The Backcountry Skiing Safety Debrief

Post by blogger | October 21, 2011      

The concept might be too formal for some of you free thinkers out there. When I mess up in the backcountry I’ve found it useful to make an effort to talk it out with mentors and friends. If you don’t do this already, consider trying it.

This “debrief” seems to help drive the learning experience deeper into the neurons. More, friends come up with insights you might not have thought of yourself. The talk doesn’t have to be some stodgy affair with pencils and notebooks. A lively (and humble) conversation over beers can do just as well. Communication is the key. One person I know even wrote up some ski mountaineering “close call” reports and emailed out to selected folks for comment and discussion.

A big thing with all this is I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over past years, wherein a person gets involved in a serious backcountry skiing safety incident, and spends much energy just trying to keep it hushed up. Perhaps he feels his reputation might suffer. Perhaps he simply doesn’t want to scare his loved ones.

Trumpeting your screwups might be something to keep subdued at times, but you can still discuss with close friends and mentors. On the opposite end, ever noticed when someone brags on her mess, like showing off her scars? A bit of that can be a chuckle, but gets ugly real fast. When I hear too much of that all I can think is “what an idiot.”

After all that, continuous self-assessment is also essential for your life and limb. To that end, I did a bit of work on our Avalanche Safety Quiz. Added an airbag question, which I scored fairly high for the “yes I use it” answer. Enjoy, and yes, I’ve already thought of all the “safety meeting” jokes so commenters, rise above.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


31 Responses to “The Backcountry Skiing Safety Debrief”

  1. doug haller October 21st, 2011 11:59 am

    The Avi Safety Quiz- While a great set of questions and an evaluation, how do we figure out which answers we got wrong?


  2. Rob October 21st, 2011 12:33 pm

    Lou – great topic. Although I’m brand new to backcountry skiing, I spent many years flying fighters in the USAF, and there’s no doubt that a good debrief draws out and reinforces the learning points in any experience. I might add that a good briefing probably makes sense as well….a deliberate review of who is leading the group, what the weather forecast is, the intended route, alternate route options, expected avalanche risk, turn-around criteria,etc. Pretty easy to knock out right before a beacon check. And one of the first things to talk about in a debrief is, what was our plan? Did we follow it? If not, why not? Examining your decision-making process leads to better decisions in the future.

  3. Charlie October 21st, 2011 2:17 pm

    Fun to noodle through your quiz again to see how my answers have changed- thanks! Seems like some level of self-written accident report is becoming common in the PNW.

    Two ideas:

    => The question on “alpha angle” always stands out as being much more jargon-related than safety minded. It’s an important concept, but the name itself doesn’t make you any safer…

    => When presenting the ranking, could you provide the score thresholds at which you pass from level to level?

  4. Lou October 21st, 2011 3:36 pm

    doug, I do have a page with the answers, pretty sure it’s linked from the results… I’ll check, and if necessary make it more obvious.

  5. Greg Louie October 21st, 2011 3:53 pm

    Maybe change this one “how many times did you turn back or never leave the trailhead” to “how many times did you change your planned goal or route”? Many people decide not to leave the trailhead from home after watching the weather/avy report/telemetries, but often change their destination or route based on what they see after they start skinning.

  6. Halsted Morris October 21st, 2011 5:28 pm

    I think debrief’s are a good idea, that can be used as a good learning tool. But, sometimes I have seen folks write on their blog about their close-calls and their trying to act all cool about how core they are. And if you come in and point-out their mistakes they get VERY defensive. So, it can backfire at times.

    One thing on a sort of related vain. I encourage folks to call in their close-call incidents to their local avalanche center observer line or email them. Reporting these close calls the avalanche centers helps them with their forecasting. And it also helps in keeping better track of backcountry activity as it relates to avalanches.

    I would also encourage folks to call their local sheriff to report if they trigger an avalanche. It’s just a good idea to call the sheriff and report in that no one is in danger or needing assistance. This way the S&R teams are not called out for false alarm, if someone else sees a fresh avalanche from a distance that they think may have caught someone. Reporting in like this is the responsiable thing to do.


