When I got the offer to work for UiT back in March, I didn’t need much time to think before I accepted the invitation. I knew that I had to do this, to move north. But I have to confess that the emotions inside didn’t all feel like pinkish butterflies, some felt more like dark swirling moths.
Because, while Tromsø offers incredible mountainbike terrain during summer, it also offers an almost everlasting winter and mountains that don’t always play nice; during the past 10 years, over 23 people have lost their lives in avalanches in Troms county. 23…
Almost two years have past since the snow on Lebnes broke my right tibia and my left fibula. Two years. It feels like forever ago and yesterday at the same time.
A week ago, Tromsø was hit by a polar low pressure system. Polar low systems means snow, lots of snow. A shit load of snow… = an early X-mas present for ski enthusiasts in the north.
I didn’t think it would at the time, but tumbling down Lebnes did something to my head. Of course it did. I’m not completely stupid (I hope), so of course it did and of course I understood that the experience would affect me, but I didn’t expect the effect to be so intense: these days when I enter slopes steeper than 25°, or have such slopes close enough to be slightly exposed from above, the hairs on my neck stand straight and my spine starts to twist. I have to use every single joule in my body just to stay calm…
Martin once said that one of the biggest differences he experienced after the accident is that he, post avalanche, could SEE an avalanche coming down a mountain. I have the same experience – before the accident, I thought about risk in my head, now I feel it in my spine. Problem is, I don’t know if my spine is rational or not.
So you may ask yourself, what the heck has rationality to do with anything? I would say, everything. Or at least, I would say that rational fear (in combination with knowledge of course) is just about everything when it comes to snow. Rational fear alerts you (me) on the presence of real danger and therefore helps you (me) to avoid exposure to more risk than you (I) are willing to take. Rationality also allows me to feel the full joy of going up or down a slope that is ‘safe enough’, because it makes me let go of irrational worries. Irrational fear, on the other hand, is no good whatsoever. My experience of irrational fear is that it is very efficient in one particular activity: to block rational thoughts. If there’s one place where I want my thoughts to be rational, it’s in avalanche terrain.
When my head gets colluded with irrational fear, I start to doubt my competence at evaluating risk. When I doubt my competence, I stop making independent evaluations of the risk and start to rely on others. Others that I can never know how much they actually know about the risk, however much I like them.
It is my firm belief that everyone should take responsibility for their own safety. I think that companionship is fantastic, but babysitting is not. Still, when my head gets colluded with irrational fear, I regress into a baby in the need of a sitter.
I have tried to give my rational fear the upper hand of my irrational fears: I read the AVI forecasts, evaluate the snow pack, read guide books and look at the maps to plan potential trips, and I only go up routes that I think are safe enough with people I deem to be safe enough. Finally, I try (try) to find the nerve to use mountain voice to discuss potential risks. Still…
So Tromsø was hit with a polar low and with a shit load of snow. The white Tromsø giants were calling me to come out and play. I wanted to go, but at the same time I wanted to hide in bed.
In the end, I went out and played. With neck hair looking a bit like the petrified forest and joules working overtime, with shaking legs and chattering teeth I responded the call from the mountains.
Visibility was about zero, the terrain unknown. It was horrible. At the same time, I knew that the tour was relatively safe and the group risk avert and attentive to everyone’s risk evaluations and perceptions.
I have a long way to go finding my inner rationality, but I think that I have at least taken an ant’s step forward.
I hope that I, soon, will be able to go further than that: I hope that I, by taking baby steps in the backcountry will get better at distinguishing my rational from my irrational fears. I hope that the experience that I get, will also give me a greater sense of self-competence and that that will make more active and self-reliant. I have also had the nerve to apply for an avalanche instructors course here in Troms. I am far from qualified, but I still hope to get in (hope is a precious thing). When I took the AVI 1 in Jackson, I felt an exponential increase in my sense of self-competence and I think that it made me a lot better at making good decisions in the backcountry. I hope that going back to AVI school will have a similar effect. I also hope that my experiences, analyses and fears may come to use of others if I make it all the way..