Avalanche Safety Insights from Google

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 21, 2011      

(Dusting off an old but still relevant subject for a bit of summer thought.)

For years, much of print media has appeared obsessed with using the terms “experienced”or “expert” for nearly anyone caught in a backcountry avalanche. Google “experienced skier” or “expert skier” avalanche and you’ll get massive results, as opposed to a tiny number of results for “inexperienced skier” avalanche.

Perhaps the media’s “experienced skier” verbiage panders to the booty clenching fear we should ostensibly feel when encountering the world outside a newsroom office (especially in places with trees instead of asphalt).

Seriously, does anyone know the psychology behind this phenomenon? I mean, in many cases these news writers most certainly don’t know if the person in question was really an “expert” or not, and how do they define “experienced?” Do they just throw those terms in to increase their word count? Is it something they teach in journalism school, that you’re supposed to include the word “expert” in these sorts of reports?

Beyond all that, a sad fact does remain. Yes, many avalanche victims ARE excellent “expert” backcountry skiers and riders, who frequently have many days of backcountry experience. NO DOUBT much of the reason “experienced” folk are more likely to be avalanched is they’re spending more days out — simple odds.

Still, you look at the reports and you see mistakes were made.

In other words, we spend thousands of hours learning and practicing, and somehow this is not helping some of us.

My opinion: It boils down to how your mind operates and how much risk you choose. I go out all the time with experienced “expert” backcountry skiers, and frequently observe them taking easily avoidable risks (gang skiing, sloppy route finding), along with ratcheting up their overall level of acceptable risk (hucking off a cornice into an unskied powder filled chute, and things like that).

Can we reverse this trend? Avalanche education has improved over the past few years, now they teach more about risk and judgment issues, along with “human factors.” Beyond that, perhaps our backcountry skiing culture needs a subtle shift from the rabid cliff-hucking see-me-on-Vimeo powder lust ethos that’s developed over the past two decades.

And lest we take this too lightly, Google keywords “skier avalanche” and see more than a million results.

Your comments?


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26 Responses to “Avalanche Safety Insights from Google”

  1. eric July 21st, 2011 11:33 am

    Hi Lou. I have thought about the “expert” verbage in a lot of avalanche accident summaries. I think a lot of backcountry users are “expert” skiers or backcountry travelers. I also notice a lot of “very experienced” or “expert” backcountry users expose themselves unnecessarily to risk just by being complacent and breaking basic rules (like you mention above, gang skiing, poor routefinding, exposure to small but fatal avie paths for short periods even when there are safe alternatives, etc.). And although our backcountry culture thrives on independance and thrill, I don’t think people understand how much more risk they are exposing themselves to just by taking small things for granted over many seasons. What may seem like minimal exposure to certain slopes or conditions, even for brief periods of time, add up over the course of years. Those aren’t good odds.

    I also concur that perhaps our culture could lean a bit less towards glorifying extreme risk taking. Of course, risk is inspiring, from Bill Briggs to Stephano deBenedetti to Eric Hjorleifson, but I don’t think that we always appreciate how many pioneering and daring skiers are not with us anymore (Coombs, Petersen, Garre, Lowe, McConkey, the list is long unfortunately). Death is a natural part of life, but it really affects family, friends and community. When most of the skiers I idolized as a teen are dead, I think that says something about the type of skier that gets a lot of exposure in the media.

    I believe Bruce Tremper in his book “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” stated that avalanche education has not actually decreased accidents over the past decades. He give an analogy that it is like seatbelts did not reduce traffic accidents over time because people drove faster because they felt more confident.

    In my experience (which I admit is limited compared to many), it seems like people know what to do, but they seem to take the mountain environment for granted. When it comes down to it, you can die anyday. I know it sounds a bit stoic, but I do think about death anytime I travel in avie terrain. Otherwise, I am just not being honest with myself and my partners. Great topic.

  2. Michael Coyle July 21st, 2011 11:35 am

    Being a SAR volunteer l’ve noticed the same thing — on every news report about a subject we search for they are invariable “experienced” or “not experienced”

    There’s no room in modern media for a nuanced description of mountain conditions, or subject skill level. The story usually has to fit onto one of several boxes, either “foolish person exceeds abilities” or “expert has tragic accident through no fault of his/her own” when in fact as we know the reality doesn’t often fit these two extremes.

