Is education an adequate antidote to back-country risk-taking?

raisingarizona

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A different framing of the question could be: Does a person with training survive more frequently when making a visit into avalanche terrain than someone with no training? Is there a point at which what more training stops/starts influencing survival rates?
You should probably equip yourself with every tool you possibly can.
 
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raisingarizona

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I just finished my AIARE 1 with my two oldest sons in Crested Butte last weekend. Highly recommended.

First question in decision making is: what do you want to ski?



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Terrain is the only variable we control.
Personally I think a focus on desired objectives is dangerous.

I like to discuss what we may like to do with partners but hold on to a “well let’s take a look and decide from there” sort of attitude.
 

raisingarizona

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See the article in this thread -- it suggests that continuing education may be an important element. Experience and wisdom may also become dated and expose one to greater risk...


#1
Yes! Remain humble and stay open to constant learning!
 

nay

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Personally I think a focus on desired objectives is dangerous.

I like to discuss what we may like to do with partners but hold on to a “well let’s take a look and decide from there” sort of attitude.
What I meant by that is aligning the desire to ski good snow and/or terrain to a plan that is set before you leave. The rest of this is a general comment to what backcountry decision making training (it’s not avy safety training) actually is, at least as I just experienced it.

Asking “what” It’s just a nod to the why, and it addresses a lot of the question posed in the title of this thread. It’s not about risk taking, which isn’t the objective or an objective at all. It’s about incredible skiing and winter touring (at least that’s how I see it). So asking your group, “what would you like to ski?” Is an opportunity to assess if that desire is consistent with problem management to known general conditions and weather forecasts. If the group goal is not consistent, I am not going.

The core focus of the training we just took is that you build a plan in a warm room with cool heads factoring in the daily avalanche problem statement (in most of CO that is persistent slab, east side of the compass, wind slab), known weak layer types and dates of formation (if available as they are in CB) plus the weather forecast (sun, wind, temp, storm) and then you can build a plan A, B, C.

One of the things consistently reinforced was that plan B shouldn’t suck, like it’s A is a killer big mountain line and B is a boot pack down scree slope if A isn’t certain enough. Maybe B is something lower angle sheltered with likely good snow, or the glades off the bowl edge. And then the actual observations on the approach make us more or less certain. Less certain we drop to plan B or C. More certain we stick with A, but A was never walking into known problems.

Another key point was “respect any veto”. If somebody is spooked, they have veto. No matter where you are or how far you’ve come. In this course, it was advised to go in the safest numbers of 3-5, which is counter to heuristics that suggests those are dangerous numbers. The script flips when the decisions are pre-made and you don’t switch unless maybe you got your map assessment totally wrong and there’s a good aspect that can be angle measured to be in your pre-agreed pitch tolerance.

This happened to my group in the last day of the course. 6 people in the group, we don’t know each other except one of my sons waa in my group. We talk about “what do you want to ski” to make sure nobody goes way above their level, “how are you feeling today?”. I say, “perfect for me would be a moderate pitch saddle under 30° with more interesting terrain than a straight face drop, east to north for best potential of good snow 3 days after a storm.”

We were pre-selected to go to Coney’s, which is a ridge up a wide gulch facing NE. The main lines are right at 30°, with the convex rolls up to to 32°. Just north of this, the topo map shows lower pitch and what looks like a saddle with a right turn runout. I propose this as plan A, with B going up into the glades under the ridge. My group can’t get onboard with this (30° is right at top pitch) so A becomes up under the glades.

On approach, what I thought looks to be true. So I stop and say “will we change plans, we talked about this saddle, we pinned it on the map, we can measure the pitch”. I got some yes and mostly no, because we had agreed to a lesser Plan A. So we stuck with our plan.

The sweet thing is we found perfect conditions for very little effort that we lapped instead of busting to the top of the ridge and getting one run where there were already a lot of tracks. But even in a group of strangers, we respected the veto (and our instructors said in a case like that they mIght make a plan change). Every other group went to the top. We had no real reason to not have a bigger line as Plan A, but that was group dynamics.

How risky is back country skiing if Plan A is to stick to relatively sheltered areas 30° or under, when avalanche problems are existing and known, weather is neutral, and ingress and egress do not travel under potential slide paths?

