Avalanches: Balancing Risk & Reward

With a particularly deadly season behind us, Andrew Findlay explores the current state of avalanche instruction and examines how we can stay safe, and balance risk and reward, in the backcountry.

Credit: David Webb

The best skiing is in avalanche terrain.

I have gruesome X-rays to remind me of this; titanium rods pounded like The Last Spike through the length of both tibias, fixed with screws threaded through the bone above and below jagged fractures that look cartoonish, like something from a war zone. 

I keep them on a shelf in my office, but not because of some morbid fetish. OK, to be honest, every once in a while I break out the X-rays because, frankly, they’re a spectacular rendition of my lower body anatomy, not to mention a tribute to how well bones heal from trauma. But more importantly, they serve as a cautionary tale about my tenuous lifelong relationship with snow. Let’s call it a romance — I’m a northern guy and I love snow. 

Here’s the backstory to the X-rays. About a decade ago, I shelved pretty much everything I had learned during a weeklong avalanche course and years of backcountry skiing experience, along with intuition and common sense, because my friend and I had set an arbitrary goal for our day of ski touring around Whitewater Ski Resort, near Nelson, BC. 

I’m a fan of circuits; I like leaving the parking lot one way and returning another. It’s a legacy of my father, who was also into circle tours. With this underlying motivation, I side-stepped a local avalanche forecast, which raised serious red flags about snowpack instability, and set out to enact my plan, rationalizing the decision by convincing myself that I could avoid the high-hazard by making clever micro-terrain decisions and utilizing pockets of dense trees on Scob’s Nob, our destination. Though my gut — and indeed, the avalanche reports — told me this would probably be a better in-bounds day, we ducked the boundary rope beneath the sort of blue, sunny skies that fill people with optimism. And it was an optimistic day until a moment or two after I watched my friend ski the first steep line on Scob’s Nob, then pause in a copse of trees to wait for me. I dropped in with a smile on my face and two turns in was still smiling when the snow fractured beneath me and propagated 100 metres across the slope, triggering a Size 2 avalanche with a suddenness that was ferocious. The inexorable force swept me into the trees, resulting in bilateral tib-fib fractures. Instant FUBAR sums it up.

With a year of recovery following the accident to ponder the hows, whats and whys — and more than a decade hence to reflect on my ongoing love affair with snow and the backcountry, one fact seemed to bubble to the surface. When it comes to staying safe in the backcountry, weather, terrain and knowledge form only part of the picture. Decision making, group dynamics and what we choose to do with the knowledge are all equally important. This latter muddle of influences is what we call it the human factor: ambition, ego, communication, honesty, humility… the list goes on. Avalanche researcher Ian McCammon conjured up the catchy acronym FACETS (familiarity, acceptance, consistency, experts, tracks/scarcity and social facilitation) to illustrate the human factor.

There’s been an ongoing evolution in the way professionals teach avalanche and snow safety, reflecting an increasing emphasis on practical decision-making tools that weekend warrior backcountry skiers, sledders or snowshoers can use in the field. It wasn’t always that way. Back in the mists of time when I took my weeklong Level I Avalanche Course through the Canadian Avalanche Association the focus was on hard skills, learning to do a two-beacon search in less than two minutes, diligently studying snow crystals through a magnifying hoop and analyzing weather and terrain. Course participants were determined to dig snow profiles with the proficiency of a scientist. 

However, as our understanding of spatial variability in the snowpack and the complexity of interpersonal dynamics and risk-taking behaviour has improved, so too have we learned that an individual’s ability to dig an exquisite snow profile has little bearing on whether or not they’ll make it back to the pub for beers. Avalanche course participants used to acquire bits and pieces of knowledge and dump it all into a clumsy toolkit — a toolkit that professionals take years to assemble through experiential learning and professional development. The result, says Jan Neuspiel, avalanche educator, guide and owner of Island Alpine Guides, was that people skied away with either just enough knowledge to scare them out of the backcountry or enough to get them into trouble. 

