Taking time to prepare
Do you hear that? Ski season is knocking on the door. As the weather grows colder and the skiers under us wait impatiently for snow, I pick up my books about snow; refreshing my knowledge in order to make informed decisions when the time comes to ski the backcountry again.
It was in April 2010 I lost two friends in an avalanche in the north of Norway. At that point I had been skiing the backcountry for approx. 6 years, some years before I had started up a small guiding company and was now contemplating if I should put my bets on ski guiding. Questions started to stream; friends, neighbors, family all had their points to share – is it worth it to be out there? is it not better to simply stay away from avalanche terrain? Do you really want to be responsible for other peoples lives? Valid questions, asked in a vunerable time.
8 years later – our every day still consist out of skiing. More then ever before I have an understanding of what snow does and how the weather and the mountain affect it. We have years of experience skiing the Alps, hold the highest ski coach/teacher qualification, have professional work experience as an avalanche observer for the Norwegian Avalanche Forecast (Varsom), give avalanche awareness courses and think about mountain safety, which lays the foundation to live and work skiing the backcountry as safely as possible.
More then ever I am aware of having low-risk travel habits.
Make no mistake. These habits do not guarantee safety; they just help push the safety arrow a few notches closer to the 100 percent mark. We will all make a wrong decision at least once in our lives, and more likely, several times. So when the inevitable happens, practicing low-risk travel habits is the only way to push the safety arrow from 99 percent to 99.9 percent. The final part of the risk equation—vulnerability—can be mitigated with proper safety equipment and good rescue skills, pushing the arrow up to 99.99 percent, which is the minimum safety margin for a long career.
– Bruce Temper –
In order to use these low-risk travel techniques I need to know what avalanche terrain is, how to recognize it out there and how to go about it. This brings us back to simple foundational knowledge that can be obtained at any mountain safety/avalanche awareness course. Everything we know about avalanches fits into one of three categories: terrain, weather, and snowpack. Very quickly said, if you´re going to learn nothing else about avalanches, at least learn how to manage terrain. Learning the basics and how to manage it will give you a long and happy life.
Many of my friends can manage their way down the mountain with some style, they say “the snow feels nice today” or “I am not moving in avalanche terrain” (while they actually do, unknowingly). Many of us think avalanche terrain to be only those slopes that are 30*+ steep. But have we looked around us? In Norway it´s almost impossible to not ski or cross avalanche terrain – terrain steeper than 30 degrees + the run-out zone. Some of my friends have – after the accident – said that they will keep themselves out of the danger zone, thus out of avalanche terrain. I think that´s a respectable choice, and definitely a safe option, but it also means that one narrows down the possibilities of skiing the backcountry in a great extent. Few are the fun and exciting trips we can get in this type of terrain (ATES 1), and if skiing the backcountry becomes a passion we soon have to think differently.
If I would like to ski those other mountains where I am moving in ATES 2 and 3 terrain – thus meeting plenty of terrain that falls in the category of avalanche terrain – or I would like to ski those steeper lines, I need to think about which terrain is appropriate for the conditions. I need to consider the snowpack, the pattern of the instability, the kind of avalanche dragon we deal with, and the technical skills we have. This has everything to say how to manage a long life from the accidents soon to happen. Being obsessed with thinking consequence is something we think about daily.
What will happen if it slides? What’s below? What’s above? What is the slope connected to? If you don’t like the consequences and you’re uncomfortable with the uncertainty in the snowpack, maybe you should find another option.
Always look for the downside of any decision, and always challenge assumptions and beliefs. I try to continually ask myself: “Why might this be wrong?”
Moreover, I take this time in the fall, when the weather is grey and the rain coming down in gallons, to prepare myself; Structurally I need to understand the weather and how it affects the snow, I need to make the most out of planning the trips ahead, thus bringing down our exposure time; but most of all it comes down to knowing where I could ski the best snow without exposing myself and others “unnecessarily”. The more tricks you know, the more knowledge about snow stability you prossess, the better your travel skills and rescue skills, and most important, the more mastery you have over your won human foibles, the better your odds for surviving in avalanche terrain.
So there you and I have something to work towards;
In the end we need to decide if we´re willing to play the game, knowing what it´s about – and living with the consequences. That´s up to you; none can decide but you. Let´s make an informed decision at least.