The idea posed by this thread, at least as I see it, is that the goal of backcountry skiing is risky terrain. We can’t control the snowpack (we can understand it relatively easily), we can’t control trigger (we are one and nature provides them), but we can control terrain choice and there is endless backcountry terrain that may fit inside of proper risk assessment.

So, yes?
 

raisingarizona

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What I meant by that is aligning the desire to ski good snow and/or terrain to a plan that is set before you leave. The rest of this is a general comment to what backcountry decision making training (it’s not avy safety training) actually is, at least as I just experienced it.

Asking “what” It’s just a nod to the why, and it addresses a lot of the question posed in the title of this thread. It’s not about risk taking, which isn’t the objective or an objective at all. It’s about incredible skiing and winter touring (at least that’s how I see it). So asking your group, “what would you like to ski?” Is an opportunity to assess if that desire is consistent with problem management to known general conditions and weather forecasts. If the group goal is not consistent, I am not going.

The core focus of the training we just took is that you build a plan in a warm room with cool heads factoring in the daily avalanche problem statement (in most of CO that is persistent slab, east side of the compass, wind slab), known weak layer types and dates of formation (if available as they are in CB) plus the weather forecast (sun, wind, temp, storm) and then you can build a plan A, B, C.

One of the things consistently reinforced was that plan B shouldn’t suck, like it’s A is a killer big mountain line and B is a boot pack down scree slope if A isn’t certain enough. Maybe B is something lower angle sheltered with likely good snow, or the glades off the bowl edge. And then the actual observations on the approach make us more or less certain. Less certain we drop to plan B or C. More certain we stick with A, but A was never walking into known problems.

Another key point was “respect any veto”. If somebody is spooked, they have veto. No matter where you are or how far you’ve come. In this course, it was advised to go in the safest numbers of 3-5, which is counter to heuristics that suggests those are dangerous numbers. The script flips when the decisions are pre-made and you don’t switch unless maybe you got your map assessment totally wrong and there’s a good aspect that can be angle measured to be in your pre-agreed pitch tolerance.

This happened to my group in the last day of the course. 6 people in the group, we don’t know each other except one of my sons waa in my group. We talk about “what do you want to ski” to make sure nobody goes way above their level, “how are you feeling today?”. I say, “perfect for me would be a moderate pitch saddle under 30° with more interesting terrain than a straight face drop, east to north for best potential of good snow 3 days after a storm.”

We were pre-selected to go to Coney’s, which is a ridge up a wide gulch facing NE. The main lines are right at 30°, with the convex rolls up to to 32°. Just north of this, the topo map shows lower pitch and what looks like a saddle with a right turn runout. I propose this as plan A, with B going up into the glades under the ridge. My group can’t get onboard with this (30° is right at top pitch) so A becomes up under the glades.

On approach, what I thought looks to be true. So I stop and say “will we change plans, we talked about this saddle, we pinned it on the map, we can measure the pitch”. I got some yes and mostly no, because we had agreed to a lesser Plan A. So we stuck with our plan.

The sweet thing is we found perfect conditions for very little effort that we lapped instead of busting to the top of the ridge and getting one run where there were already a lot of tracks. But even in a group of strangers, we respected the veto (and our instructors said in a case like that they mIght make a plan change). Every other group went to the top. We had no real reason to not have a bigger line as Plan A, but that was group dynamics.

How risky is back country skiing if Plan A is to stick to relatively sheltered areas 30° or under, when avalanche problems are existing and known, weather is neutral, and ingress and egress do not travel under potential slide paths?

The idea posed by this thread, at least as I see it, is that the goal of backcountry skiing is risky terrain. We can’t control the snowpack (we can understand it relatively easily), we can’t control trigger (we are one and nature provides them), but we can control terrain choice and there is endless backcountry terrain that may fit inside of proper risk assessment.

So, yes?
Interesting. It sounds like they had a heavy focus on mixed group dynamics. That’s cool.
 
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James

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Sounds line a good process. I think the problem is often more with the same groups who are on like their 12th trip.

Guys at Loveland Sheep Creek? What was up with that decision making?

Having a fall back or pre arranged turn around, like when summiting Everest, sounds like a really good idea.

In the moment pressures, “weve come this far”, etc can have bad consequences.