    It’s important not to rely on Google for any feeling of how many accidents there are since news is over-reported and accidents are sensational, and google will return multiple results, including now from this blog.

    Instead we should be relying on scientifically gather data and publications, for example “Avalanche Accidents in Canada”

  3. Lou July 21st, 2011 11:42 am

    Good point about Google, thanks Michael. Main thing I was using it for is to get a feel for how our language is being used, which I feel it is quite good for.

  4. Andy July 21st, 2011 12:38 pm

    Most skiers and riders who end up in avalanches are fairly experienced. One needs some degree of experience to make it out there and feel comfortable away from ski patrol, lifts, and corduroy. We could come up with a scale of experience and skill, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. (I’m pretty sure I would rate in “Mahogany Ridge” territory.) I’m reminded of Ian McCammon’s paper on heuristic traps, an excellent read: http://www.snowpit.com/articles/traps%20reprint.pdf

    Some people also just don’t care. I’m reminded of a brobrah who told me, on a powder day at Berthoud pass, “Oh yeah, I’m going to rip it throught he fingers – it might slide, but you just have to point it!” This guy had lots of experience (he said he gets about 100 days/year), but makes what I would call terrible decisions.

    Lastly, I’d like to bring this conversation off track and ask what folks think about telling others that they are making bad decisions. I usually ski with partners that I know and trust so we can talk openly about risk. What about the people who aren’t in your group?

    Here’s to many more years skiing!

  5. Lou July 21st, 2011 12:57 pm

    I’ll bite. Lecturing and downright preaching about safety to a stranger don’t do anything except make you (me) look like a jerk. If you can engage a person in conversation and be humble, and steer the conversation to discussing decision making, then get specific, sometimes everyone can benefit.

    Thing is, there is a huge range of what risk is acceptable from a personal and also social point of view, so questioning someone’s style and decision making can easily be elitist. I know, I know, Lou does it all the time on his blog… yeah, I do got there on occasion, but I try to stick with specifics about what went wrong, and try not to just judge or preach but rather present an informed opinion. To me that’s better than the great silence, but if folks disagree I understand. I’d rather save a life and get people pissed off at me…

  6. Tim M. July 21st, 2011 1:52 pm

    interesting topic, lou. i’ve reported on and written about more avalanche (and other mountain) accidents than i would care to, and i’ve also read whatever i can find about other accidents that might not have been “newsworthy” (or whatever) in my realm (as someone who occasionally commits acts of journalism). still, like you, i’m usually pretty disappointed with the sorts of reportage i see out there related to avi accidents. so my goal, foremost, is not to be that guy.

    my lament is most observers who write about these sorts of accidents (this includes genuine reporters, bloggers, forum posters and so on) don’t do the work. someone talks to the sheriff, reports the victim’s name and other immediately available details, and then nothing further — no context, if you will. and this is the basis for much of the critical dissections that follow the same incidents elsewhere on the web — so to the blogger (or whoever) who wants to pontificate on such things, i would say, simply, pick up the phone. make the hard phone calls. talk to as many people as you can. i have found, usually, that people directly involved sincerely appreciate this, and further that their insights offer more of value than hasty judgments based on clearly shoddy reportage. this is no great mystery, but it persists time and again.

    it was with all this in mind that i wrote this piece, below — in summertime, mindfully, so as not to highlight any one specific incident or incidents, but rather the bigger picture stuff you’re talking about.

    here’s the first few graphs, and then the two final questions of a long interview, with bruce tremper, below, (link: http://goo.gl/oyC7S):

    Forecast Calls for Pain

    It used to be an avalanche killed you dead and that was that. These days it is more painful. Now, plus death, you get to be blogged about—often from afar, before basic facts become available—by would-be Internet avalanche experts who are usually there to say something like this: You, the victim, made a fatal mistake. Double bummer indeed.

    This sort of rationale may be comforting to the observers, but it is not always fair—or informed.

