Stay humble and gain knowledge

Skiing and powder is a great combination. Nothing can get me to forget time, place or worries like freshies on a nice mountaintop. It is so tempting to just ski it without thinking; and that´s exactly what can be scary. Dropping in at the wrong place exposes you for an invisible risk. A risk difficult to determine the consequences of, as the possible outcome can be much bigger then you could have imagined.

Loosing friends in an avalanche

On the eve of Good Friday 2010 the doctors of the hospital in Tromsø, Norway, fought in vain to save the lives of my friend and her husband. Both were taken in an avalanche. Just a few days earlier I had spoken to them and they´d ask if I wanted to join in for this particular trip, but I had some other plans drawing me to ski the Lofoten Islands instead. They were taken on the island Kvaløya close to Tromsø, on a very popular skitouring route. While skiing down steep terrain, they were stopped by an ice-fall giving them options for 5-8 meter drops. Here they realized that they must have taken a slightly different route to the normal one and started to make their way up, on foot, as the terrain was too steep to skin back up. On their way back they triggered an avalanche which swept them away, down the ice-fall. Sometimes the power of nature are so brutal that lives cannot be saved. It is really painful and hard to realize that these two, who were outdoor enthusiasts and passionate skiers with so many future plans, now were swept away from the land of the living. This accident left me breathless and changed my attitude towards skiing the backcountry. After this incident I asked myself questions about my willingness to risk, the quality of avalanche assessments, choice of terrain and how I manage the skiing down. In my life I´ve skied steep mountain faces, fallen in avalanche terrain, gone skitouring whilst it was “avalanche weather”, I have overseen danger signs, and thought: “I have pretty ok control when it comes to our safety.” Everything has gone great, both for me and my skiing buddies – until easter 2010 came around.

Assessing safety

For some free skiing/ski touring is all about the adrenaline rush whilst roaming around in steep, unknown terrain. However this is not true for many of us. I do realize we´re exposing ourselves to risks while we´re out there, which makes it all the more important to be experienced, have good abilities on your skies and have the correct equipment to spend time in avalanche terrain.

There´s a lot of information to take in and gather when we´re going out ski touring. Starting the trip already in the car is of great value. We look at the terrain laying in the distance, assess avalanche area´s, and find the weak layers in the snowpack. Then we think through where we could find these layers elsewhere on the mountain and why, find routes to be able to quickly get out if necessary, and last but not least, before we ski down: how are the conditions now, what can change whilst we´re on the mountain? I look at weather systems and talk to locals before I start skinning up. The reason why I stop and dig a snow pit and point out lines is because I want to assess our safety all the time.

Have we learned enough?

A little while ago I overheard a conversation about the possibility of taking a ski touring course. The person  who wanted to take a course had bought himself ski touring equipment and was now interested to learn a little more techniques. Cool, I thought. Then he continued: “the safety aspect I have already done”. Strange, I thought with myself, what does that actually mean? Do people honestly feel that they´ve learned enough through a single avalanche assessment course? If so, we certainly have a job to do. When I look back and count the experiences and courses I´ve had, include my work for the Norwegian Avalanche Forecast (Varsom) I realize I know a bit yes, but far from everything. Within the assessment-world with avalanche professionals working all winter long, we still have unanswered questions of how and why snow crystals behave the way they do. Nothing is exact science.

This is exactly what worries me about the new off-piste culture: randonee seems to become the new sport for all Norwegians (++) who have skied before. I am worried about the tendencies in the Norwegian culture that has changed from a “go around” to a “go over”-culture. This culture however seems to cultivate off-piste skiers who neither have alpine prerequisites, snow knowledge or humility to get safely home and drink their hot chocolates.

Statistics from IKAR talk for itself: of all the deaths in avalanches, happened 1/5 and 1/3 close to lifts. When more ski complex terrain (even without actually knowing so, or that they have the skills to be skiing here), more accidents happen in the mountains. The reason for all avalanche accidents is that the people involved have misjudged the risk and have paid with their life. Even “experts” and skilled skiers make wrong decisions when it comes to avalanche danger and assessment. It´s just to watch one´s step.

Ski(llful) 

One of our biggest goals in work is for more people to become better skiers. To be a skillful skier we need to train, train and train. Becoming better technically results in less falls and less pressure on the snowpack when it really counts: in the backcountry. Research has shown that we stress the snowpack 6-7 times our own body weight when falling. Free riders can be skillful and thus lessen the impact they make on the snow, or even ride away from the avalanche, conditions allowing. But, on the other hand, a skillful skier can´t necessarily make the right assessments if he/she doesn´t have the training and experience. When it comes to it, all will be alike underneath that snowpack if we are caught in an avalanche, skillful skier or not. It´s just to watch one´s step.

Cultivate knowledge, experience, the right attitude and skiing skills.

I think we should focus on cultivating the right attitude. Knowledge and experience (through several! courses and a lot of practice) should enable us in greater measures to take decisions. Our skiing skills facilitate for safety.

So, gain all these skills this winter; one little course is not enough. Show interest, ask questions – do research and make assessments. Get better snow knowledge if you feel you can recognize and make your way safely in mountain terrain. Learn to read the terrain if you can´t already. Get out, get yourself some experience and practice. Stick your nose into the snow and find that weak layer that the avalanche forecast tells you about. Most important, stay humble – none of us have 100% control, and everyone has something to learn. First then we are on the right road.