Many moons ago, three good friends decided to make an early season ski tour to Mt. Brennan in the Goat range between Kaslo and New Denver, B.C. On its glaciated east flank they were guaranteed some fresh early season snow as recent storms had dumped upwards of 70cm. It was mid October so there was very little beta on conditions available. These friends were Kootenay locals, familiar with the area and super excited about the upcoming ski touring season.
They skinned up the towards the east glacier of Mt.Brennan and enjoyed a first run down one of its steep moraine flanks. After a lunch break at the base of their first run, the skiers decided to ascend the main tongue of the glacier and head to the summit (2900m). There were no obvious signs of instability (avalanche activity, whumpfing, cracking or sloughing). From Mt. Brennan they had an enjoyable ski descent until about half way down when the last party member fell while skiing down a thirty-degree slope. From a fairly safe position in lower angle terrain, the skiers witnessed how the impact of the fallen skier remotely triggered a couple of avalanches. A nearby steeper slope completely released to size 2 slab avalanche. This had the domino effect of sympathetically (simultaneously) triggering the entire slope about 100m away to size 2.5 avalanche. This second avalanche occurred on the moraine flank exactly where the group had skied their first run. The tracks from their first run were completely gone and their lunch spot at the bottom was now buried by up to 3 meters of avalanche debris! Tails between their legs, they carefully skied down the glacier with lots to think about on their way home.
The skiers in this story did not know exactly how close to the risk they were until the avalanches occurred. The direct feedback created by the proximity to these avalanches a clear sign that it was dangerous to ski these slopes. Perhaps if the avalanche bulletin was in operation, they may have been forewarned of the hazard. Had they dug a pit and tested the snowpack, they may have gotten significant information to consider re-evaluating their route selection. That said, had the group decided not to ascend Mt. Brennan and just skied out after their first run, they would of had a misconception of the actual snowpack conditions and potential hazards.
This situation shows how challenging it is to know exactly how close to the potential avalanche risk we often are and how judgment and experience can be fooled by excitement and lack of information. It is a very common phenomenon in the realm of backcountry skiing, most of us have or will be faced with this situation at some point. There are times when we don’t exactly know how close to the hazard we are until we have this sort of feedback. Most often we have access to good information or resources to help our risk management decisions. A better understanding of the level of risk involved with our decisions requires many years of practice and experience. Despite our best intentions,an important question remain: do we ever know 100% how close to the risk we truly are? I hope this article help you understand this intricate concept.
What level of risk is acceptable when you go backcountry skiing? Acceptable level of risk or risk tolerance is subjective. It is very personal and often based on previous experience, judgment and decision making ability. The acceptance of risk varies greatly between cultures too. For example, Europeans tend to assume more responsibilities for the risks they take while in North America we tend to transfer the risk to make others responsible for our choices. Technically, the magnitude of risk is a function of severity and frequency. As the severity of the risk increases so does the difficulty of managing it, even if the risk is relatively infrequent. When managing avalanche risk, the lack of substantial experience in a specific situation should prompt us to error on the side of caution. Making riskier decisions requires valuable field data and previous experience in similar terrain or conditions. Backcountry skiing is rewarding activity that will always have a level of avalanche risk associated with it. Lets face it, much of the good ski terrain we like to use is prime avalanche terrain. In all cases, we should all strive to “live to ski another day”! Turning around from an intended objective when things are less familiar or more unpredictable should always be an option.
Our ability to make the best possible decision while backcountry skiing can be affected by many factors. To make better decisions in avalanche terrain we must consider the snow pack, the various weak layers, the type of terrain we are in, the weather (temperature, precipitation, wind, etc.), our group ability and our goal. Many people have smaller windows of time to achieve their goals and this pressure affects their perception of risk. Another human factor is our great ability to influence each other and this may lead unaware followers into dangerous situations. Here is a short video highlighting the key human factors known to have an impact on decision making in avalanche terrain:
Most backcountry skiers strive to make the best possible informed based decisions in avalanche terrain. There are a great deal of people interested in safely traveling on skis in the backcountry. More people are taking recreational (AST 1 & 2) and professional (ITP 1 & 2) avalanche courses and learning how to analyze hazard and potential risk. There are also an increasing number of qualified avalanche professionals educating the public along with quality avalanche bulletins readily available for savvy ski tourers. Despite this positive trend, there are some skiers who will knowingly make risky decisions and others who are completely oblivious to the various hazards they may be exposed to in the backcountry.
Experienced based decision making comes from knowing how to gather relevant information, ability to analyze it, assess the terrain and relate this to previous experiences managing risk. The more experience we have the more likely we are to make better decisions that will lead to minimizing potential hazards. Some of the close calls that skiers live through are also a valuable opportunity to learn how to better mitigate similar situations in the future.
I was actually one of the skiers from the Mt. Brennan story. At the time, I was well on my way to becoming a ski guide. The more lessons and experiences I gain every season, the more I realize how much there is to learn and how much I may not have fully understood before. This learning funnel is a daily phenomenon for professionals who are forced to regularly assess and manage risk effectively in a variety of conditions. In a similar way, a recreational backcountry skier’s decision-making style and ability continue to mature overtime.
My hope and intent in writing this article is for backcountry skiers to question their own perception of risk and how that may affect decision-making. Fingers crossed that you are grasping that we are dealing with a wicked phenomena that is not 100% predictable. For more on this topic, there are many useful articles and books on risk, decision-making and ski touring safety in the backcountry, including resources from the Canadian Avalanche Association. Take an avalanche course or learn from skiing with experienced, knowledgeable backcountry skiers.
David Lussier is a fully certified IFMGA Mountain Guide and Professional Member of the Canadian Avalanche Association. He lives is Nelson where he operates his guiding business, Summit Mountain Guides.