I recently watched this interview with Utah Avalanche Center’s Bruce Tremper. In it he talks about risk in avalanche terrain. About half way into it something he said stuck with me. Paraphrased, “There are three types of people in the backcountry; those who don’t know they are at risk, those who know and go and anyway and then there are the people how go because there IS risk.”
Reflecting on time spent in the mountains it’s fair to say I have fallen into all three categories at one time or another. I shudder at the memories of a teenager rambling through the mountains completely ignorant of the dangers. Through my twenties I was trying to prove something and made terrible choices. (What was I trying to prove? I am not sure, but for some reason it felt like time was limited and the need to catch up was great.)
Another note from the interview that hit home was the possibility of having a lifetime in the sport. I like this. Numerous close calls and the accumulation of time in the hills have begun to change the way I approach avalanche terrain. Education, choosing the right partners, patience and having a willingness to walk away have all become part of the process. Don’t get me wrong; I still have my eye on steeper lines it’s just now I am more willing to wait for better conditions. Hopefully this will lead to a long and rewarding outdoor life.
On November 13, 2011 I was involved in a backcountry skiing avalanche. Correction, I was actually avalanched. Throttled, beaten, damaged and at one point completely buried, I somehow managed to limp away. On that same morning 12 other avalanches were reported within the central Wasatch resulting in several close calls, a broken femur and one life lost.
I once heard avalanche specialist Jill Fredston say, ‘snow innately wanted to stay put… but the fact that it was constantly changing made it difficult to predict.’
After taking that 400-foot ride, receiving a broken finger, bruised pelvis, hips, elbows and knees along with some lacerations, her words constantly ran through my head. I knew the danger on that stormy day was on the rise. I’d received snow education and had years of experience, but still went out. Alone at the trailhead I followed a fresh skin track that ascended into steep terrain figuring there would be safety in numbers. At the point of catching the two creators of the track I decided against descending with them and exited from the lee side of the ridge into the wind exposed slopes to carry on and out alone.
Shuffling along my skin-covered skis clattered along snow-dusted talus before coming to a shallow pillow of wind deposited snow, perhaps twelve inches deep. Beneath the new winter deposits the gully held the rotting skeleton of October snows. Fifteen feet wide it terminated into rock rubble thirty feet below. Experience told me that it would slide, but the amount of running snow wouldn’t be much; maybe enough to knock me off my feet, not much more. Unknown at the time was how high the pillow ran above. Its top, obscured by the storm, tipped closer to 40 degrees and twisted to face north. All that was needed to release the wound up spring was me. After three steps onto the surface the snow beneath my skis settled. The echoing whoomph was felt in my chest. One beat of silence followed allowing me to reflect on my mistakes before being tackled by a wall of snow.
Since the avalanche I’ve found that snow, although complex, is not the hard thing to forecast, it’s the people who play on it that are difficult to predict.