I spent the past weekend participating in the biannual Nordic avalanche conference in Trondheim. When my friends in Tromsø spent their time shredding powder, I stayed put indoors listening to researchers and practitioners from Norway, Sweden, the US, Canada and Austria. All talking about avalanches. At the end of the weekend, I was exhausted. My head was full of thoughts and my ears were sore from listening so hard :). As with all conferences, not all talks were brilliant, but many were very interesting. There is no way that I can wrap up all impressions in one blog post, but I will try to at least summarize a few things that made an impression on me.
- Maria Bårdsen Hesjedal talked about identity and risk taking. I think that this is important. How is our degree of risk taking affected by our desire to belong to and acquire social status in a social group? How does films of celebrities kicking ass down steep as shit slopes in Alaska affect our perception of what we should do? How are we affected by the photos that our friends posts on social media?
2. And related to Maria’s talk, Bruce Edgerly, head of BCA, talked about the creation of the “Avalanche Project” and their zero vision (zero avalanche fatalities in the US, inspired by “noll-visionen” of the Swedish transport authority), and about role models. In their work towards zero fatalities, a new project called “Know before you go” (KBYG) has been created. The aim of the project is to raise awareness by the use of role models, and to facilitate how we deal with avalanche danger. If you haven’t watched this movie yet, you should do it NOW.
On a similar note, Per-Olov Wikberg from the Swedish environmental agency (Naturvårdsverket) talked about the need to raise awareness and use role models for snow mobilers in Sweden and in Norway. Naturvårdsverket has produced another film that specifically targets snow mobilers.
Per-Olov and Petter Palmgren also talked about the new avalanche forecasting system for Sweden. Begining from January 2016, Jämtlandsfjällen, Hemavan-Tärnaby and Abisko will get avalanche forecasts. The plan is that the whole mountain range will have avalanche forecasts by 2017.
3. Bjørn Michaelsen talked about the need to ski undisciplined under AVI 2 conditions. It may sound weird at first, but may make sense. His starting point is that many backcountry recreationists act rule based and that we tend to act in the same way regardless of the AVI danger in the sense that we always try to act safe; we spread out and we follow ridges. This is good under AVI 3 conditions, but as far as I understood it, Bjørn argue that it may result in missing important warnings and it may actually mean that we expose ourselves to greater danger.
As I understood Bjørn, his idea of skiing undisciplined is not that we should do this when there is a risk of triggering an avalanche, but rather when we are safe. By spreading out, we reduce the pressure on the snow pack, thereby reducing the risk of a collapse. If we group together in safe areas, we may produce a collapse and thereby get a warning sign of instability.
We may also need to consider different routes under AVI 2 conditions than under AVI 3 conditions. The above picture, neatly drawn by Bjørn, shows a question mark on the right ridge. Under AVI 3 conditions, we usually stop at the left sun, then traverse the risky area one at the time and then regroup at the question mark, were we are on top of the ridge, have good sight of the risky area. The problem with this spot is that the snow pack is shallow. This means that we may actually remotely trigger an avalanche on our partners traversing the risky area. It may be better to continue to the sun on the right. In other words, we may need to think of alternative “safe spots” under AVI 2 and AVI 3 conditions.
4. Markus Eckerstorfer (NORUT) talked about a project in Tromsø, in which they use radar to detect avalanches. This is so cool that I nearly shit in my pants. The information will probably be extremely valuable for Varsom.no (the Norwegian avalanche forecasting agency) and other avalanche forecasters around the world (but especially around the poles since the satellites pass by here more often and therefore sends new images more often). Lets hope that this info gets public so that we can see the activity in the backcountry!
5. Markus, along with Ian Stewart Patterson (Thompson Rivers University) and Stefan Mårtensson (Luleå tekniska universitet) talked about human factors. Markus is part of Jordy Hendrikx (Montana State University) project, in which the mobile app SkiTracks is used to map skiers runs. The purpose of the study is to overcome the problems with previous research that only use data on accidents. The problem with such analyses is that we only get info when things went bad. With this new data, we get to know how skiers make decisions ALL THE TIME on the mountain. Awesome! They still need more data, but their preliminary analysis suggests that men on average ski steeper slopes than women and that skiers tend to adjust to increased avalanche danger by changing aspect rather than by reducing the slope of the run. You can find more info on the project here.
Stefan Mårtenson has been part of a project, in which a (different) mobile app has been developed that combines ATES (Avalanche Terrain Exposure scale) with a map over the terrain and a GPS pin locating you skiing. There were too few participants in the project to draw any conclusions from it, but the idea is interesting. I find it interesting to get continuant information on where you are in the terrain as you travel in it. However, although cell phones most likely just interfere when search mode on the transceiver is activated, the problem of remembering to switch to airplane mode in a critical situation still remains. The app is, as far as I know, not available on the market as of now.
Ian Stewart Patterson talked about many (many) interesting things. The two thing that really stuck in my head were 1) how our mental and physical state affect our ability to make good decisions (i.e., if we are stressed out over work or haven’t eaten or slept),
and 2) the #nothingbadhappened: in avalanche terrain, we very seldom get good feedback on our decisions. We often make bad decisions and get away with it, and when we make good decisions, we don’t know what would have happened if we would have decided to do otherwise. NEVER draw the conclusion that you made the right decision, just because #nothingbadhappened!
5. The incredible work done by people employed at Varsom.no and NVE. At the conference, we got to hear about how forecasters made their forecasts, and how the people of NVE want to improve the accuracy of the forecasts,
and contribute to research on behavior in avalanche terrain. So please, please please please, send in your observations of the snow pack and of near-miss accidents to varsom.no (RegObs).
This is especially interesting for me, because I have a dream. I have a dream that is about to come true: to do research on risk taking behavior in avalanche terrain. Yay! I am so in the right place at the right time! Especially since the national center for avalanche education and research is currently being built up here in Tromsø. Yay again!
I listened to so many interesting talks and talked to so many interesting people that weekend that I probably forgot half of what I heard. I’ll surely come back to it in good times, when the ideas and knowledge that I took part of has settled in my head.