Choose Your Own Adventure: Thinking through your choices makes a big difference in the possible outcomes. Photo by Ben Pritchett
Your brain is the best tool you can carry into avalanche terrain. But do you know how to use it? Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to best break down a day in the backcountry.
Skiing, climbing, and riding in the winter backcountry requires accepting a certain amount of risk—weather, marauding wolverines and avalanches to name a few. While weather and wolverines account for hundreds of deaths annually (ok, maybe not the wolverines), it’s really avalanches we’re most worried about in the Rockies. Airbag-packs, Avalungs, beacons, shovels and probes are all great safety devices, but they’re only useful after we have blown it.
For less than $400 you have unlimited access to the three best tools to help avoid avalanches in the first place: the avalanche bulletin produced daily by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC; avalanche.state.co.us), an “AIARE 1” avalanche course, which is offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (avtraining.org) and most important of all your brain. Here are the steps to take from there:
The gang at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center helps you identify the main avalanche problem of the day and choose your terrain accordingly. Join the CAIC, read the bulletin daily. It’s worth it. caic.org
Identifying avalanche terrain, observing “red flags,” and interpreting the daily bulletin are all skills taught in an AIARE 1. Make sure to take your course from an approved provider like Climbing Life Guides (ClimbingLife.com), Alpine World Ascents (AlpineWorldAscents.com) or the Colorado Mountain School (TotalClimbing.com).
Your Beloved Brain
Last, but certainly not least, the most important piece of gear in your avy-safety arsenal is standard issue for most of us–your brain. The vast majority of avalanche accidents are due to “human factors,” or errors in our judgment when deciding on when, where, and how to ski and snowboard in the backcountry.
That’s daunting on the one hand, but also empowering in another sense: if we’re the problem most of the time, then we can be the solution. But how? Identifying our own tendencies, or predispositions to mistakes (those “human factors”), will dramatically reduce our chances of falling prey to them while out touring.
Human factors vary from person to person. One of my personal demons, for example, is “scarcity.” I love to ski and I’m competitive, so having a group go past me on the skin track sometimes stresses me out. By reacting to the perception of scarcity of a resource—untracked powder—I’m more likely to rush a decision or “just go for it.” Knowing I’m prone to letting certain human factors negatively affect my judgment is my first line of defense against them.
Taking an AIARE 1 can help pinpoint your own human factors, as does reading up—but as an ongoing exercise the “avy debrief” is an indispensable tool in self-critiquing and building a solid team with which to ride.
In short, it’s common practice amongst guides and high-level recreationalists to debrief their outings. First, identify when you and your group were in the most danger—while skiing, crossing a frozen lake on the way to a climb or combat skiing in the trees, for examples. Then ask yourself if you could’ve managed that hazard differently—by avoiding it, using a different travel technique, taking a different line, using (or not using) a particular piece of equipment, etc.
You and your buddies should be constructive and honest with each other. If you discover one of your crew can’t admit mistakes, won’t take suggestions or seems clueless or unwilling to debrief, then maybe she or he isn’t a good candidate for your backcountry “team.” Making good decisions—and responding to an incident—requires a strong, cohesive crew, so support each other and grow together.
The Alternate Ending
I like to use a complementary subspecies of the debrief, too, what I’ll call the “alternate ending.” Remember reading those choose-your-own adventure books as a kid, the ones in which you’d get to a critical point in the story and then have different choices within the plot? The book might say, “If you choose to fight the wolverine with your tongue depressor, turn to page 238,” or “If you run like a scared little wuss, turn to page 459.” Based upon your decision, you were then led to any of several alternate endings—some happy, and some decidedly not.
At any time during your backcountry day, faced with a critical decision like skiing a slope or not, briefly compose your day’s story (in your head or out loud), kind of like a pre-accident report. Think of the choices you’ve made to that point and imagine your potential “alternate endings.” Do your decisions read like the first half of an accident report or the intro to an epic outing? Any human factors or red flags jumping out? In your powder fever, did you discount the amount of new snow? How much wind-effect is going on?
Do an honest appraisal of your day, then imagine a happy outcome (great turns, survival, sharing a beer afterwards). Then a negative one (death, carnage, running into Justin Bieber). Accidents in the backcountry tend to be a cascade of smaller errors that combine to produce a catastrophe–do your decisions read like that? Creating your alternate endings takes just a minute or two, but in verbalizing your day’s story up to a particular decision, you might see a pattern developing. If it’s negative, then do something about it!
The great thing about the alternate-ending debrief is you can do it in the moment, or during the drive home. Try to be open to hearing other perspectives and critiques, and explore your decisions. You’ll be wiser for it and you’ll accrue experience more quickly than you might otherwise. And you’ll be way more likely to experience a happy ending, than not.
EO contributing editor Rob Coppolillo is a keen student in the avalanche game. He’s pursuing his international guiding certification through the American Mountain Guides Association and has completed his AIARE level 1, 2, and 3 courses.
Light Gear for Going Huge
“Rando racing” is the rage these days. For those who haven’t seen it, it involves skinning uphill, then ripping the hides and bombing down to the next transition and doing it again. The Colorado Ski-Mountaineering Cup (cosmicski.com) offers you 15 events this winter alone—so gear up and try one out! See page 30 for options.
Meanwhile, check out the coolest backcountry-worthy gear to come out of the rando scene. Light enough to speed you up; burly enough to go huge.
The C.A.M.P. X3 600 pack ($120; camp-usa.com) carries a day’s worth of gear, at a mere 600 grams. Stash your skis for a bootpack without taking off the pack, too, just like the rando geeks. C.A.M.P. also makes the world’s lightest crampons—the Race 290 (yes, that’s grams, $180) fits boots with Dynafit-style tech fittings and uses a Dyneema strap, rather than a weighty steel bar.
Meanwhile the Dynafit (dynafit.com) crew continues to bleed rando-efficient elements into its backcountry line, including the Vulcan boot (1590 grams). The Vulcan ($1,000) offers the range of motion of a rando-racing boot, but the stiffness (believe me, it’s stout!) of an alpine boot.
Marry them with the Speed Radical ($400) binding (the function of a Dyna binding at only 341 grams), and the fatty Huascaran ski (115mm underfoot; sub-8 pounds for a pair; tip and tail rocker, $900), and you’re big-mountain freeriding at less than half the weight of your alpine set up. —R.C.
This article draws on the insightful work of Dr. Ian McCammon and his method of “pre-mortem” discussions. Read more of his work here: bit.ly/ZVPECT.