Avalanche Safety Decision Making

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 16, 2005      

High avalanche danger continues here in the backcountry of Colorado, with cold temperatures retarding bonding of weak layers in the snowpack. Was thinking of doing a moderate backcountry outing yesterday, but our favorite access road is still closed by slides, so opted for uphilling at Buttermilk ski area instead.

The east side of Buttermilk is always nearly deserted, and is a popular uphill for backcountry skiers who don’t have the time for a “real” trip or just need a workout. At midday the parking lot has become somewhat of a meeting place where you’re likely to see backcountry skiing friends. My old climbing buddy Michael Kennedy was there, along with his wife Julie — both incredibly experienced backcountry skiers, and well known for their years at the helm of Climbing Magazine. I hooked up with them for a fun skin-climb up and quick run on the groom.

Had an interesting conversation with Michael about decision making in the backcountry. We’re both concerned about imparting some of our hard-earned knowledge to our teenage sons.

I mentioned to Michael that, inspired by the Munter system, I’d been working on a mind map of the avalanche terrain decision process. I like the concept of the Munter, but for teaching decision making skills I believe we need a more robust system. One that strongly includes factors such as group size, desired risk level, average age of group, experience of skiers, quality of inter-group communication (radios? shouting?), and so on. Such a system would have a scoring method so a student could plug in all the factors, assign scores, and come out with a go versus no-go answer.

Michael pointed out that such attempts at reducing a complex mental and intuitive process are a good thing — but risk causing skiers to depend more on a calculation then on their own judgment. I agree. Such processes are probably better as a teaching tool and judgment double-check then they are as an end-all way of arriving at a firm decision.

Weird video department: In our ongoing quest to watch every film ever made with backcountry skiing and/or snow avalanches, we checked out another loser last night. Yes, Avalanche Ally, another Roger Corman lemon with everything from love to dynamite. Priceless scenes include a cheesy talking rock, an avalanche buried woman scratching bloody fingers at her icy tomb like an Edgar Allen Poe story — and a few small items in the script that were blatantly sourced from writing I’ve done about avalanches over the years. Would have been fun to at least have heard from the screen writer when they were lifting my prose, but no.


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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

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