    //Long interview with Tremper follows, and last two questions here//:

    Internet speculators like to operate under a pure-motive umbrella; they’re interested in extracting whatever “lessons can be learned” from accidents. But this is clearly disingenuous at times—it’s just scavengers picking over a body. Or is it?

    “As humans we want to be able to explain everything and we feel nervous if we can’t. The world is complex and random, but if there’s a cause and effect relationship, well, that’s more comforting. So when someone is killed in an avalanche other folks who spend time in avalanche terrain desperately want to know what mistakes they made—things they wouldn’t, of course, have done themselves.”

    “So a lot of folks see mistakes where there is none. And that’s human nature. When accidents happen, they’ll say, ‘You idiot! I wouldn’t have done that. And that’s why I stay alive in avalanche terrain.’ But they’re just fooling themselves. It’s just that most of the time we all get away with it; the rest is randomness. But people don’t want to admit that because that means admitting there’s a lot more danger in what they’re doing than what they want to believe. And I believe that’s what leads to a lot of this fascination with avalanche accidents.”

    Does this fascination upset you?

    “It’s so universal. Everyone does it. You can’t fight human nature and you just have to accept that as one of the insanities of being a human being. We all do it. It used to upset me, but then I found myself doing the same thing.”


    This winter, not long after an accident took the life of a friend of mine in the highlands bc, i was hiking the ridge to the bowl solo. i encountered an acquaintance, also solo, on the boot-pack; he had stopped at the rock out-cropping. it was snowing out, with substantial accumulations and low viz. he said he was dropping into maroon bowl and asked me if i’d watch him. i asked him if he had a beacon. he did not. so i gave him mine — after telling him i was uncomfortable with the situation but still would rather him have a beacon on. and so i watched him drop into the foggy abyss. a sort of hoot, as planned, alerted me that he had negotiated the steep crux OK. now, this guy (who, another story, i’d long before decided not to ride with anymore) certainly qualifies as “experienced.” and had things played out differently that day– ala accident — he still would’ve been “experienced,” but also, and more to the point, dumb and reckless.

  7. Lou July 21st, 2011 2:24 pm

    Hi Tim, I thought about you when I was publishing this post as you are indeed a “print journalist,” and you’re an example of the exception… thanks for chiming in.

    I agree that bloggers talking fast about an accident is a touchy subject, and by definition bloggers don’t “pick up the phone” as much as a staff journalist for a publication would, but rather simply extrapolate on reports they read. I do both, but do trend greatly to the former.

    In my case, sure, me saying I’m trying to “help” with my safety opinion blogging could be interpreted many ways. But you can ask my readers if they’ve gotten anything out of it that’s made their process safer, and I’ll guarantee you’ll get lots of yes answers. If spoken with literally hundreds of my of my readers, they’ve told me that.

    Blogging right away about an accident has a purpose beyond mere pile-on. The event is fresh in people’s minds so they are receptive to safety ideas. More, the snowpack in an area may be unstable, and covering an accident quickly and perhaps speculating about snow conditions can make folks more aware that things could be bad. And so on. Basically, blogging early and quickly about accidents never killed anyone, and I believe has saved some lives over the years that the web has lived.

    As anyone knows, “blogging” isn’t necessarily investigative journalism or even street reporting, though it can be. Blogging is frequently just opinion writing, and I think it definitely has a place as such. In my view, bloggers are looked at askance by trad media because they’ve usurped the limited and slanted op-ed we used to be able to get in limited quantities from print media. Those guys are still reeling from that, though their sanctimonious editorials sometimes wouldn’t have you know it, though their business numbers tell the tale.

    BTW, What also occurs to me is that if the initial reports were more accurate, then the bloggers would also be more accurate. Touche and all that.

    But seriously, beyond bloggers shooting at the hip, what part of the journalist DNA causes them to append the words “expert” or “experienced” to their reports so frequently when they could just leave that out and the report would be just as accurate, or perhaps even more accurate? Is this some kind of tendency to throw in adjectives that make it _sound_ like the journalist knows more than the actually do? Or just upping the word count? Or trying to have respect for the hurt or killed? Tim, what do you think?

