We Need to Know Avalanches Inside and Out

 

There’s a fine line between learning from the mistakes of others and shaming people for their ignorance. 

Twelve people have died in avalanches in the United States this winter, including an expert skier in Oregon who was also an avalanche forecaster. He was killed in early March despite deploying an airbag that kept him from being buried. On average, 27 people die in avalanches in the United States each year. 

Three-hundred and fifty avalanches have been reported by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center since last September. Many of these incidents were triggered by humans, and four resulted in fatalities. 

Some avalanches caused injuries and required complex rescues. In their aftermath, communities in the Northern Rockies have been trying to make sense of the circumstances and decision-making that led to these accidents. 

Sometimes that debate gets heated.

I’ve been part of these conversations, writing always about how unpredictable avalanches are. Feedback can get negative, with some people accusing me of shaming the victims. Others say I don’t go far enough in calling people out for putting themselves and others at risk with their behavior.

The average number of avalanche deaths per year in the United States has stayed the same for more than a decade, despite the growing number of winter backcountry travelers — and that means something is working.

Discussion also takes place on social media, where anonymity seems to increase the vitriol of commentators. I bet these kinds of conversations take place in every mountain town where avalanches are a winter hazard.

Analyzing accidents in the outdoors has a long tradition. The American Alpine Club published the first edition of its annual publication, “Accidents in North American Climbing” (now “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”), in 1948. The goal then — and now — was to share lessons to help us avoid making the same mistakes others have made. The question is, does this kind of analysis really help?

Dale Atkins, a longtime avalanche professional in Colorado, questioned the efficacy of the practice during a talk at an avalanche workshop in Jackson, Wyoming, a few years ago.

He said it was too easy for us to examine an incident with hindsight and conclude that we would never make the same mistakes. Knowing the outcome prejudices our opinions.

Instead, Atkins encouraged people to consider what made the people involved in an accident think they were making a good decision. What personal blind spots might have affected their thinking process? 

I know my personal blind spots. I am easily drawn in by untracked powder and my fear of missing out.  Other classic vulnerabilities include ego, the sense of being invincible, competitiveness, time pressure or a commitment to a goal. 

All of us are driven by something that colors our perceptions and decisions — something that in hindsight can look really stupid.

Why did two seasoned skiers I know get caught by an avalanche while digging a pit to analyze the risk that day? On the surface, you might conclude these individuals were simply not thinking or were being reckless, when in fact there may have been all sorts of factors contributing to their decision-making. It’s understanding those outside factors that can help us learn. 

But here’s the dark side: We need to remember that behind the clinical, emotionless words found in an avalanche report there are real people. People who may be facing a long recovery from injuries or who may never be coming home again. 

Their partners and the rescuers on the scene may be traumatized. Families and friends are grieving. Analyzing their story is not just an abstract examination of a chain of events. It’s an examination of lives that were forever changed during a beautiful day on the snow that turned into a tragedy.

I think we all benefit when we conduct an avalanche analysis with empathy and compassion. The average number of avalanche deaths per year in the United States has stayed the same for more than a decade, despite the growing number of winter backcountry travelers — and that means something is working.

Experts believe education is helping stabilize that number, and education means analyzing how an avalanche broke loose to injure or kill people.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes about the outdoors from her home in Victor, Idaho.   

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