Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Exploring the virtues of skiing OAT
Consider dating. Should you explore a relationship with one person, or play the field? How about your handheld. Do you layer multiple apps until the battery spurts flame and you get the latest version of electronic death? Or do you keep it simple, only a few things running at once? Some would say your style of dating is less important than crashing your computer while buying socks on Amazon. In either case, personal or digital, too many things at once might lead to easily avoided pain, or at least, suffering.
When it comes to “multiples,” perhaps avalanche safety is an easier issue to parse than romance and phones. In my view, the gold standard in avy safety is exposing one person at a time to hazard, “OAT” for short. Funny how often the treasure is ignored. For reasons both bad and good.
On the one hand, “ski one at a time” makes perfect sense. On the other hand, any rule involving human nature interacting with natural forces can be sophomoric or perhaps even dated. For example, in the ancient past of extreme skiing we had a “rule” that said “climb it first.” That adage could still save some lives. But steep powder skiing is now common, and climbing straight into the throat of a snow loaded beast can be unwise, if not foolhardy. Likewise, many modern extreme ski routes are not practicable as climbs, even with firm snow conditions.
So, back to “ski one at a time.” What does OAT really mean (besides the breakfast you hastily slurp as you race out the door to go skiing)? What are the pros, cons, and considerations related to skiing OAT?
1. It falls upon my keyboard to begin with a definition. In avalanche terrain, when a group agrees to ski a run “one at a time,” the exact meaning is that only one person in the group, at any given moment, is exposed to avalanche danger (on the uphill or down).
2. Item 1 above does _not_ mean standing in the middle of a slide path, snapping photos of your buddy’s face shots, thinking “if it slides, I’ll just ski to the side…” Instead, OAT means each person runs out the entire pitch, one-hundred-percent, from one entirely safe zone to another.
3. Aha, “safe zones,” or “islands of safety.” What are they? Year after year, like the beat of Marie Laveau’s spooky bijou tomtom, the reports roll in. Too often, skiers hang at what they perceive as an island of safety — and a big avalanche overruns their archipelago like a Class 5 hurricane. These tragic events show that identifying truly safe zones is as important as identifying avalanche slopes, and yes, it’s the same thing.
The most common unsafe safe zone is the small island of trees you’re “pretty sure is safe, because otherwise they wouldn’t be there!?” Second to that, the side of the avalanche path — where did that myth come from? Also watch for the common noob mistake of simply not stopping far enough beyond the runout zone. See our alpha angle post for more about determining how far a slide can slide.
4. “But I watched a guide ski down with three clients at once!” Why? Most often money is the reason. While a group of three is perhaps the ideal, the economic reality of guiding is that more than two clients per trip might be necessary. Separating a larger group and skiing OAT causes major time issues. Say you have a guided group of six, and skiing something OAT requires eight minutes each (hey, the clients are not auditioning for Matchstick). Just that one section adds an hour to the day! Guide tries to do OAT, clients enjoy happy hour in snow cave.
5. Cons to OAT? The biggie: Consider a nautical analogy. Man overboard. Your throw rope isn’t long enough, no rescue swimmers are in the water, and you’re too tired to dive. Shift the thought experiment to ski touring. You’re on a 2,000 vertical foot run you ski top-to-bottom OAT, the last person down is injured, or caught in a slide that doesn’t run full path. You are exhausted, weather is looming, sunset is dropping like a theater curtain. Apply skins, climb, hope your headlamp has fresh batteries and the inReach is working.
6. Excuses to avoid OAT are many. Some in the nature of heuristics, some involving group dynamics, some just plain whacked: “I took a Level 3 course and I tell you this will never slide,” or “We don’t have time,” or “Bill isn’t a good skier, someone should pair up with him,” or “Come-on, just once let’s gang ski and make a video,” or “To save time, just count to 30 then launch after me.” And then what might be the clear winner of the Darwin award: “We all have airbags!”
Commenters, can you think of a few other memorable incantations?
7. And, worthy of its own spot on the listicle, we have no-OAT excuse number 672: “We have radios and we ski REALLY FAST.” That’s like a barn cat scattering a family of mice. At least one is sacrificed to appease the feline predator. Works with cats I guess. Avalanches just keep rolling — they hunger not for meat, but for souls.
8. How do dogs change the picture? To avoid incurring the wrath of our valued pet owning readers, please ladies and gentleman, have at it in the comments. If you’re OAT skiing with the care of a pathology lab technician, how does Fido the Wonder Dog fit in?
9. This is where I get to equivocate. Yes Sir, there are times in the grumpy old mountains when they want you to move, get out, charge home fast, because: the snow is warming so it’s better to get everybody off the slope NOW; rockfall is due to increase because of sun hit; you can see the blank wall of a whiteout headed your way like an apocalyptic desert sandstorm. Fill in the blank. (At least for some of us, isn’t figuring this stuff out part of the appeal?)
10. To sum up:
— OAT is not a made-up rule curmudgeons spout off to ruin the fun, it is real.
— Smaller groups might be the most important key to skiing one-at-a-time.
— If you ski with a guide who does not OAT, watch out for your own behind. You should be comfortable the guide has a darn good reason for keeping everyone in lockstep.
— Beware group dynamics such as the expert halo: “Dude, this thing could never slide!”
— Safe zones and islands need to be 100% reliable.
— Consider skier skills and gear issues. Stronger skiers go last to help the less fortunate who might be stranded in the middle of your big mountain descent.