Perhaps it’s relevant with Kobe Bryant’s pilot. Very experienced. The company was not certified for instrument flying rules. Even though he was capable. Apparently, very few in LA are. Even the Lapd. Just not worth it. So he couldn’t really go through the fog. Perhaps he was trying to stay under and work it out.

You have to wonder if scenarios such as dense fog had been discussed well before with the client, and agreed upon, the decision to turn around or set it down would’ve been much easier. Not just a vague, “well do what you think best”.
 
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pais alto

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... I think the problem is often more with the same groups who are on like their 12th trip.
Quoted for truth.

You have to wonder if scenarios such as dense fog had been discussed well before with the client, and agreed upon, the decision to turn around or set it down would’ve been much easier. Not just a vague, “well do what you think best”.
I used to fly a lot in helicopters as crew or passenger, and something a pilot said once after deciding to turn around really stuck with me - “Those clouds have rocks in them.”
 

Rod9301

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I think this discussion focuses mostly on Colorado, where a persistent weak layer is common.

When there is one, the only safe option is to ski less than 25 degree terrain.

In other climates, wind slabs are the most common avie cause, and they can be managed by aspect choice, not skiing while the wind slabs are active. This is where education is important.

I'm the case of Colorado, if there's a persistent weak layer, education is not as important, or maybe detrimental, as people will try to second guess the likelihood of a slide.
Which could be low, but with devastating results.
 
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Ken_R

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I am not a backcountry skier, but I am interested in risk-taking and how that happens.
Risk-taking behavior applies even to novices who just took a lesson from me, making decisions as they head out to ski on blue groomers with friends.

I just re-read this article (https://www.outsideonline.com/1915051/colorados-loveland-pass-avalanche-lessons-learned) on the five deaths of highly-educated backcountry adventurers in the 2013 Loveland Pass avalanche.
The fact that the deaths came to highly informed people prompted this question in the middle of the article:
"Is backcountry education able to mitigate the level of risk riders take on?"

Here's another article on this subject, the 2012 avalanche at Tunnel Creek where 3 died. The group that headed out was experienced and well-informed and prompted this description in the article: “It was a very, very deep, heavy, powerful, strong group of pro skiers and ski industry people.”
In both of these deadly avalanche events, highly informed people died. Given the current discussions about avalanche safety behavior, I thought it might be useful to isolate this question.

Is education about avalanche safety the answer?

It is always a judgement call. Education / knowledge helps with being aware of the danger and avoiding it. But once you make the call to travel on or under avalanche terrain you are exposed to it. It doesnt matter who you are and what you know.
 
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Tom Holtmann

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I also took my AVI I class last weekend. Interestingly, one of my teachers says she often asks her partners two questions:
1) What do you want to ski?
Followed quickly by
2) What should we ski?
 

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I also took my AVI I class last weekend. Interestingly, one of my teachers says she often asks her partners two questions:
1) What do you want to ski?
Followed quickly by
2) What should we ski?
That is the perfect tldr version of my last post. We did exactly the same thing. 3) the is “is what we want to ski consistent with what we should ski?”
 

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Sounds line a good process. I think the problem is often more with the same groups who are on like their 12th trip.

Guys at Loveland Sheep Creek? What was up with that decision making?

Having a fall back or pre arranged turn around, like when summiting Everest, sounds like a really good idea.

In the moment pressures, “weve come this far”, etc can have bad consequences.

Perhaps it’s relevant with Kobe Bryant’s pilot. Very experienced. The company was not certified for instrument flying rules. Even though he was capable. Apparently, very few in LA are. Even the Lapd. Just not worth it. So he couldn’t really go through the fog. Perhaps he was trying to stay under and work it out.

You have to wonder if scenarios such as dense fog had been discussed well before with the client, and agreed upon, the decision to turn around or set it down would’ve been much easier. Not just a vague, “well do what you think best”.
So I asked a ton of questions around decision making, both trying to find the magic and to have my sons hear the answers. No magic, of course.

One instructor said “I try to evaluate based on what the accident report would look like.” Another said “If you are at the point of going one at a time, should you really be there?”

I asked how big of a problem is expert halo? The answer: “Huge”.

We did not talk about any if the big cases like Sheep Creek, and there was a general respect to avoid armchair quarterbacking any incident where the instructors were not personally involved. One of them had a bunch of personal phone videos, like “there is no way they are doing this...yep, they are.”

