Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
(Editor’s note: Originally published July 28 2011, we bring this to the front for those of you contemplating mountain safety.)
“I want to leave ski tracks, not a skid mark.” When legendary mountaineer Peter Lev rolled out those words, at first I laughed. Then I thought to myself, “could I put my whole philosophy of mountain risk management into such a pithy one liner?”
A few years ago my wife and I were in Marble, Colorado, at an annual event we sometimes attend at the Outward Bound Basecamp up there. The event organizers invited former OB director John Evans for the evening presentation. Evans invited Lev, and we got an evening treat as two old and smart mountaineers lent us a chunk of their mountain minds and spirit.
(FYI on these guys: In his mountaineering prime Evans authored such routes as Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan and the first ascent of Vinson Massif. Lev and his partners put up the Denali East Buttress in 1963 — a monster of a route that was way ahead of its time, and in 1968 Peter and his friend Jock Glidden did the second ascent of the North Face of Mount Robson. Beyond his climbing accomplishments, Lev is known as a principle in Exum Guides as well as a long-time avalanche safety worker and heli skiing guide.)
Evans led off. He structured his talk about mountain wisdom by showing film clips of the infamous 1971 Mount Everest International Expedition. This debacle is one of the most famous Everest failures. Even though it happened ages ago, anyone who enjoys Everest history or was involved in climbing back then knows of the this ill fated event that attempted to bring individuals from 30 different countries on one Everest climb, and do two difficult routes (one entirely new). After one death and ugly dissension in the ranks of climbers, the expedition retreated in defeat.
Back then, Everest had only been summited a few dozen times.
Ancient history, yes. But as they say, those who fail to know the past are doomed to repeat it. Thus, I found John’s talk captivating as he described how important it is to choose your mountaineering partner’s wisely, or, if you can’t choose your partners, to make getting along your number one priority. This unlike the way the 1971 Everest trip had thrown a bunch of world-class climbers together, who apparently placed little to no value on getting along and working for a common goal. (It should also be mentioned that Evans was co-leader of another ill fated attempt at an “international” expedition, the infamous Russian Pamirs disaster of 1974. Perhaps it took him a few tries to get it right — but we’re all allowed that.)
We modern ski alpinists and climbers most often do shorter trips with small groups, so issues of leadership and interpersonal dynamics might not come up for us as often as they do on big expeditions. If things aren’t going well, during most trips we can just turn around and go back. But not always, and even a tiny sojourn may become a challenge in group dynamics (also known as a shouting match) if unusual challenges add stress. For example, pressure to split your group if a person becomes sick.
Evans turned the floor over to Lev, who continued the “human factors” theme by talking about how one of the best things you can do as a younger mountaineer is to find mentors — to get out with people who have more experience than you do and are willing to share their experience and thought processes. Yet just as Evans had emphasized, Lev kept coming around to just how important it is to be out with people you trust, get along with, and are on the same page as you are.
Conversely, to his credit Peter didn’t hesitate to show some slides of guys he did NOT get along with over the years. I won’t mention any names. But what occurs to me is that if Peter, and in turn all of us, are willing to be astute and honest about who we really do and do not get along with in the mountains, that can go a long ways in making our trips safer and more fun. Face it, we’re human. While pop philosophy gives us the ideal of holding a saccharin smile for just about anyone in any situation, life actually doesn’t work quite that way. Especially in the mountains.
Talk to any ski alpinist who gets out much, and if he or she’s honest you can dredge up stories of disagreements on the trail, or situations where a person in a group turns out to either push too hard through danger, or conversely, get excessively freaked out and paranoid. If the group functions well together they can work through such things. But not always. If such situations arise when you’re deep in the midst of a climb, or partway into a difficult descent or avalanche danger situation, a divisive group can be the root cause of tragedy. Thus, a huge lesson we can keep learning is that if you want a long and fruitful life as a mountaineer, pick your partners wisely.
As for leaving tracks instead of skid marks, Lev mentioned several times that what’s kept him alive in the hills was “mountain consciousness,” meaning being hyper aware of what’s around you, and listening to what your thoughts and intuitions tell you.
Lev capped that off with a self humbling story about a time he didn’t stay conscious. A time when he and his friends got fed up with a guide who was taking them “on terrain we had to pole straight down the hill on, because of the avalanche danger.” Lev and his group blew off the guide, went off on their own, and succeeded in triggering several avalanches that caught and buried one skier (who lived).
Lesson there was of course don’t let your pride, frustration, or downright anger get in the way of being conscious, or as they say “present.” Which brings us full circle.
Who you’re out with and how you get along with them is key to your safety. If you go with a guide, make sure he or she is someone you respect and get along with. If you’re out with strangers, dial back your expectations till you know the chemistry. When you go with a spouse or such know the limits of your relationship in terms of what sort of risk or difficulty you want to get involved in.
Pick good partners, find mentors, be conscious. Come to think of it, good advice for life in general.