Snow Geeks Meet the Guides at ISSW 2016

Post by blogger | October 4, 2016      
Daisy Bell Remote Avalanche Control System

The kind of stuff you see at ISSW. Humans, ever innovative. This is the Daisy Bell Remote Avalanche Control fly it under your helicopter, set on the snow, explode a gas mixture inside the open cone, then move on to the next trigger zone. Said to be ‘profitable — for rapid return on investment!’ Click to enlarge.

ISSW, enough graphs and math formulas to keep twenty PHDs happy for forty years. Mixed in, you find a few gems for the common ski touring man and woman. Honestly, to be fair, this avalanche safety conference is subtitled “merging of theory and practice,” so you do get a bolus of take-home no matter what your level of snow geekology happens to be.

The industry networking is fine as well, with folks such as BCA, Mammut, Scarpa and Arcteryx on-site, along with probably 99% of the best people in the field — both on the practice side and the lab side.

Did your partner in the BC ever ask you 'hey, in your opinion what is the most effective and reliable way to trigger avalanches?'

Did your partner in the BC ever ask you, ‘Hey, in your opinion what is the most effective and reliable way to trigger avalanches?’

Yesterday I cherry picked a few presentations I figured had a good emphasis on education, and was not disappointed.

First off, remember when the New York Times a few years ago did that online interactive report on the Tunnel Creek avalanche in Washington? They won a few awards for that thing — along with making a stately contribution to avalanche education that’s still entirely relevant.

In 2013, a group near Terrace, British Columbia, got ‘lanched in a class “3 & 1/2” slide that took their whole party out and buried three out of four. The three buried individuals probably would have died if it hadn’t been for a nearby party of experienced locals who did a textbook rescue. Result, a multiple burial — amazingly with no fatalities.

At the time, a film company was in the area doing some work. As spec, the filmers did extensive interviews with every participant in the event — an hour or more of talking with each individual. They made a short flick that’s excellent, check it here.

Since then, in what sounds like a massive and challenging publishing project, Avalanche Canada has used that footage and built a fully interactive website around it: Rescue at Cherry Bowl – Buried Alive, that — UPDATE November 2016, now launched HERE

Mary showed some snips from the new site, including videos. Impressive. As she said, the interviews are incredibly honest takes on what it’s really like to be involved in a life changing event due to a force of nature.

What stood out for me is Mary mentioning that the guys who performed the rescue credited their extensive and recent training with the outcome. A lesson for all of us. When was the last time you really truly trained in an avalanche rescue simulation?

What is more, Mary explained that another reason for the “exceptional” rescue that “defied all odds” as the responder’s being a “tight” group who not only trained together, but had a tradition of communication within their group that led to quick decision making and response.

What kind of groups do you ski tour with in avalanche terrain? Casual groups with random additions at the last minute, along with a definite “follow the leaders” dynamic? Or do you have a specific crew that rarely changes, who are all comfortable with honestly speaking their opinions and feelings at the slightest provocation? While no perfect formula exists (it’s fun to meet new partners), I’d remind anyone to think about all this. If you’re concerned about your personal safety, a tight group with strong communication is always better.

Next up, Sarah Carpenter (one of our esteemed WildSnow guest bloggers, with American Avalanche Institute) and Trevor Deaton live in Jackson, Wyoming. The pair gave an inspiring presentation about what I’d say is extremely important avalanche safety program they operate at Jackson public high school. Goal is to get 100% of program participants to learn what sounds like the knowledge base of Avalanche 1, along with inculcating habits such as checking the avalanche forecast before going backcountry.

Jackson Wyoming teenage avalanche education program emphasis.

Jackson Wyoming teenage avalanche education program emphasis.

Apparently,something like 75% of high school students in Jackson do winter backcountry recreation in avalanche terrain, ranging from snowmobiling to building kickers up on Teton Pass. What is more, 58% of Jackson high school seniors know of someone caught or killed in an avalanche! Thus, the need is there.

Surveys presented by Sarah indicate the program works, but anything can be improved.

Enter Emory Rheam, a 16-year-old from Jackson who did her own incredibly impressive study and presentation on how an avalanche safety program could be tailored to better fit teenagers.

Emily took us through the theory of brain science that says youngsters tend to have trouble making good decisions about risk, and the brain doesn’t complete maturing for good decision making until as late as 25 years of age. Then she brought in the bugbear of media influence, with a mention of how many TGR films show skiers charging through avalanches — not exactly the best imagery for the 18-year-old mind dealing with dangerous terrain.

Peer pressure and yes the distraction of smart phones where mentioned — though concrete solutions for those somewhat “teenage” problems appear to be challenging. More than anything, Emily caught my attention with her mentions of how exactly do you get kids to utilize a decision making process? She said mentors are powerful, and clear-cut methodology such as the ALP TRUTHS check list is helpful for young brains.