    Your footnote is super interesting. Indeed, what is the definition of “expert” or “experienced?” In my case, I would NOT call a guy who’s out solo skiing without a beacon an “expert” unless I knew for sure he was incredibly experienced and making a very conscious choice about going against social norms, as well as norms of the backcountry skiing culture. Perhaps he could be termed “experienced” as that just means he gets out skiing a bunch. But to call such a guy “expert” would be difficult for me…

  8. Randonnee July 21st, 2011 2:32 pm

    There is expertise, there is experience, there is classroom learning, but none of that matters unless one carefully gains real experience, and stops to think and evaluate carefully. And then all of that matters only if one has the discipline and self-control required to stay alive on avalanche terrain.

    Modern equipment (very good stuff), education, and media-hype in many ways discourage safe and conservative behavior required to continue to come home alive and unharmed from a day of skiing on avalanche terrain in the backcountry. My 73 yr old friend, who has skitoured since age 11, calls it the “thousand and one rule.” That is, you do something one thousand times without consequence, and on the thousand and first time doing the same thing, you die. Only understanding and discipline will keep one alive on avalahche terrain.

  9. Lou July 21st, 2011 2:35 pm

    Rando, I’d never heard that term “thousand and one rule.” Very very good. Thanks.

  10. Eric July 21st, 2011 2:47 pm

    As for media using the word “expert” and “experienced,” I think it adds a sensational spin on the story. Like: ” Backcountry skiing is so dangerous that even the best of the best are dropping like flies”… or something.

    On a different topic, for mountaineering there is “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”… do we have a resource like this for bc skiing in the states?

  11. Randonnee July 21st, 2011 3:01 pm

    A similar example is having read about a fatal accident of guided clients whose “19 year old” Guide was an “expert!” Heck, I have been doing mountain activities most of my life and have spent 19 years just getting some things right! Yea, left myself wide open with that statement, but mountain experience and learning is easily a lifelong avocation.

    In regard to avalanche topics, there is dilution and dysfunction in common use of the terms “expert” “instructor” “experienced” “well prepared with a shovel, probe, and beacon.” Yea well prepared for body retrieval, but wait, that one out of hundreds example of live recovery is online videoed and held up as the new standard- but is it a fluke or will it be the mainstream standard?

    Having learned in the era of Skadis with wired-earpieces to be removed and placed, and a steel folding GI etool on the job, I recall all Pro Patrollers doing practice recoveries on avalanche terrain in under 5 minutes and many getting 2-3 minute recoveries regularly. after a lot of practice on skis in avy paths. Modern Pro Patrollers with the modern transceivers are now recovering two buried transceivers in that time, I am told. But it is dismaying to read mostly online about gadget fascination, long recovery times while stopping to deploy a probe- does not seem logical. I think a competent person can continue to trench a few feet for possible target visualization instead of stopping prematurely to unfold the latest greatest probe.

    It appears that the proliferation of “avalanche education,” and gadget-fascination/ shovel-envy driven by some ‘Pros” who get gear freebies or Pro Deals has diluted good, solid judgement and behavior on avalanche terrain.

  12. Craig July 21st, 2011 3:40 pm

    Although I am a very young guy to be commenting about “experts”, I can throw in a couple comments.

    1. “Expert”, “Experienced” and all those adjectives are relative. That is, if you asked my high-school buds whether I was experienced or not, they would sing about what an expert mountaineer and skier I am. In fact, I have only been backcountry skiing for 2 years and have been doing technical climbing for not much more than that.

    What I think happens is that journalists contact family members, neighbors, and other acquaintances when they research a story. To these people, anyone with a pair of touring bindings is experienced.

    2. You have to consider what the “experience” refers to. Are you talking about experience in skiing (and just skiing)? Well then alot of those ya-hoo’s who drop into the sidecountry all at once and “shred the gnar” while they and 5 friends are all exposed to a huge risk would be “experienced”. This could be confused and the journalist misses the distinction.

