I few weeks ago, I went to an avalanche seminar hosted by the Centre for Avalanche Research and Education (CARE), here in Tromsø. The talk that evening was given by Thomas T. Kleiven, ski enthusiast and photographer. In 2014, the same year that we were caught in the avalanche in Kittelfjäll, Thomas triggered, and was completely buried by, an avalanche in the French Alps. One part of his talk shot straight through my armour: when Thomas talked about how his relationship to the mountains, and the feelings he experienced when in those mountains, had changed after the accident, I started to shiver and I felt tears falling from my eyes.
I and Thomas are very different. I am in no way a radical, or even skilled, skier, and I did not feel safe in the mountains before the accident. I have always had the heart of a hare. I have always painted the devil on the wall and expected the worst. I have always been the one who wants to turn back. But I still had the same experience as he did.
Like we had been betrayed, by ourselves, and by the mountains.
Before the accident, we both used our imagination to paint lines across white mountainsides. Now, neither of us can stop ourselves from red-marking all the places where things can go wrong. Neither of us feel comfortable in avalanche terrain anymore.
I feel like I have been betrayed by my one true love, and even though I find new mountains to fall in love with, I find it very hard to trust them, or to trust my own ability to evaluate their trustworthiness.
I keep searching for signs of betrayal.
It ruins the fun. I want to be happy in love. I want to experience sheer joy in the mountains. At times, I do get a blissful feeling of happiness when I skin up or ski down a mountain, but in my stomach a heavy weight cattle bell of fear constantly rumbles.
I often ask myself if my fear is rational or not. The problem with avalanches is that it is so difficult to tell. If there are weak layers in the snow, the bonding is poor, and the shear is relatively clear, then the avalanche problem is present. If the slope is steeper than 30°, then the snow can slide. If there is a gully below, or cliffs, or trees, or a lake, then the consequences are potentially large. So in that case then, my fear of avalanches appears rational. Still, do I exaggerate the hazard? All I see, and can think of, is consequences. If there is a release, then I will be tossed down that thing, into those rocks, or trees or that gully. I indulge in that thought until I start to shiver.
I never do things like that when I drive my car.
Am I overconfident and overly optimistic when I am driving, or a Nostradamus when it comes to snow? Probably a bit of both. I don’t know.
I do know that many others do not have the same fears that I do. I see people happily crossing, climbing, and skiing down mountainsides that I feel are way to risky, regardless of skiing capability. And most of the time, nothing bad happens. They get great runs, while I stay on my mellow slopes. Do they know when to go in a way that I don’t, or are they just lucky? Am I missing out because of my clenched jaws and my fist full of fear?
Perhaps a bit of all those things. I don’t know.
Perhaps it is just that I demand larger safety margins than others. That is okay. We all have different risk preferences.
But what are my risk preferences?
Loewenstein, in his article “Risk as feelings” from 1999, argues that humans are poor at evaluating hazard (that is probability of a negative outcome combined with the consequences of a negative outcome) unless we can feel it. We overestimate the risk of an airplane accident, or terrorism, because we can visualize and almost feel the consequences. We are much worse at evaluating, and acting on, the risk of diabetes (or having a car accident). It may seem easy to imagine the catastrophic events of an avalanche, but can we? I can.
During a talk that I gave to the avalanche instructors in Norway a couple of weeks ago, one of the instructors asked me if I my feeling of risk, and my behavior had changed after the accident. I answered with a perplexed, yes! He seemed as surprised as I was. That surprised me even more. I was not taken by surprise by our accident. I knew that slopes could slide, and that we all take risk while in avalanche terrain, but I somehow thought that I thought that it was worth it.
I am not sure that I think that it is worth it anymore, because now I know what it feels like to think that you are going to die.
Yes I do. Just like I think that it is worth driving my car, or riding my bike, or giving in to love, I of course think that it is worth taking some risk in life. Without it, life isn’t life.
And this is still a fact. The risk of experiencing negative health effects from backcountry skiing is much smaller than the positive health (and soul) effects that for sure comes out of it.
But how much risk am I willing to accept? Less than before, for sure.
How low has the probability of a negative outcome have to be for me to accept it? What is the probability of me being in a car crash? Or that the snow slides under my feet?
Could it be that I have started to evaluate the risk of an avalanche like others evaluate the risk of a terrorist attack?
Snow is such a tricky, wonderful, nasty, fantastic material. I am a control freak, but I can never gain control over the snowpack. I have always gone mad when people start telling a story and then changes their mind. I want to know everything. I need to know, and control everything. The snowpack will not tell me the full story. And that drives me crazy.
I guess that we are afraid of terrorist attacks, and airplane crashes, not only because they are so visual, but it is so apparent to us that we cannot control the risk. When we drive a car, we feel as if we can control that same risk, and most of us overestimates that ability. Perhaps it is the same with avalanches. We learn more, and we go on tours when nothing bad happens. We gain confidence that we can control the risk, until that bad thing happens. Then it feels as if we cannot control the risk at all. The snowpack becomes a hiding ground for terrorists.
The question is of course, how the hell does one get a balance between the two?
Thanks Martin, for bearing with me this weekend. I needed it.
PS. The thought of how our self-confidence evolves as #nothingbadhappens, and when bad things do happen, is not new. It is very well described by Bruce Tremper in “Staying alive in avalanche terrain” (2008). DS.