  7. Curtis Pauls October 21st, 2011 5:33 pm

    Wow, an article like this is a breath of fresh air. The debrief is so important to a long and happy life in the mountains. I concur with Lou that it seems people are too often interested in “hiding” their close call, or, if it is spoken about, glossing over the lessons that could be learned with a “shit happens” attitude and a bit of bravado. I recommend people to the online Mountain Conditions Reports (MCR) published by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides in Canada (or the American equivalent?). It’s a free-to-subscribe service where there are refreshing moments of candour and warning alongside conditions and trip reports, all written by certified guides. Also, please remember to contribute your information, observations and close call’s this winter to your local avalanche forecast centre or online trip reporting site.
    Thanks Lou, for this reminder that the value of experience isn’t always in seeing much, but in seeing (and reflecting) wisely.

  8. Rob Coppolillo October 21st, 2011 7:56 pm

    Good stuff…I think Ian McCammon has done some good writing on this, in his “pre-mortem” discussions. The thinking goes you debrief/evaluate your day after the fact, identifying what might’ve been your most dangerous moment. You assume at this point you had an accident/triggered a slide/got the chop, then evaluate your decisions leading to this particular moment in that light. What did you miss? What small mistakes snowballed (har, har) into a larger mistake/incident?

    Anyway, I’m paraphrashing–and hopefully getting the gist right! I think it’s a great habit, especially with partners with whom you have good communication and there’s no ego involved or one-upsmanship.

    I triggered a small slide last year and posted it through my blog, at Elevation Outdoors. It definitely effected some good feedback, but a little chest-pounding too. It’s a mixed bag, so I try to sift out the smart/perceptive feedback from the “Dude, you’re such a tool, here’s what you did wrong” type stuff.

    As always, good thoughts, Lou/WildSnow and thanks for the insight!

  9. Eric October 23rd, 2011 6:04 am

    Great quiz but one thing we never turn back but often change our plans for a different route due to snow condition, perhaps that should be a selection. Either way you do great stuff.

  10. Jim October 23rd, 2011 6:43 pm

    Utah, Eastern Sierra, and Montana have excellent avalanche associations which have avalanche sites that allow public reports of conditions, avalanches, incidents. These are good resources and should be supported. I use them extensively.

  11. Lynne Wolfe October 23rd, 2011 9:43 pm

    If you think of your decision-making before and during the ski day as a “system,” which we generally use, whether we know it or not, then a debrief can be a way to promote (using computer language) system optimization. What in our system worked/ what didn’t.

    And in our Human Factor issue of The Avalanche Review back in April, Mike Richardson talks about skipping steps in trip planning as “accident formation.” I think that a good debrief reviews all the above without being too verbose. I like to ask my avalanche students to ask themselves “did we make the right call, or did we get away with it?” Great topic, one of my favorites in an ongoing manner.

  12. stephen October 23rd, 2011 11:23 pm

    Interesting exercise, congratulations Lou. Unfortunately, people do occasioally get killed in places where there are virtually zero avalanches too, like here in Oz.

    Whether there is *avalanche* danger or not, people need to stop and think about any potential consequences of their actions before committing themselves to anything which could be risky. I lost one of my best friends two months ago today because there wasn’t enough time to make this happen. The danger seemed apparent (to me at least) but impulse won out over caution and we are now all working through the consequences.

    Please be careful out there, and don’t think that because the snowpack is stable you cannot get hurt – any place without a safe runout is potentially dangerous. Even if falling seems extremely improbable, think what might happen if you or somebody else did, and act (or retreat) accordingly…

  13. Lou October 24th, 2011 6:35 am

    Stephen, good point. I think one of the compelling aspects of mountaineering is the problem solving and decision making aspects you get going when you weigh risk and reward. When you skip those things or hurry them, you lose out in so many ways… My advice to myself and others is to embrace that stuff, otherwise you get bad habits that may haunt you.

  14. George October 24th, 2011 9:25 am

    The military uses an After Action Report (AAR) or similar titled meeting after training and military exercises. The concept and agenda are easy. What went wrong? What worked? What will we do different next time?
    Simple questions that open up discussion for all members to give a perspective or their perceptions of the day.

  15. gringo October 25th, 2011 1:16 pm

    I think Lynne’s point goes in a round about manner to what Rob said. How about a ‘pre-flight’ briefing?
    we all only debrief after something happens; we only talk about how we f’d up, not how we can prevent it before it’s too late.
    To be clear, I don’t mean taking a level 2 refresher, but really to lay out who is leading the day, what we expect and whats the turn around criteria in an honest way.
    In my few bad days in the mountains, perhaps instead of debreifing over the loss of a friend to a hard slab, or a much to close for comfort, close call, maybe a quick briefing perhaps could have given us a more clear go / no go as far as changing conditions, route alterations, etc…
    It for sure may not be coolest thing to do at the car park, but well worth considering.
    To paraphrase Lynne, avoid the accident formation and avoid the accident.

