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Decisions, Decisions


Slab avalanches are a wonder of physics. It takes energy for a slab to form and bond to a slope. And it takes energy—often human triggered—to release it. Josh Hummel kicks off a slide on Mount Baker.

Why do educated backcountry skiers die?

By Jeff Burke | Photograph by Jason Hummel

The 2011–12 ski season wasn’t the best on record—far from it. But it set a record for high profile avalanche deaths. Drought pervaded much of the early season across the North American West, setting up a generally persistent, unstable snowpack. Much ink has already been given to the accidents that befell many experienced skiers in a year that barely got off the ground. We grieve them. In an era of unprecedented access to avalanche education and robust online condition reports, though, why are so many well-educated skiers succumbing to avalanches?

One big answer: “There are more people going into nastier terrain more often and a lot sooner than they used to,” says Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center Director Bob Comey.

And many small ones: Skiers make bad decisions every day in the backcountry, but they don’t pay the price every time they do. Somehow it follows that getting away with something means you did everything right. That’s flawed logic in the mountains. “Snow is usually pretty stable,” says Karl Birkeland of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “Slopes will sometimes let you get away with a lot, and that can lead to a reinforcement of bad decisions.” American Avalanche Institute owner and guide Sarah Carpenter puts it this way. “Snow and weather are a wicked learning environment,” she says. “In a sport like tennis, if you hit a bad shot you get immediate feedback from your error, and you learn how to adjust. That’s a kind learning environment. In the mountains we don’t always get that immediate feedback.”

Which is where avalanche education comes in. One would think anyway. Isn’t the point of taking classes to learn how to make good decisions without the negative feedback of say, a live burial or a tree-snapped femur? “For what it’s worth, education certainly has become more available in recent years,” says snow scientist Ian McCammon. “But there is no good data I am aware of that clearly indicates a causative impact of education on better decision-making.”

So the diligent backcountry skier studies avalanche condition reports, reads forums, and asks friends for field reports. Does the legwork pay off? Maybe. Avalanche educator and forecaster Don Sharaf thinks there might be too much information. “You have to sort through a bunch of choss,” he says. “And good messages can get lost in that pursuit.”

For their part, avalanche centers are streamlining their advisories and changing their vocabulary so it’s consistent across the continent. In doing so they want to identify potential problems in the snowpack and explain the manageability of those problems as accurately as possible. None of this is, of course, an argument against avalanche education or the quest for knowledge. It’s an argument to actually use that education in our decision-making.

More avalanche safety. From the Winter 2013 issue. 

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