I checked out a few rocket science presentations as well. Trying to blog about them would make me look like a fool so I’ll just say that the combination of GPS, PHD statistics professors and guide services needing to refine their safety procedures is a heady combination.

Commenters, what do you think about helping teenagers make good decisions about their avalanche terrain recreation? Clearly, just saying no isn’t going to work. Snow play is too much fun.

Bonus shot, Hagan sighting in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Bonus shot, Hagan sighting in Breckenridge, Colorado.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


11 Responses to “Snow Geeks Meet the Guides at ISSW 2016”

  1. Cassidy higgins October 4th, 2016 12:53 pm

    I am at issw right now and I think what stuck with me about teens was that Emily said if we make avalanche knowledge the norm for teens than more will want to learn because many of them want to fit in. I think that major film and gear companies should take note and promote that through social media and films, a perfect example would be tgr covering what is happening in Jackson high school kind of like how they cover there pro rider safety workshop. I just saw your panel discussion to and I’m sure you will cover it in a future post but I was happy you were there Lou to bring the perspective of a recreational skier to the mix.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 October 4th, 2016 1:52 pm

    Hi Cassidy, thanks for checking out our panel, pretty interesting bunch if I do say so myself! Drew is pretty good at that stuff, he should do more!

    That’s a good point about making peer pressure work to incentivize education. Worth a try, though did it ever work with math (smile)?


  3. See October 4th, 2016 8:00 pm

    If we help kids understand how they are being surveilled, manipulated and exploited (both as athletes and consumers) by various interests, they might pay more attention to genuine mentors, and less attention to the barrage of questionable content to which they are exposed. Teaching young people to be critical consumers of media will have benefits far beyond snow safety.

  4. Ben Johnson October 4th, 2016 8:56 pm

    As a teenage backcountry user, mentorship has been by far the most helpful–and hardest to find–tool for bettering my decision making. Formal avalanche education is important, but it’s way more useful when paired with days spent in the backcountry with an experienced mentor.

  5. See October 4th, 2016 9:50 pm

    Of course, we need to scrutinize our mentors also.

  6. Gard October 4th, 2016 9:55 pm

    Maybe I’m alone here, but the “combination of GPS, PHD statistics professors and guide services needing to refine their safety procedures” really piqued my interest… Any links or phrases I could google to dive deeper?

  7. Lou Dawson 2 October 5th, 2016 5:37 am

    Gard, I’m not sure what’s available but I think you’ll see more and more as things progress over coming months and years. Here at ISSW a number of presenters had graphics and data produced by skiers carrying GPS tracking units. As one presenter said, the result could be too much information, but the graphics were cool and it’s the job of the brains to refine the data and make it useful.

    I’ll dig around and see if anything is available.

    The guy who had one of the more impressive presentations was Pascal Haegeli (who is known for his work on the efficacy (or lack thereof) of airbag packs, but there was an Italian guy Igor Chiambretti (with Barbara Frigo) who had a presentation on a GPS tracked avalanche accident that was quite something, if a bit sobering.

    I’ll try to cover a few other things in my reports over coming few days.

    Thanks for visiting here!


  8. Lou Dawson 2 October 5th, 2016 5:46 am

    Ben, I’d agree, from what I’ve seen around here in Aspen area the mentor thing can not be over rated. I think what works is to have some kind of structured program as Sarah presented, as a foundation that all kids are exposed to, but add to that a very energetic mentor program that might include everything from volunteer mentors who put in multiple days with kids, to more simple things such as spending a day with ski patrol or guide, or just going out and building a kicker but having a mentor there who can explain why the location is safe, or not.

    One of the presenters yesterday also mentioned how important it was to physically visit avalanche sites, presumably both accident sites as well as simply checking out recent avalanches. In my experience as a parent, this was one of the more powerful things a mentorship or school program can do. Seeing avalanches in a TGR film is not the same thing as standing next to a hole in the snow where a person died, perhaps even someone you knew or your friends knew.


  9. Jernej October 6th, 2016 12:02 pm

    I’m guessing Lou has this tracking research in mind:

    You can find all ISSW proceedings published at (obviously the current one is not online yet).

  10. Lynne Wolfe October 11th, 2016 9:41 am

    Yes, there’s so much material at ISSW it’s hard to sort through it all for usable nuggets. I thought that the panels were the most relevant to practitioners, and we will have full writeups of all four in the December issue of The Avalanche Review. In addition, we (Eeva Latusuo, Aleph Johnston-Bloom, Lynne Wolfe) had a poster about mentorship and the results of our survey from last spring through the AAA. Here’s a link to the poster:
    We strongly believe in the value of mentorship at all levels, and our research substantiates this belief. I run an informal mentorship project for aspiring avalanche professionals through the AAA. If you’ve been mentored even a little bit, turn it around and spread the love to the next generations.

  11. Lou Dawson 2 October 11th, 2016 9:57 am

    Thanks for dropping by Lynne!

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