“The avalanche curriculum used to teach a little bit of everything we know as avalanche professionals, but it wasn’t very useful for recreational backcountry skiers. There’s been a lot of research into risk-taking dynamics, especially in the aviation industry, but it applies to any risk-taking scenario,” says Neuspiel. “What I stress in my courses is the need for a structured, systematic approach and an environment that allows facts and salient information to come to the surface and where nobody feels belittled for raising concerns. Statistically, in the recreation sphere, decisions that emerge from consensus rather than individuals are better decisions.”

The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) created the Avaluator Trip Planner to help in this very endeavour and to make informed decisions. It’s a simple matrix. On one axis is the current snow and avalanche danger rating, on the other axis is the terrain intended for the trip. Depending on these two variables, the matrix provides a colour-coded professional assessment of normal caution (green), extra caution (yellow) and not recommended (red). It’s meant to be easy to use for recreational backcountry users. According to the CAC, “The Avaluator does not predict when and where avalanches will occur, nor does it tell you to go or not to go, but it does provide a systematic planning process that helps you make informed decisions about the potential risks presented by your trip.”

Consider the well-documented 2012 Tunnel Creek slide in the slack-country of Washington State’s Stevens Pass Ski Resort, which killed three highly experienced riders. It was a case study in human dynamics and what can happen when powder-fever trumps due caution. A storm had delivered more than 60 centimetres of snow. There was a large group of skiers,  both locals and visitors, some of whom met for the first time only when they ducked the rope en route to Tunnel Creek. Some of the visiting skiers, despite reservations about the ongoing storm and escalating instability, deferred to locals, hoping their knowledge of the terrain would be a hedge against this hazard. It wasn’t.

In another situation involving someone close to me, a gang of skiers had just flown into a backcountry hut in BC’s Selkirk Range. It was a mixed group, a conglomeration of friends and strangers with no designated leader, which is not uncommon when folks aggregate out of convenience to share a hut and helicopter fees. Within a few hours of the last heli-drop, before most of the skiers had even unfurled their down bags, someone decided to dig a pit at the base of a sparsely treed 30-degree slope a few football fields away from the hut. While several members of the group stood below the pit with skis off, another one stepped onto the Rutschblock. The snowpack settled instantly and caused a sympathetic fracture that sintered upslope. Recent storms had loaded an extremely shallow and unusually weak snow pack for the Selkirks in March; the fragile snowpack was well-documented and resembled conditions normally associated with the bony Rockies. This particular slide resulted in three complete burials, some to the point of asphyxiation, and two partial burials. Thankfully nobody perished. 

Post-mortems of both these incidents reveal numerous junctures where assumptions and faulty decisions led to tragedy in one case, and near tragedy in the other, and where open dialogue and exchange of opinions and ideas would have likely resulted in better outcomes. Of course, hindsight is always 20-20; however, the interplay of human emotion and nature’s cold hard reality is always fascinating.

There is no exact formula guaranteeing absolute safety in the backcountry; if there were it would negate the fundamental impulses and desire for freedom that motivate us to venture beyond the controlled pistes. For people who don’t understand these impulses, the risks seem foolhardy and reckless. Every time there’s a high-profile avalanche incident, sensational media coverage fans the flames of outrage: the costs incurred by society for rescues, the senselessness of the pursuit and the need for tighter controls on who can and can’t do what in the backcountry. However, the same logic can be applied to many other lifestyle choices, from driving fast to eating high-fat foods, both of which seem to have more social licence than backcountry riding, but with vastly higher costs to society. (Perhaps a topic for another discussion…)

I’ve looked at my X-rays a couple of times and that’s enough for this season; any more would be gratuitous masochism. But the message I derive from this annual pilgrimage into my grisly past is a simple one: gut instinct is worth listening to and a frank discussion about risk factors — weather, snowpack, terrain, ambitions, egos — is the way I’ll maintain my ongoing romance with snow.

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2013 issue.