Sheep Creek: What do we want to ski? What should we ski? Is what we want to ski consistent with what we should ski? In a warm room, with cool heads, terrain maps, avy report, weather conditions. What happens with that process?

Tunnel Creek off the back side of Stevens. One person turned back. That was a veto. Going one at a time, “should we be here”? Terrain traps, skiers above lower skiers not in safe zones. What should we ski?

In maritime climates, danger rises very quickly (large snowfalls) and falls very quickly (less risk of faceted layers). Should we ski avalanche terrain during big storms in a maritime climate? In Colorado, avalanche risk rises more slowly and persists. In transitional zones line Utah and Wyoming, the early season may be more like Colorado and mid-season more like maritime as those early season layers are deeply buried.

One other interesting thing was class mix. There were fewer “I am taking this class before I ever set foot in the back country” than “I’ve been a follower for a few seasons and have decided I need to be a participant.”

Instructor perspective: newbies gain confidence to access more terrain after taking the course, seasoned people become more conservative.

One guy was just terrified by the idea of remote triggering. He’d never even heard of it. He also really couldn’t ski perfect consistency lower angle powder. What do we want to ski? Perfect powder.

Other things we did: beacon search and location with probes. This is a perishable skill if not practiced. It struck me again and again how much time it takes to locate a buried victim on flat terrain without dealing with avy debris or any issues of “is it safe to enter the rescue zone?”

We also practiced shoveling out a 2 meter deep buried victim in a snowplow pile, so the type of heavy debris you would find. You come in from downhill, not above, and you have to remove an enormous amount of material. It took five of us a good 10 minutes and we were using conveyor technique and switching out positions. Alone? I can’t imagine what it would take.

97% of burials are single victim. 53% of buried victims die. Without an air pocket there is almost no time.

Before each tour? A full beacon check. One person leads.

1) Everybody confirms battery status. No battery levels under 50%.

2) Everybody in “Send”, leader in “Search” walks up to each person and confirms distance reading. “.6M, check”.

3) Leader walks to trailhead and each person walks by with enough spacing to ensure the distance check read wasn’t off another beacon. Each person is confirmed.

4) Last person confirms that the leader has set back to “Send”.

You fail any of these checks, you don’t go.

And the team debriefs after every trip. What went well? What could we have done better? I overheard three younger guys who had just skied the face of Coney’s that none of our groups agreed was within “what should we ski?”. They were talking about max pitch of 32°, conditions, etc.

In other words, they were debriefing. It’s a culture.
 

Rainbow Jenny

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Getting educated on heuristics is a darn good start to mitigating risk and understanding our own psychological decision making. We tend to be our worst enemies out there and most accidents are tied to heuristic short cuts or just plain out ignoring obvious red flags because desire is over riding rational thinking.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman often come up on discussions of heuristics.
 
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The content in Kahneman's book is fascinating. But the book weighs a ton and is 499 pages long. I found a summary somewhere online. Can't find the reference right now, but that summary was a fun read a few summers ago.
 

Rainbow Jenny

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The content in Kahneman's book is fascinating. But the book weighs a ton and is 499 pages long. I found a summary somewhere online. Can't find the reference right now, but that summary was a fun read a few summers ago.
This book IS fascinating and reads much faster than most historical non-fiction. :roflmao: Don't let the page number turn you off. I'm actually thinking of re-reading it. And if you get the e-book version through purchase or the library, page number is someone irrelevant.
 

elemmac

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And the team debriefs after every trip. What went well? What could we have done better? I overheard three younger guys who had just skied the face of Coney’s that none of our groups agreed was within “what should we ski?”. They were talking about max pitch of 32°, conditions, etc.

In other words, they were debriefing. It’s a culture.
When I took the course my instructor brought up the question “were we good, or were we lucky?”. Basically did we make questionable decisions and get away with it, or did we actually make good decisions.

Great question that really leaves you thinking on a debrief.
 

crgildart

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At the end of the day, does a person's level if education and expertise in avalanche science increase or decrease the number of times per year they venture in to BC deep snow per season? Frequency of risk taking might be a bigger factor than level of risk taken. It's similar to what we're seeing in the corona virus. A highly contagious but rarely fatal thing causes a lot more deaths than a highly fatal but not very contagious thing.
 

Mothertucker

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Is there anything more contagious than powder fever? "I got a fever, and the only cure is more powder!"
 
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