Spring has been put on hold. The cycle of late winter storms that has passed over USA produced a significant amount of fresh snow in the mountains, and the cold temperatures made it possible for us to ski cold smoke in late april. It has been truly wonderful, and disastrous.. The heavy snowfall in combination with the strong wind put a lot of pressure on the snowpack and awakened the persistent weak layer that has been lurking close to the ground all season. In addition, the cold temperatures that gave us that wonderful fluffy snow also prevented the snowpack from sintering, so any instability in the pack has remained there ever since the storms first arrived. Finally, the wind created some properly nasty windslabs that has made the snow seem stable (bullet proof) while in reality, if you hit a sweet spot, it is definitely not. Taken together, the situation out in the backcountry right now is that avalanches are relatively hard to trigger, but if you hit a weak spot and trigger one, it is going to be big and destructive.
As some of you know, Colorado and Utah has experienced a series of tragic avalanche accidents during the past couple of weeks. I did not know any of the victims personally, but I do have friends who did. My greatest condolances to all of you out there who have a loved one who was taken away from you. For me, just knowing someone who knew someone, makes the tragedy more tangible. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to actually loose a close one.
In both of the avalanches on Kessler peak, Utah, and in Loveland Pass, Colorado, the accidents could have happened to anyone of us who live and breath the air in the backcountry. All of the victims where highly experienced skiers/snowboarders, both in terms of skills in skiing and in terms of backcountry experience. The accidents occured as the victims where ascending the top, and not as they did something reckless on the way down.
We cannot bring those who passed away back to life, but we can try and learn from their missfortune. I am as far as you can get from being an expert, but I haven’t been able to get these tragedies out of my head, and I thought that putting my thoughts down on digital inc might help me process it. If it is of use to anyone else, I doubt it.
My first reaction when I heard about the accidents was, in addition to being heartbroken for those affected, to get frantically scared. However, getting terrified and refraining from ever going into the backcountry is not really a rational reaction or a viable solution. As we live our lives, we take risks everyday; as we get into the car and drive to work, or as we get out of the car and walk to work. We take risks when we choose to go skiing in a resort on groomed tracks, or when we dive into that beautiful blue water on a summer day. I guess the greatest risk of all is the one we take when we fall in love…
It may be utility maximizing to refrain from taking excessive risks, to abstain from things that we later regret, but living a life without any risks is just not living at all. I think what we need to do is to be constantly aware of the risks that we choose to take, and to accept that the responsibility is always our own, regardless of the expertise of the person we choose to do the risky activity with. Sometimes however, we also just need to accept that life is a roller coaster, and it may end with a bang when we least expect it, no matter what we do.
For me, it has taken a loong time to learn this lesson. It is so easy to put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders. Even though I have been scared schitnitz of avalanches ever since I started my winter love affair with the backcountry, I really didn’t do much about it for a very long time. I just tagged along, trying to reassure myself that the people in my crew knew what they were doing. I would ask “Do you think that this slope is safe?” and if they said “yes”, I would take it as a guarantee that things were ok. In cases when my stomach disagreed, I would just tell it to shut up, just as I shut my mouth. Stupid, stupid girl, and I hate being a stupid girl, which makes it even more stupid. Argh. I am not saying that my friends took too big risks, just that I should have taken my responsibility and made my own decisons.
So far, I have been lucky. Before I came to the US, I was never even close to an avalanche. Once here, I have seen a number, but never been caught, and I have never needed to use my shovel to dig up a friend. However, I don’t think that I personally can take any credit for that. Perhaps a bit more now than before, but I still have a long way to go.
During the last two years, I have tried to get away from my passive stance. I started out by reading books about risk management in the backcountry. That made me, if possible, even more scared than before. Then I started observing my fellow skiers as they dug pits and evaluated the terrain. Still scared shitnitz, because I didn’t really know how to interpret the information. Every pit just seemed to tell me I was crazy beeing out there, and at the same time I felt like such a whimp for being so scared, so I shut my mouth and skied anyway. Stupid, stupid girl! Then, I went to Wyoming and saw what really unstable snow looked like. At first, I got even more scared, of course. I was very cautious even when skiing 20 degrees slopes on a cold powder day. Then, I finally took a proper AVI class, and started digging my own snow pits.
I can’t say that I learned a lot of new knowledge about snow in AVI1. Most of what was taught, I had already learnt from reading Bruce Tremper’s “Staying alive in avalanche terrain” and listening to my friends, but I did acquire a sense of confidence, and that changed my headset. I started feeling that my voice on the mountain mattered too, and that the worst thing I can do is to keep my mouth shut.
I still rely too much on others in the backcountry. It is so easy to just leave my own responsibility at home, and I am still afraid of being that “girl” who always cries wolf. I definetely need to work on that, and I think that the way to do it is to acquire more knowledge and more experience. Knowing for myself that I know what I am talking about, will (I think) make me more confident that I’m not just being irrationally scared, less of a whimp and more like an experienced skier that shares her knowledge and concerns with her fellow skiers.
So I haven’t skied since that last terrible accident in Loveland Pass, but I will, soon. Because, in spite of all my fears and in spite of the horrible accidents that has occured this winter, I must maintain that the risk of dying in an avalanche is still a whole lot smaller than the risk of dying in a car accident, and that the enjoyment of being out in those beautiful mountains are totally worth the risk that I take.