  16. Nate October 25th, 2011 9:04 pm

    Lou, sorry to be so off topic. I was doing a search of your awesome site trying to find ideas about DIY spacers for Dynafit ski crampons. I’ve seen the mods with an old red heel riser piece (which I don’t have and don’t know where to get). Any ideas on what to use as a spacer? I’d rather have a free pivot and not spend the money on B and D’s clamp. Thanks for any thoughts you have.

    PS I love your anti-spam quizzes. Much easier to read.

  17. Scott October 25th, 2011 9:59 pm

    Hey Nate, nothing is ever off topic at Wildsnow….. well, almost nothing….

    Do you mean a spacer that goes between the boot sole and the crampon? If so, just determine at what heel height you’ll be touring at usually when using the cramps (either low, mid, or high setting on the Dynafit ST verts, for example). Click the cramps in, click boot in and measure / eyeball distance between cramp and sole. That’s your thickness. I usually use mine at a mid height, others may differ.

    Without buying something like B&D’s setup (which are great btw, used them all last spring with nary a problem), maybe find a plastic cutting board thats like 1/4 or 1/2 inch thick, cut a small block or circle out, drill a hole in the crampon and screw the spacer to the cramp. Voila, cheap but practical spacers. Just make sure the spacer contacts some sole lugs. Good to go.

  18. Lou October 26th, 2011 5:17 am

    What Scott said. The variety of cutting boards out there allows the creation of all sorts of spacers. When I make spacers, I cut them out with a hole saw on an electric drill. But you could cut small rectangular spacers out with a hand saw.

  19. Jonathan Shefftz October 26th, 2011 7:10 am

    For spacers (whether binding shims or ski crampon posts), order LDPE sheets from SmallParts-dot-com. Very easy to work with, and a larger variety of thicknesses.

  20. Nate October 26th, 2011 11:32 am

    Thanks everyone. That is exactly what I meant by “spacer.” The cutting board is a great idea. I’ll have to look into the LDPE sheets.

  21. LePistoir October 28th, 2011 12:05 am

    It’s always important to review what happened when you make a mistake, in the backcountry or anywhere else. You don’t beat yourself up for the SNAFU, you just analyze it and decide how you want to do things better next time. Make a plan, thank your lucky stars and move on.

  22. Lou October 28th, 2011 7:15 am

    Doug and all, in answer to your questions about explanation of the Quiz questions and answers: Once you take the quiz, you’ll end up with a page showing your results, at the bottom of that page is a link to the answers explanations. I might tighten that system up, but I had to block Google from indexing the answers page so I kept it separate due to that and some other organizational reasons.

  23. Lou October 28th, 2011 7:19 am

    Doug, also, as to “right and wrong” answers. There are none, they’re all weighted with higher or lower numbers, those numbers are totaled to place you in whatever risk range you end up in. If you read the question explanations (see link to those at bottom of results page) you can easily figure out what the best answers are, and doing so is a good learning process.

    Also, remember that the MAIN POINT of the quiz is to give you a wakeup call if your avalanche safety education and behavior are not up to par. Thus, I’ve concentrated on making it work for that, not as an instructional tool, though it does server both purposes.

  24. Jean De December 19th, 2011 2:54 pm

    I’m just a guy from the east who wants to go backcountry skiing in the west. I Have been cross country and alpine skiing for about 30 years and I even exeprienced out of bounce skiing in Mount Washington NH but I want the real deal!!

    The problem is that I haven’t gone trought avalanche classes.

    I’ve been reading many websites like this one and and i would love to ski the Washington state volcanos or the Colorado passes in the spring.

    I know that it would be out of question in winter (without proper avalanche trainning) but is it possible to find spots that are not too dangerous in may?

    I just checked posts on may skiing in CO on this web site and I can’t wait to experience it mayself!! The pictures are just awsome!!


  25. Bruce Currie March 30th, 2013 11:39 am

    What a superb website…full of so much useful info!

    After years spent hill walking and downhill skiing I’ve finally taken up ski touring – at the age of 63.

    Now, I’ve always enjoyed being out amongst the mountains on my own – and don’t feel intimidated by them – after all these years.

    Prior to going to the Austrian’ Alps ski mountaineering, a couple of weeks ago, I took advice on avalanche safety etc.,, as well as buying the usual kit…and practised using it before venturing off-piste…

    My normal daily exercise regime is 20 minutes on a bike/cross trainer and I didn’t give much thought to what impact skinning might have on my muscles.

