Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Todd Guyn (25 years as guide with CMH, currently their Mountain Safety Manager) took advantage of his situation to run a questionnaire on more than 100 helicopter ski guides. Idea, have the guides essentially vote on “most common missteps” they made as avalanche safety practitioners. This was easily one of the better presentations at ISSW.
(Note: Todd called his presentation “10 common missteps of avalanche practitioners.” With due respect to Todd, I’ll go ahead and use the word “mistakes,” as well as figuring we are all “practitioners.”)
Here is Todd’s list, with commentary from yours truly based on Todd’s talk:
10. Misapplication of Terrain
Terrain is “pushed” due to guide’s client expectations or decision makers simply being lazy and not analytical. While the term “playground” if often bandied about in regard to backcountry terrain, we are not in a “playground.” Sure, a swing set could kill you if you really tried. An avalanche path is not a swing set.
9. Being Impatient with Conditions
One of the top habits or practices of backcountry skiers with good safety records is patience. Todd took the long view on patience, reminding us that when it comes to waiting for appropriate conditions with a given run, sometimes patience could mean waiting as much as months or even years for that special day. In my view, Colorado is particularly subject to this sort of thing. But if you take the long view of terrain, perhaps any place in the world has backcountry ski runs that are only in condition a few days a year, or less.
8. Trying Too Hard to Outwit Avalanche Problems
I’d call this “over thinking.” According to Todd, “sometimes there is not a solution.” What this said to me is sometimes you simply have to cut bait. That could even go to the level of staying home, for example during a huge storm that not only ramps up avy danger to extreme levels, but closes roads and perhaps even closes ski lifts.
7. Acting Too Much on Emotion
Yaaaaaaawhooooooooooo. Need I say more? Yes, I do. Sometimes you’ll hear talk about “listening to the mountain” and “being open to your inner feelings.” I agree those are valid ingredients in decision making — until they cause you to rely too much on emotion and not enough on cognition. Todd’s guides rated this as #7, which means it’s important.
6. Not Being Vigilant to Changes in the Environment
Fast temperature changes, blowing snow, sunrise… Sometimes changes are obvious, but we must be vigilent. Heavy snowfall and blowing snow is one area where I’ve been caught with my knickers down more than once. Likewise, morning sun warming an easterly face faster than I anticipated.
5. Letting Familiarity Influence your Mindset
Clearly something the CMH guides would have to deal with, as they’re skiing the same runs hundreds of times. As for myself and the ski touring public I observe worldwide, same issue. Many of us do go back to the same places over and over again. One way to fight resulting complacency is to carry a map in your mind of every even remotely possible avalanche path in your home area. Get in the habit of picturing those paths as you ski, so you practice behaviors such as stopping in verified safe areas and working around trigger zones. One common result of familiarity is for groups to begin stopping en masse while still exposed. Put the kibosh on that, it is toxic behavior.
4. Information Overload
Today’s helicopter ski guides appear to definitely have a problem with this. Observed at ISSW, the proliferation of GPS tracking and record keeping has resulted in reams of data. We casual ski tourers might not have so much trouble with info overdose. Yet, perhaps you dig three pits in a day, memorize the avalanche forecast, and have a new airbag pack you want to fool around with. Or how about that new beacon you bought, with LCD menus you could dig through for hours? Perhaps you might have a little too much information bouncing around inside your skull? Keep it simple, prioritize.
3. Underestimating Consequence
I’m glad this was in the top 3 of what Todd’s guides came up with. In my view, it might be number one. We see it over and over again. Folks are out for a fun day in the mountains and get involved in something tragic they clearly did not anticipate. Read the avalanche reports, underestimating consequences will be there. For example, it took me all of 30 seconds to find this quip from a Colorado report: “…small avalanche, but had high consequences because of the extremely steep and exposed terrain.”
2. Underplaying of Uncertainty
Sound like the title of a philosophy lecture? I’d call this “over confidence” or “lack of humility.” With current state of avalanche hazard evaluation, we often don’t really know much about what’s going on under our feet. Being humble regarding our meager view of things helps compensate. Todd had a quote from Mark Twain that perhaps brings this home:
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” -Mark Twain
1. Lack of Communications
“A factor in every accident!” according to Todd. I’d tend to agree not just with skiing but in general mountain living. You can trace nearly any avalanche incident back to some sort of communication issue. For example, skiers knock an avalanche down on a road. Perhaps better communication about conditions would have caused them to take more care. Or, consider a group that bunches up in a slide path and gets taken out, 2-way radios to enable communication without physically grouping? Take this all the way to basics like forgetting your daily dose of weather radio. Indeed, communication.
(During my research for this post I noticed that since 2011 CMH has issued 2-way radios to all their guests. I’ve always wondered if guides should do that with their clients. Apparently CMH thinks doing so is wise. Another vote for using radios, check out our big blog post covering radio options.
Todd closed by relating that perhaps “humility” was the key to it all. He said that the more experienced guides he’s spoken with over the years seem to always exhibit an obviously humble attitude about dealing with avalanche safety issues — presumably most of the issues listed above. “Being humble” may sound easy, yet in all honesty I’ll admit that when endorphins flow or adrenaline pumps, my “humble” probably gets pushed down under things I wouldn’t be proud of if I did get involved in an avalanche accident.
How about you? Which of Todd’s “10 Mistakes” might you make?