    3. When I took my AST 2 (up here in Canada, eh) I had one of the best instructors I have ever met. He impressed a simple quote on me, and it deserves to be repeated here. “It’s your habits that will kill you”. This applies to everything. Do you text and drive? Do you run that stop sign you pass every day just because nobody is every coming the other way? Do you leave your cell phone on while touring? Do you shortcut through a small runout on the way to your favorite stash? You could be extremely experienced, but take these small risks every day. Eventually that “thousand and one” rule mentioned above will come and bite you. You’ll take that stupid risk a hundred times and never see the consequences until it is too late. Everybody has bad habits, and that is what will eventually kill you. Heck even smokers suffer this demise!

  13. brian h July 21st, 2011 4:05 pm

    On one of my first true b.c. tours we dug a pit. No big event but this was probably done for my benefit as one of the more “experienced” guys questioned whether we really needed to. My point is that reacquainting oneself with procedures that maybe you’ve dropped in some situations is a good idea. Take a rookie along on a mellow tour and be a mentor, not someone who shows a short cut attitude that later could get someone killed. There is a lot of good feedback on this post.

  14. Caleb Wray July 21st, 2011 5:19 pm

    Well there certainly needs be more of a separation between expert skier and expert avalanche risk assessor. That is why the big ski movie producers bring in their own experts for the task.

    To the vast majority of the readers of the published reports the victims are experts and certainly more experienced in all facets of the game. It is only a very small subset of people, or even skiers that venture into the backcountry with any regularity. It’s all relative.

    I am an expert in avalanches and backcountry travel if you were to ask the whole subset of my non-outdoorsy acquaintances, the sort of people that mainstream mass media targets. However I well know that among the people I get after it with I am but an average backcountry enthusiast always trying to make safe decisions without as much knowledge, experience, and fact as I need to totally mitigate all risk.

    When I read the word “expert” I generally think, they must get out a lot like me. I don’t think they must have been a guide of 20 years or a Level III instructor. Of course you don’t read to many reports of guides or level III instructors getting caught….

  15. Jordo July 21st, 2011 5:51 pm

    Another reason why *some* reporters like to note that an avi victim was experienced is because it adds drama to a story. It tells the audience (incorrectly) that there was something unexplainable, bizarre, and freakish about the accident, which is far more captivating (and less pointedly cruel) than discussing obvious errors and/or lack of experience.

    As we all know, there is always a cause, whether it be PWLs, heuristics traps, or whatever, but these usually aren’t as enthralling as the unexplainable aspect to a tragedy.

    It’s the same in crime reporting. Nancy Grace has the market cornered.

  16. Lou July 21st, 2011 5:56 pm

    Jordo, very good, thanks!

  17. John J July 21st, 2011 8:56 pm

    I agree with Jordo’s assessment and would add that the mystery aspect allows them to avoid pointing the finger at the victim. Sometimes they will even state that “it was an accident that could have happened to anyone”. It makes the activity (bc skiing in this case) seem more risky.

    My take on the “expert” or “experienced” description is that they can almost always find somebody who will give it. In many cases it will be a non-skier who calls the victim experienced. After years of reading it in the reports, I now believe that what it means is “they have done it before”.

  18. Wookie1974 July 22nd, 2011 2:51 am

    All this reminds me of a quote I once read someplace, wish I could say where….”Do you want to be a bold skier, or an old skier? You cannot be both.” I think it says a lot.

    I am particularly interested in a discussion about safety etiquette. It is damn hard to speak up when you are not comfortable with the decisions your own group is making – and harder still to “butt in” with some group you may meet underway.
    I’ve done it a few times – but the underlying tension gets me so worked up that I come across sounding like a real jerk. The response has usually been negative.

    Anybody found a way to diffuse that tension? I’d be glad for tips. Or is this something that is best not done. (after all – we are each responsible for ourselves in the end.)

