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Keep Your Name Off the List


Montana Sleigh Ride: A skier takes a ride. People used to be concerned with where an avalanche would take them. Not so much anymore.

How to live a long, happy life in the mountains.

By Jill Fredston | Photograph by Ryan Turner

Do you have several years experience playing in the mountains? Are you skilled at your winter sport? Do you have avalanche training? Are you well equipped and eager to push the limits? And, at the risk of being labeled a chauvinist I hesitate to ask, but are you male? If so, you may well be venturing into the mountains on borrowed time. If you have a ski-to-die attitude, then go spend time with your friends and family rather than reading this article. But if you want to live to play on steep, snow-covered slopes, read on.

Last winter in the United States, according to statistics compiled by Dale Atkins of RECCO AB, avalanches claimed the lives of 34 skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and climbers. Dozens, if not hundreds, more were caught or injured in close calls. Most of the avalanches were human-triggered. All of the fatalities were male. While women are quick to offer explanations for this staggering statistic (ego, attitude, machismo, maturity, overconfidence, inability to communicate), we are not, of course, completely impervious—an American woman was killed in Canada. The victims ranged from 13 to 64, with an average age of 37. Nearly two-thirds were wearing avalanche beacons. Some died despite quick, textbook rescues; a skier could not be found by his partner because he had given her an old transceiver that was not capable of receiving a signal. One was equipped with both an AvaLung and an avalanche airbag (See: “Avalanche Airbags”), but both were destroyed when the victim was slammed into trees. Another was wearing an airbag, but had stored the trigger in an inaccessible pocket.

After 30 years as an avalanche specialist, and far too many body recoveries, I am dismayed to concede that no amount of avalanche education or perfect forecasting can stop these fatalities from occurring. This winter’s statistics will be stunningly similar to those of last year, though likely the overall number of victims will continue to trend upwards. All that changes are the names. But if you commit to keeping your name off the list, I would bet confidently on your success.

It is, of course, necessary to begin by understanding the physical factors that make avalanches possible and be able to recognize clues to instability. But given that most victims are aware of the danger prior to the irreversible moment of their accident, it is also vital to understand the human factors that allow these accidents to happen.

Attitude is the gatekeeper of our perception. We tend to think that we see everything around us, but in reality what we perceive is influenced by our expectations, previous experience, needs, and desires. The more we want to do something, the more likely we are to make potentially dangerous assumptions and take note only of the data that supports our goals. Those with high risk-taking attitudes are especially prone to underestimating the hazard or overestimating their ability to manage it. Over time, they are apt to become increasingly comfortable, shaving the line separating life from death so fine that it takes smaller mistakes to get into trouble. Experience and state-of-the-art rescue gear can prove liabilities if they lead us to become complacent and act in ways that increase the chances of something going wrong. Meanwhile, those who are more risk averse will use radically different filters to process exactly the same data and reach opposite conclusions. You must have a clear understanding of your goals and how much you are willing to put at risk to achieve them before you even head into the mountains.

Most avalanche accidents can be best explained by subjecting the day’s agenda or group’s dynamics to the “so what?” test. So what, does the mountain care that you’re desperate to summit after three previous attempts, that you’ve been cooped up in the office for weeks, or that this is the first good powder day all winter? Our timetables, fatigue, and athletic prowess make no difference to a hair-trigger snowpack. It doesn’t matter that we’ve visited the area for years without incident, are encouraged by tracks on the slope, emboldened by a large group, or exhilarated by bluebird weather. So what that we’re reluctant to be the lone voice expressing concern, especially when the leader appears so confident? So what that the path of least resistance is to blindly follow the herd or yield to peer pressure? So what that the group’s ability to evaluate avalanche hazard is not commensurate with its travel skills? Nature doesn’t give a whit that we often don’t understand the risks we are taking until we’re faced with the consequences.

Your safety in the mountains depends on learning to think like an avalanche. Continually analyze your assumptions and make your decisions upon hard data, assigning red, green, and yellow lights to critical factors. And then train yourself to heed the message. Subject your reasoning to the “so what?” test and evaluate your chances of success.

Choose partners with similar attitudes, risk tolerance, and goals. This will minimize the insidious influence of peer pressure. Limiting your group size to four or less will facilitate communication, decision-making, and adherence to safe travel procedures. Don’t be afraid to say no. Equally important, learn to be open to the reservations of another group member. Develop a set of inviolable habits that might just save you or your partners, beginning with allowing only one person at a time on slopes capable of avalanching. Remember that timing is everything—sometimes you can push and sometimes you must notch back. When in doubt, be conservative. And finally, it wouldn’t hurt to heed the advice of venerable avalanche expert Doug Fesler, who understands that last year’s statistics are no fluke: “Learn to travel with a good woman and listen to her.”

Jill Fredston is one of North America’s leading avalanche experts. With Doug Fesler, she wrote the classic primer Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard. She is also the author of Rowing to Latitude: Journeys along the Arctic’s Edge and Snowstruck: In the Grip of AvalanchesMore avalanche safety. From the Winter 2013 issue.

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