KNOWLEDGE REALLY IS POWER - in the mountains and of course, we as backcountry riders want to stack the odds in our favor.
It’s not a mystery that avalanche professionals like Bruce Tremper (Utah Avalanche Center) or Dr. Bruce Jamieson (Avalanche Researcher) can create life-long careers in backcountry avalanche terrain, and they’ve been doing this longer than some of us have been alive. Are they really just that LUCKY, or is it because throughout their careers they’ve made solid, well thought out, and most importantly, educated decisions in the mountains—or both? Yes, luck always plays a role. Nearly all the old-dog avalanche forecasters can tell a story about close call. But staying alive in the backcountry is far less a matter a chance than choice. Remember- over 90% of all avalanche accidents, the avalanche that catches, carries, and possibly kills us is triggered by the victim or someone in their group. This is actually a good statistic because it’s mostly our decisions that make the difference. And all the seemingly small risk reduction decisions we make every day, added up over a lifetime, have huge consequences.
Of course avalanche professionals are human too and even with years of experience under their belts, occasionally they make the wrong decision. That’s why avy pros always carry avalanche safety gear and practice with it often. They continually try to avoid avalanches all together but if they make a mistake, then hopefully their partners with avalanche rescue gear can save them. (Beacon, Shovel, Probes) The best way to have a long career as a backcountry rider is to never be caught in the avalanche in the first place. Avoiding avalanches is the key.
As the start of this winter season is now on our doorstep we need to not let our desire to shred pow, override or cloud our logical thinking… and we all know that’s easier said then done.
Every backcountry rider I’ve ever known (me included) has been lured onto a slope because of how good it looked. Another example, (again me included) we might justify it by saying well, there are already multiple sets of tracks on the slope and it probably won’t avalanche on me. Remember that avalanches don't think this way. All they know is we come along, find a weak spot in the snowpack, collapse the weak layer (whoomph), and then propagate a fracture (crack) through the snowpack. You are going to have to think fast now, because it’s like staring down the barrel of the gun and you’ve got to get off the moving piece of snow… not the place any of us want to be. Sometimes it’s not the first person on the slope that triggers the slide, it might be the sixth or tenth or… you get the picture.
Experience in the backcountry takes time; none of us became great skiers, boarders, sledders, or mountaineers overnight. It takes us years to become a good rider or climber. Well the same goes for being a savvy backcountry user. “Never underestimate the importance or the subtlety of terrain; it takes a lifetime to learn terrain, maybe two lifetimes.” (Chris Stethem)
Experience Level – my definitions
Beginner: Has gone to an avalanche awareness talk and read/listened to the day's avalanche advisory. Good with map and compass and able to stay on route.
Intermediate: Has taken a Level 1 avalanche class and has roughly 3-5 years experience in avalanche terrain. Read/listened to the day's avalanche advisory. Able to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain.
Advanced: Probably has taken a Level 2 avalanche class and has 5-10 years experience in avalanche terrain. Aware of the day's avalanche advisory to augment their own opinions of the avalanche danger for their intended objective or route.
Expert: 10+ years most likely as a practitioner in the field. Able to expertly and efficiently move through complicated and dangerous terrain. Grasps subtleties of the snowpack, terrain, and weather to make own analysis. Confidence tempered by humility and respect of the dynamic elements in the mountains.
Experience can come at a high price if we are wrong… Mistakes in the mountains can be harsh and unforgiving if we make the wrong decisions. Be patient in this learning process, it takes time to gain experience and to become a savvy backcountry rider.
Realize these mountains are here to stay; there will always be a next year. Get some time under your belt, travel around, go look at an avalanche crown, take a look at different snowpack region (the Uinta Mountains are a great place to see a different snowpack) be patient and learn slowly.
Remember we are out in the mountains with our best friends, family members, wife’s, husbands, colleagues, and believe it or not we all have parents. The grim reality of avalanche fatalities is for those left behind… The hardest part is we are the ones stuck with the void of someone we loved very much.