Three Strikes, You’re Out.
Last season’s fatalities of backcountry ski blogger Steve Romero and his partner Steve Onufer in Teton National Park were two more in a disturbing trend of avalanche fatalities involving backcountry skiers. Across the western United States there has been a definitive increase in avalanche fatalities paralleling the growth of backcountry skiing, mechanized ski access and the opening of sidecountry gates at resorts. Rocket science pit profiles and pie graph analysis continue to show cascading evidence that a deadly pattern has emerged which needs to be stopped. Evidence points out that group pressure and complacency are increasingly overriding group stability evaluations and, in a few cases, this is leading to no evaluations other than a hand pit or a hunch. When humans fly planes this carelessly, they drop out of the sky.
While my perspective comes from my experience as a backcountry skier and guide, I hope some of this essay will connect with other outdoor recreationists who look for that line in the snow they should never cross.
The “human factor” is discussed ad nauseum all over Internet forums and fills chapters in books. We know from a dozen studies conducted over the past ten years that people we respect as experienced are ignoring the accumulation of clues–clues that most of us, based on our awareness of avalanche terrain, would find scary. Yet, in spite of what we know about the human factor, competent skiers are getting caught in bad avalanches.
The rate of incidents is increasing in all users groups and indications are that the victims should have known better in nearly every situation. Fortunately, as athletes, we’re lucky to know exactly what’s hurting us the most and there are actions we can take to solve the problem.
Connecting the past to the present helps bring my perspective to light. I’ve had a front row seat to the progress of technical skiing, ski gear, and attitudes. Twenty years ago, the World Extreme Championships (WESC) were held in a remote mountain cirque. I was the only one who hiked up to the site, albeit on some seriously skinny skis. I joined a small group of judges, sponsors, volunteers, and competitors who had been flown to the site located at nearly three thousand feet. All day I watched the best skiers in the world carve turns and drop cliffs above the reflecting cold blue waters of Port Valdez. The competitors were stunned that terrain like that even existed and the rest of us were dazzled that humans could ski that stuff. Yet, in those days, Mt. Francis, looming high above the venue, was ignored. It seemed too complicated and technical.
Not today. Dozens of skinners a year pass the historical WESC venue, focused instead on the summit, adjacent tors and couloirs. They boot straight up, clinging to the slope, searching for a variation of someone else’s scar on the snow. The more complicated the terrain is with ramps and flutes the better, just like in the movies. In the past decade, this 5,700’ summit has been skied or snowboarded numerous times in as little as six hours from an established sea-level trailhead.
More of us are in the mountains than ever and most are comfortable on slopes over 32 degrees. We are athletes in the biggest natural arenas in the world and it’s in these circumstances, when we are being either overly aggressive or complacent, that avalanches catch us. And, once they do, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get another chance to be in a video.
The room for error when flying a plane is not much different than when traversing or skiing a slope. We can be like the experienced pilot who one day decides to cast caution aside and fly under a bridge instead of over it. The comparison to aviation is all the more interesting in that, like aviation’s parachute, we wear packs with balloons that are ready to deploy in case chaos sweeps us into our own white cloud.
Perusing the Monday morning papers from around the West reveals that both experienced and inexperienced skiers almost equally follow the same pattern of making wrong decisions that end badly. In Snow Sense, Doug Fesler wrote that ignoring obvious clues was the precursor to most recreational incidents. Nothing has changed. Complacency and group dynamics are the foremost factors that override experience, safe route finding and stability evaluations.
As skiers, we want steep and untracked snow, so it’s logical that the vast majority of backcountry skiers regardless of which state we are skiing in travel under, on, or pretty darn close to slopes than can kill us in an instant. Thus, to me, geographical differences (Alaska vs.Colorado, or example) and their associated snowpack characteristics are not the primary risk factors whenit comes to these incidents. Regardlessof regional snowpack quality, the lack of attention the skier gives to clues (even ignoring them) is the real problem. It’s irrelevant whether it’s the Alps or the Cascades or the Chugach. I hear skiers talk about how stable Alaska’s snow pack is, yet skiers here still get caught in avalanches because they ignored clues. So I generally dismiss the premise that the higher risks in skier-triggered avalanche incidents are related to a region’s climate characteristics.
Identifying clues is not hard. Most of have been taught to recognize them, have spent time analyzing them, and we know them when we see them. Nearly every important clue can be seen on the surface or with a little labor and a shovel. As backcountry skiers we are trained to interpret real time stability. We have access to an extraordinary amount of weather information on the Internet. Teams of professionals at avalanche centers issue daily forecasts. I’m not sure about you, but it seems like everyone I ski with has Level One avalanche training. Nearly all of us have the information and knowledge needed to have a safe, fun day of skiing even in hazardous conditions.
At the trailhead we throw around avalanche terms and weather jargon. Dressed in plastic piles and shells, we carry a GPS just in case.We do our beacon checks. “Let’s be safe everyone,” someone says. Then we immerse ourselves in a chilly, white environment. A camera digitizes the scene. Chatter eases and breathing fills the air as the hours tick by.
