Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Ron Rash, Aspen Alpine Guides
An interesting issue that Lou brings up from time to time is that of “judging” mountaineering accidents, ostensibly so we can learn from other people’s mistakes. Some folks think he’s too quick on the trigger, others value Lou’s boldness in cutting to the chase. I’m of the latter persuasion — with care.
Every year in Colorado we lose about a half dozen people to avalanches, and many more in North America. More than half of these people die from suffocation. Around a third die of trauma. The word trauma does not really give an accurate description of what can happen to the human body in an avalanche. The body of a victim pounded for three thousand thousand feet over cliff bands is barely recognizable. As for suffocation: I can hardly imagine the struggling panic of trying to find those last particles of air before unconsciousness takes over.
Since I work as a backcountry skiing guide and avalanche instructor, I think about risk management and hazard evaluation constantly. I also realize there are inherent risks that I (and others) can not control. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I realize that I can do my best and something bad could still happen. There is a guide from British Columbia who lost seven clients in an avalanche. By all accounts he was doing nearly everything possible to prevent what happened, short of not going. A guide from Colorado lost one client in an avalanche, in our tricky Colorado snowpack. Lou himself messed up bigtime once. But that’s all I do, wonder — I’ll not judge, but rather try to learn.
As a hedge for my human frailty, I try to instill in my students and clients the ability to question my actions early on. I want them to ask “Why is this slope safe?” “What is different about the snowpack on this aspect compared to where we were just skiing?” “Why are we using this protocol for skiing this slope when we just gang skied the last slope?”
The questions could go on and on. What’s important is for me to answer these questions with sound advice concerning the terrain, snowpack, weather, and human factors.
As avalanche professionals and guides we do not want our students following blindly like sheep behind us. The greatest benefit we can do for them is to empower them to make sound winter backcountry decisions. Sure, our job is sometimes to lead, to be the decision maker who provides all of the risk assessment along with a final word. That’s especially true with novice clients. But even in those situations I continue to explain the reason for our decisions and actions.
I encourage winter back country travelers to look at past avalanche incidents to see what can be learned. A good place to start that process is a series of books called The Snowy Torrents which outline avalanche incidents as way of learning from the mistakes of others. These books take a critical look at all the factors involved from weather history, the snowpack, the terrain the skiers were on, and the human factor.
I would never sit in judgment of my fellow guides or other winter recreationists — but at at the same time learning from their mistakes may save my life or the lives of others. So when an accident happens I start looking at a number of points immediately: What was the avalanche forecast? What was the slope angle? What was their protocol for travel at the time of the incident? What did their snow pit results tell them? What was the weather conditions including temperature, wind speed, and precipitation? How were the clients behaving; we’re they following the guide’s advice and designated route? These six questions are a good place to start, and will lead you to quite a bit of insight and learning.
Much information has come out in the last few years about how the people with the most avalanche education are the ones getting caught most frequently. Hopefully, with continued education and a humble look at every accident we can change that trend.
What do you guys think? How far should we go in dissecting avalanche accidents in the public forum?