    I thought – my first solo venture should be up a 5000′ peak – which had ski pistes running over it…and I spent some of my journey skinning just off the side of some of them…

    I left it late in the day to summit as I didn’t want to overheat (OK and wanted the mountain to myself to ski down). As I walked along the summit ridge there was a sudden ‘twang’ in my calf muscle…and I felt like I’d been shot in the leg! I took of fmy boot and massaged my leg but the pain was intense and It made little difference…

    l soon realised that skiing downhill was a no-no because of the pain. So, I shuffled along in search of pistes…as the ski lifts were closed.

    I then had to side-slip backwards at a 45 degrees angle to the slope – in order to get down the mountain. Not an experience I’d recommend on icy terrain.

    It took a fair time to get down and I had plenty of time to realise what a Dick Head I’d been! They say there’s no fool like an old fool…and I’m living proof!

    What I want to know is: Can someone PLEASE recommend a set of training exercises that are likely to lesson the chance of such a muscle-pull incident occuring again.

    I appreciate many will think it ‘s stupid going out alone…but it’s something I’ve always done – and am loathe to give up. Maybe it’s time to buy a PLB or should I bite the bullet and make sure I’m always out with a partner?

    Any advice for this old ‘newbie’ much appreciated.


  26. Lou Dawson March 30th, 2013 11:49 am

    Bruce, quite easy.

    First, you need a super stretching routine. Only do it when you are warmed up and only do it correctly (no bouncing and improvising, just do what is non damaging and taught by licensed physical therapists).

    Second to that, you need a core strengthening program. Don’t overdo, three or 4 days a week is enough, and vary the exercises.

    Third, cross train at activities that are specific to skiing. I recommend a combination of cycling and hiking hilly terrain with a backpack, 5 days a week with plenty of rest time (backpack should match but not exceed that which would be carried during easy ski tours). Simply taking frequent brisk walks of more than 20 minutes is also good, but don’t overdo that because the muscle balance is way different than that needed for skiing, and you don’t develop any mass or power just walking on flat ground (and don’t carry much of a backpack for flat-ground walking as the weight combined with repetitive motion is detrimental). Roller blade skating is good as well but the chances of injury can be too high unless you’re good at it and wear lots of protective gear. Swimming a couple times a week can be good for core and cardio, but has little specific cross to actual skiing.

    If you can do a consistent weight routine, doing so is highly recommended. But it has to be never ending, several times a week and again tailored both to overall strength but also with specifics for skiing. With self disipline, you can do a weight program at home with a few simple tools such as a pair of 10 lb dumbells, a backpack with a few gallons of water in it, and a fitball, but doing so requires quite a bit of know-how.

    Fourth, if you can’t ski a few times a week all season long, when you do get out on ski vacation choose objectives that are smaller and work up depending on how you feel.

    It’s best of course to combine above with living somewhere you can ski several times a week.

    One PRIME RULE of this whole deal, for middle age to older folks, is NEVER EVER EVER INJURE YOURSELF DOING A WORKOUT or irritate an existing injury. Whatever it takes, avoid injury. Even if that means cutting back on workouts or doing much more varied activities.


  27. Bruce Currie March 31st, 2013 11:55 am

    Sincere, thanks Lou for taking the time to respond to my call for help!

    I will be taking on board your suggestions and incorporating them into a fitness regime that will enable me to minimise potential muscle damage whilst maximising my enjoyment of ski touring.

    I will be seeing a sports physio to ensure my planned fitness routine is suitable for my needs/age.

    Thanks again!


  28. Lou Dawson March 31st, 2013 3:04 pm

    Watch out for the PTs and trainers, sometimes they think excessive workout regime is the solution to everything. Be conservative. Lou

  29. See March 31st, 2013 7:35 pm

    In my experience, the problem with inline skating for older folks is the shock and vibration of riding over rough pavement. If you have the skills, pads and access to routes with smooth pavement… yeah, it’s fantastic cross training for skiing. And maybe the larger wheels currently in fashion smooth out the rough spots some. But I came to the conclusion that general road skating is just too hard on the feet and knees. And I came to that conclusion reluctantly, because “road skiing” is a blast.

  30. Lou Dawson March 31st, 2013 8:18 pm

    See, agree. It’s best for anyone if the surface is pretty smooth. Not everyone has a place they can go with that.

  31. See April 1st, 2013 8:25 pm

    Good point. To you youngsters: be kind to your knees. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.

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