Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annual Avalanche risk tune-up

Ski season is here, and along with sweeping white mountain views, powder turns, and endless (in a good way) skin tracks, comes the responsibility to tune up on avalanches and risk. I go through a simple but deliberate annual routine, brushing up a bit on snow safety, evaluating my avalanche risk assessment from the past season, and setting goals and expectations for the coming season. It is also a good opportunity to reflect on friends who have died or had close calls in the mountains.
Looking through old photos, I was reminded of just how far back I have managed
to walk back my level of acceptable risk. In this photo, I am working my way down
a steep gully in the Missions with no visibility and 6" of snow with more piling up
every minute. Solo, of course. The gully was puking spindrift. Constantly. But I was
able to ski cut and manage my sluff, and the underlying snowpack was welded so I felt OK.
Acceptable risk? Technically maybe yes, but in retrospect, there was not enough room for
error, and it isn't like I was skiing a once in a lifetime line or anything.

I would probably not ski that line in those conditions toady.
Last year, I modified my approach to travel in avalanche terrain, continually choosing moderate terrain over more exposed options. And while I didn’t ski as much steep terrain as in the past, I like the increased margin of safety. It is also nice to move quickly and safely through the mountains unencumbered by extensive pit digging and stress. I also notched my “go/no-go” risk threshold back a touch. The clearest example is that I no longer treat Moderate avalanche conditions as safe unless proven otherwise. I have also deepened my skepticism of group avalanche assessment in parties larger than about four, preferring moderate objectives and terrain choices that keep the group moving rather than stuck at the top of a run hemming and hawing and discussing the finer points of how representative the pit was, or how best to execute a sketchy ski cut.

However, there is no escaping the fact that I thrive on challenge and adventure, and am OK with taking calculated risks when conditions merit. With a clear mind, attention to detail, and deep reserve of experience and tricks, I still value laying it out there a bit and staying sharp. Without the drive to push and explore, I would not have suggested or skirting slabs in search of a safe line into Sweathouse creek during our amazing Glen Lake/Sweathouse/Hidden Lake Peak/Bear Creek tour last spring, or continuing out to the summit of Castle crag, both of which involved careful avalanche assessment, but were still within the realm of acceptable risk, even in retrospect. Here’s to another year of adventure out in the snow. And not losing sight of the fact that we are making life and death decisions every day we spend in the mountains.

I found this interactive series on human factors and heuristics from POWDER magazine intriguing.

Also, for current conditions, Mr. Fredlund’s assessment is spot on, with the exception that deep facets the Missoula/Bitterroot/Rattlesnake seems to be a touch more consolidated.


  1. Well said...I have found that with a deep reserve of experience comes the trick of buffer. Buffer your margin of error so when errors comes, as they do, you're not dead or badly injured. Maintaining a razor thin line of error it not very sustainable if your goal is to ski for a very long time.

    Thanks for the post..all great thoughts, particularly regarding group avalanche assessment.

  2. Thanks. Yeah, I think it is important for everyone consciously work on risk assessment, so my intent was just to lay out a few specific if not random snippets and encourage others to do the same. For error margins, while it is for sure important to keep a reasonable margin of error, I am also interested in the concept of operating with a large margin of error 95+% of the time, but allowing for a razor thin margin with the right conditions, the right partner, and for the right objective. Except that I am getting old and responsible and am slowly loosing the drive to push it on occasion.