Updated: Feb 15
In 2019 and 2020 I got caught guessing at least twice, both times involved an avalanche. In one, I triggered an avalanche that resulted in the catch, carry, and full burial of one of my best friends. The other was a near miss involving my very best friend, my wife. She was strongly questioning a slope we were about to traverse, I told her it was fine, she ended up skiing off of a large avalanche and was not carried or buried. It was a very close call.
In 2019, I got caught guessing that we were protected enough by a ridge line not to get caught and carried if an avalanche happened during the approach. I was wrong, here are the results: I triggered an avalanche that caught, carried, and buried my best friend. Here are some photos:
This is where he was buried.
In 2020, I got caught guessing that a slope was barely steep enough to slide and the exposure was "short enough". My wife was able to ski off of this avalanche, not caught , not buried. We were very lucky.
In both of these incidents, we were very lucky. We don't get second chances very often when it comes to avalanches. This month, I have been talking to multiple people from former students to avalanche professionals, recounting their own near misses and accidents. All of these accidents have one thing in common: Human factors! Most were initiated with a gamble or a guess. This presentation from Mikey Erickson particularly hit home. It is worth the listen.
Avalanches are simple, people are complex. We know that the best way to not get caught in an avalanche is to not go into or near avalanche terrain. This is possible to do by restricting yourself to slopes below 30 degrees and not being above, below, or connected to slopes greater than 30 degrees. To do this takes discipline as that 30-45 degree terrain often provides some of the best skiing. In seasons like this one, that safe terrain is hit hard so we also tiptoe a bit further out into suspect terrain. We call this "tickling the dragon". We are guessing that we are being "safe enough".
When I teach avalanche education I harp on my students not to guess so they are not unknowingly making bad decisions. In avalanche education we provide tools and a framework to make good decisions in the backcountry. These tools are only as good as the person or group using them. If we don't use our tools or use them improperly we are guessing. Some of the most common areas we guess in the backcountry are when it comes to slope angle and aspect. "I think this slope is about 27-30 degrees and a south west aspect". In reality it is a 31-34 degree slope north west aspect. Depending on the avalanche problem this is the difference between safety and tragedy.
Use the tools to know! Put in the time before you go out to build a plan that limits or, this year, eliminates your exposure to avalanche terrain. Spend the time on Caltopo, download the Avenza app, use GAIA with slope angle shading, use your inclinometer, use your compass. These are the tools that help us make informed, intentional decisions when the human factors are tempting us to do otherwise.
Guessing is a dangerous gamble and the cost could be your life or your friends' lives. In this 2020-2021 ski season, our backcountry community is hurting and mourning the loss of 6 of our own. We send our love and support to those whose lives were forever changed in these avalanche accidents. As a community, we need to quit guessing. We are now being inundated with so much new snow and as exciting as that is, we need to make intentional, conservative decisions. Please stay safe, stay inbounds if needed, but let's all stop guessing that it's "safe enough" as this can quickly change a fun day into a nightmare.
Here is a look at the storm to come. The coming days and weeks will require discipline and restraint. Stay safe my friends!