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I am not a guide, have no technical training to that effect, and, while I have read many avalanche books, I have never participated in any avalanche training courses. All of my experience accumulated in my 40-year career came from being in the mountains. I’ve never dug a snow pit, I don’t own a snow scope, and I can’t imagine skiing with a device in my pack that I could explode into a snow floatation bubble in case I ever found myself needing one and finding the presence of mind to release it. I am not suggesting this is altogether good either, so as a disclaimer, I am not bashing all that. Not even remotely. I have simply never felt a need to carry that stuff. My kit includes a probe, shovel, beacon, and my wits.
As renowned mountaineer Rudi Homburger once exclaimed to me in his Swiss drawl: “The snow shovel killed more people than it ever saved…” That was tongue-in-cheek Rudy, for even he carried a shovel. But, the point was well taken and attests to my seemingly cavalier attitude. This morning, for instance, I looked out the window and the thought of skiing fresh pow beyond the ski area boundary did not enter my mind. One guy messaged me, “What do ya think today?”
I responded, “probably not a good idea to ski powder today…..” and left it at that.
He came back, “ I’ll dig a pit and let you know what I come up with.”
I politely said, “thanks.”
Over the years things have become clear in my mind. As the ski touring industry has exploded, enhanced further by COVID closing down many ski areas, people are rushing to go off piste. Manufacturers are sold out and retailers of AT gear are in heaven. One specialty shop told me that he was getting frustrated at alpine ski shops pestering him with gear questions and asking advice. But the alarm lights went off when I read that the professionals can’t keep up with the demand to offer avalanche classes and certifications; there are waiting lists to get into the classes and a shortage of trained professionals to teach the courses. Again, I fully support this education process. The fact that I will never achieve any level of avi certification doesn’t reflect remotely my feeling that this isn’t good stuff. So get in line and study the crap out of everything you can get your hands on.
But heed this: I recently published a book on my entire career climbing and skiing starting with my first trip to the backcountry back in 1974 at age 12. It follows the highlights of climbing and skiing locally in Colorado and includes dozens of ski expeditions throughout the Andes and Himalaya. I got a call from a guy who read it and shared it with some of his contemporaries. He was a wildfire manager and he contacted me to ask how we managed to spend all those days “out there” and how we had managed to stay alive. He pointed out a thread that admittedly I can’t take credit for; “I really don’t know” I told him, “ I can’t really put it into words”. He explained, “you did, this book”. My ego inflated because it was not a conscious effort. The book is just how we naturally progressed over the years. Ironically, the title – Natural Progression.
So we started talking and the subject at hand came up- snow science. He asked me what I thought and was not surprised when I told him I never took an avalanche class.
The field of study of snow science is relatively new. It didn’t exist when I started climbing and skiing. We relied on awareness from looking, seeing, poking around snow, and common sense. This was magnified with my father’s constant hammering for caution as he saw our enthusiasm for the game grow. He used to tell us that we needed to pay attention. When the slope approaches about 25 degrees in pitch, and he used a familiar ski run to point out what approximately 25 degrees looked like, he exclaimed, “at that stage, guys, it’s not a matter of if it will slide but when!” “THINK and respect that!” he would emphasize. He was teaching us about “warning lights”, a lesson that we never forgot, not just about snow, but weather, conditions, everything. LOOK FOR THE WARNING LIGHTS!!
As this relates to snow science, in my view, the entire field of study is well intentioned and adheres exclusively to this notion of warning lights. The snow pack, the crystals, the layers, and on and on, and the tendencies are all part of a field of study that is applied to this notion of “ ….when the slope approaches 25 degrees, THINK!” But the study has morphed into something altogether different as I watch climbers and skiers in the field digging pits, doing sheer tests, and analyzing what to me is critically obvious.
Have you ever been seated in an airliner waiting and the pilot comes onto the PA system and exclaims, “Ladies and Gentlemen, a warning light came on in the cockpit and we have a smoke detector light in the lavatory that won’t go off….” or a variety of other minor things that make a warning light go off, “and we can’t take off until all warning lights go off by regulation.” On one such occasion, the pilot actually followed it up with “……until all lights are off, we can’t tell if it’s minor or something else…..It’s for your safety…..” Then when the lights go off, everyone’s mind is at ease, including the pilot, and you take off.
In the mountains, it’s no different than that cockpit warning light going off. But, what I am seeing in the study of snow science is something different. It snows two feet, and people are heading out to “dig a snow pit, I’ll let you know….” Today, guaranteed, you will see many enthusiasts digging snow pits, doing tests, etc. I get it, some of this is to put that certification to the test, to look and correlate what people have learned. It’s interesting and fun!
But as is the case every time it snows, like it did last night, the accident reports are also almost guaranteed over the next few days. It’s as if the education is being interpreted to mitigate the warning lights, or to find data that allows people to get around them when the reality is nothing but time will eliminate the warning lights after two feet of snow falls on “shitty” snow.
The good intentions of the snow science education are being used to justify the human emotional need to ski powder. I used the specific term “emotional need” here because while it’s an entirely different subject and probably the most important and under-taught topic for the backcountry education process that leads to accidents so I will sum it up with this: when studying snow science, keep your wits about you. Beyond the technical aspects and jargon, at 25 degrees, especially right after is snows, THINK! In all my years in the field, this is guaranteed: No slope of powder is worth your life, and every single slope will still be there for you to ski when all the warning lights go off. “It’s not a matter of if but when….”
Be careful out there.
Mike Marolt is an Aspen based ski mountaineer who, along with his twin brother Steve, has had a long career of exploring the mountains on skis. His book Natural Progression was published in 2020. Read Lou’s review, and purchase here.