to show how you apply this framework.

      All the best, and thanks again.


    2. Cam McLellan June 17th, 2016 10:32 pm

      Hello Bruno!

      Thanks for the comment! For the most part you are spot on with your interpretation of my article and the three topics. Just to ad a bit more to Operational Risk Band to help clarify it further;

      – An operational risk band needs to be well defined and include the following
      +How much are you willing to loose in terms of damage (broken bones, permanent loss of skiing ability due to injury or death)
      +How much are you willing to loose in terms of opportunity (skiing or climbing the more aggressive/better looking line versus taking the easy way)

      These qualifiers need to be carefully defined to really help give your personal or operational risk band context. It really helps to form a solid basis for your decision making throughout the day in order to maintain continuity. A “risk” band whether personal or operational needs to have these parameters set and maintained throughout the season. At the end of the day, it’s really all about what you are looking to accomplish and gain in the long term.

      As for examples, here’s a few to compliment the three points;

      I always really take the time to better understand people’s ski history. Where they’ve been, what they like to ski and how often they get out. As well, ideas that they think are acceptable in terms of ski lines or ski areas are a really great indicator of Risk Appetite and Perception. Building this background make a huge difference.

      In my own personal guiding I have set parameters here that do not get changed. Maintaining a policy on how much I take on in terms of risk and what i’m willing to lose/gain has been a staple in my career. Setting these parameters really helps define your take on the mountains and how you conduct yourself.

      This is an ongoing learning process for anyone who recreates in a winter backcountry environment. We constantly assess, manage, evaluate and analyze what is happening, what we are planning on doing and whether it’s still appropriate or not.

      Anyway, hope that helps.



    3. Kaj June 18th, 2016 12:59 am

      Nice article Cam! (and cool to see some photos of Prestenrenna- such a fun line!).

      I completely agree that risk appetite and perception are key factors in risk mitigation- kinda like a foundation on which further decisions can be based. But also one of the most difficult subjects to really get to grips with in a group setting. With people’s perception of their own propensity to risk taking being skewed not only by their level of experience and bias, but also group dynamics and even the individuals particular mood when the discussion is taking place.

      Speaking for myself, I feel like my appetite for risk is a really fluid thing, which changes in ebb and flow, not only according to the avalanche hazards which might be present, but also myriad other factors like how much sleep I’ve been getting and what sort of things I’ve been skiing recently.

      Really good article though- it’s got me thinking!

      Any possibility for accessing your entire paper?

    4. Bruno Schull June 18th, 2016 7:40 am

      Hi Cam–thanks! That makes a lot of sense. I also agree with Kaj–my personal interaction with risk is so fluid. For example, I was recently climbing a mixed route. The climbing was great. Challenging but not scary, great position, beautiful scenery, blue sky. On the last pitch, I had a choice, go left (easier) or right (harder). Even as I lead away from the last belay, I told myself, and my partner, I’m probably going to go easy, but at the last moment, I changed my mind. I couldn’t really see the crux from below, but when I arrived, I found it really dry–just awkward moves on steep rock covered in powder and little ice. I climbed through, slowly and just in control, but it was close to my limit, closer than I like to be in the mountains. Afterwards, I was proud to have lead a hard pitch, but I was also a little scared in retrospect thinking about how I had slightly crossed that risk line that I like to respect. If I had known the conditions below, I would have gone the other way. That happens so often in the mountains–you just don’t always know until you get there how it will develop–and then you have to deal with your choices, and make new decisions. I guess that’s part of what makes skiing and climbing so challenging and engaging.

      By the way, those pictures look awesome! Where is that? I wish I was a good enough skier to experience a place like that! Maybe with a guide? 🙂


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