We prompt each other with “It’s not that far” and “Seems stable”. We feel the stoke of being in the Chugach all day. Positive input is everywhere. The world begins to spin in euphoria of mountain elation. We’re addicts. At this moment we are making critical decisions and need to stop, take a breath and, like a pilot landing a plane, get down to the serious business of protecting ourselves. Chaos begins on the best powder days when no one is willing to say “whoa”; when the snowpack is the only thing yelling out its clues to our group.
I’ve spent time reviewing my own decision-making processes in light of recent incidents and have specifically analyzed how I avoid the mental trap of disregarding obvious clues. Over the course of the winter, I read incident reports published by avalanche centers around the West specifically to remind myself of the repetitive causes of incidents. Local events also serve as a stark reminder of the daily hazards I share with residents.
But, more than any other method for avoiding avalanches I’ve tried over the years, the “Three-Strikes-You’re-Out” Rule has proven most effective. It has consistently worked for me and is useful in tempering my ski goals. It’s simple. Why three strikes (and not four or eight or ten)? The number three is a common enough number to recall easily. The baseball reference also helps as a memory aid.
The basic premise is that once I encounter three obvious clues on a route, I need to seriously rethink my options and turn around. For instance, a “considerable” rating issued by the local avalanche center at 0700 is one strike. Another strike even before I leave the trailhead is the 24-hour rule regarding skiing in avalanche terrain after a significant weather event. Recent avalanche activity mentioned in an email from a ski pal becomes another obvious strike. I have nearly three strikes before I even get to the trailhead so my goals are greatly reduced and, there may be even more clues once I get to the trail and step up to the plate.
The same rule can apply to small problem areas within a larger terrain feature. It’s a
simple rule for those days when you just don’t seem to want to turn around even though
you really should. Maybe you’re tired and fatigued. Maybe you’ve been on a hot streak bagging linesleft and right. Do you traverse across this slope? Go or no go? It’s time to stop and reset your stability assessment using all the information at hand. Ignore
other people urging you forward toward the excitement ahead. If needed, look at your hand and count each clue out with a finger. Perhaps due to the human proclivity to err, we should give ourselves one strike before even stepping to the plate.
Lucky for us, there are dozens of clues to instability. Tracking these clues in a straightforward manner to make decisions works for me. (See example below) Most of us can make a mental list of three points and remember each one. Some of you may think one or two strikes is enough warning. I have turned away from gems more often than not, but that means that I am able to return days, weeks, and even years later under better conditions and ski it safely and stress free.
If you are making decisions in avalanche terrain I encourage you to try this simple process that puts a brake on making a potentially bad decision. The “Three-Strikes-You’re-Out” is my tool for those times when I need a real answer.
January 27, 2013
Looking around I see wind loading on my route. Peaks are flagging. STRIKE ONE. I keep moving on cautiously because I want to ski as steep as stability allows. I am experienced and have been on this route fifty times. But a strike is a strike in my avalanche game.
I read the avalanche forecast in the morning and it calls for “pockets of considerable”, but the past hour of skinning all I’ve see is that pesky flagging. Just as I exit tree line the snow texture changes and I alert my senses and begin looking for clues, not avoiding them. The terrain steepens, as does the excitement of skiing from the top of any peak. We can figure it out. The sun suddenly pops out and warms our faces and the wind falls calm where we stand.
Skinning higher, the textured snow feels good but my pole probes begin getting punchy. I dhand pit and then pull out my shovel and go to work hastily because pit time costs ski time. I stuff my shovel back in my pack and ski off to change to a safer aspect so we can gain more vertical. The crew comes along. I look behind and see hesitancy. Stopping, we all discuss things and someone voices concern about the soft wind formed slab mixed with a bit of instability in the new snow 10”-16” below the surface. STRIKE TWO.
As experienced skiers we gather, chat and determine we can outflank a potentially deadly avalanche slope. Most of the time we can find a stash of stability in a vast area of instability. So we all agree to poke around ahead and see if we can out fox physics.
Finally we arrive in a nice area that is a bit steeper. To ascend, we have to use kick-turns, which typically first happens at the lowest avalanche angles. Angles steepen quickly to the 35 degree range, but no one knows for sure. I do a couple of kick-turns over my up track, shoving hard to see any shooting cracks from the pie shape edge of my turn area. I get a cohesive crack to break and that concerns me. I proceed to survey for spatial variability with a series of quick uphill kick turns and aggressive pole probing. As I increase vertical, that small pocket of instability is determined to be expanding in size as we gain elevation. Increasing slab density with increasing elevation is a red flag. I don’t need to dig a pit and gather the crew for a chat. We all agree solemnly to turn around after counting clues. STRIKE THREE. Forget it. No gripes, no questions, no more discussion. It is what it is. Off we go to ski 1200’ powder shots at lower angles down in the trees. A great ski day will later end despite the fact that we could not “fly the plane through the pass.”