  19. reggiebj July 22nd, 2011 5:43 am

    I believe a journalist from the mainstream media would be correct in calling ninety nine percent of skiers caught in avalanches as “expert”. It’s always relative to the writer’s skill level and to be able to even ski in avalanche terrain requires a skill level that to the average person would rate as expert. I am reminded of a saying I am fond of “there is always someone better and someone worse than you”. As to that “expert” skiers experience, education, risk aversion, and choice selections…well that’s another story and one that is subjected to post mortem discussion in the hope that others may learn something. Yes, there is no doubt some avalanches and accidents come from nowhere. That’s the nature of the beast and something that the text books always repeat – you can never be 100 percent sure.
    When I was young I thought I was an expert skier and driver. After a string of ski and car accidents I realized I might have had good skill levels but was way too cocky, uneducated, rash and plain stupid. I was also very lucky and able to learn from my mistakes! I bet lots of your readers could say the same. I must be getting old and wise (lucky me!) because I have to say I now know one never stops learning and I will never call myself an expert at anything. I guess that’s what you call “experienced”. BTW I see certain age brackets that exhibit behaviour similar to mine when I was young. The difference is that where we only had to do single back flips and helicopters to be “rad”, these days one has to huck 30 foot cliffs doing double flips and ski the steepest knarliest terrain to get the same attention.

  20. Mark July 22nd, 2011 8:47 am

    Off topic question for you Lou. I noticed in your online binding museum you don’t have the Tyrolia TRB listed. I have a pair in very good condition looking for a home other than the dumpster. If not Wildsnow, are there still people looking for these?

  21. Caleb Wray July 22nd, 2011 9:48 am


    I generally make it a habit of chatting with other groups I run into in the backcountry. Often times I take away a few tidbits that help me piece together my own assessment picture for the day. I rarely ever try to force my opinion of their plans or objectives. The fact is that there are all kinds of people out there with all kinds of risk tolerances, mental frailties, and illegal drugs. What I will say when a red flag pops up is something like, “wow, be careful out there, the snowpack seems pretty unstable to me today, you won’t catch me skiing that line.” Words of warning but what else can you do? It’s a free country.

    In my own group I will speak up more forcefully, but again if people aren’t gonna listen then they aren’t gonna listen. It a group of friends participating in a recreational activity, not a platoon. I have been in groups that went totally against my opinion of a slope and skied it. All I can do is control what I do, so I pick a much safer line and meet them at the bottom. No reason for me to get bent out of shape about it. Just different risk tolerances. Of course I can control not touring with certain folks again.

  22. SB July 22nd, 2011 9:53 am


    I’d think that you are blowing up the tension to a level that is not warranted because you are uncomfortable with conflict. Its a skill and requires practice. Personally, I’m not so good at it.

  23. Lou July 22nd, 2011 10:10 am

    Mark, thanks, but I’ve got some TRBs in the museum, just haven’t gotten around to webifying. Lou

  24. Willis July 23rd, 2011 8:01 am

    I concur with all the comments. Media today is always going to say experienced or expert skier. They would not know what the hell it meant to say avalanche expert. We have all made mistakes in the backcountry. I think the real learning experience and knowledge is simply, learn to say to yourself this is not the place to be today. I go back and realize there is always another day. That is the reason I always carry a flask with Cognac and a thermos with expresso. Sit down have a drink and think it’s good to be out today. :mrgreen:

  25. jesusdidn'tneedfatskis July 23rd, 2011 7:44 pm

    Whoa people. Face it, it jest ain’t safe out there. Stay indoors, preferably in front of the TV. 🙄

  26. Mike Mullen July 29th, 2011 6:53 pm

    Good comments here.

    Reporters do talk to friends, co-workers, family and acquaintances of avalanche victims. I think there is a human or cultural desire to defend the victims from the ‘vicious’ media and one way to do that is to exaggerate the victims level of experience of expertise. In our culture it is generally acceptable to make inaccurate characterizations about another person providing the inaccuracy is something positive (for example inflating their skill level) while it is generally unacceptable to make accurate but unflattering statements about an individual, particularly someone who has recently died. Perhaps the victim was an expert skier or snowboarder but, when asked by a reporter, a member of the party might characterize the victim as an expert back-country skier or snowboarder.

    But it’s also true that the vast majority of avalanche victims do have extensive experience (whether they possess and use good risk reduction decision making skills are different questions). In my estimation, a relative beginner at winter back-country travelling will be safer than one with many years experience if the beginner has rudimentary knowledge, spends time analyzing the risks and modifies his/her behavior based upon such rational analysis while the very experienced traveler will be less safe if they are not particularly skilled at risk management analysis or they have such a high risk tolerance that they ignore risk factors or even fail to fully consider all the factors.

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