Managing Avalanche Risk Part 7: You’re Always (a Little) Wrong

Managing Avalanche Risk Part 7: You’re Always (a Little) Wrong

Welcome to the 2022-23 Managing Avalanche Risk series. In the six articles last season, we spent our time working through all the things you need to do before you leave on your trip. This season, I’ll focus on implementing plans and making decisions in the field.

Remember the hazard assessment and risk analysis we come up with in our comfy offices? Well, those are just theories. Consequently, the run list and trip plan we create based on those theories are just preliminary proposals. We don’t want to go into the mountains thinking we’ve got it all figured out—so we need to constantly update our trip plan as we go to match reality. In the professional world, we call this validation, and the process is constant—starting more or less right after you’re finished your theorizing and planning sessions and ending when you’re safely back in the car.

There are two parts to this process: Predeparture validation is what you do before you are about to leave on your trip. For example, you did all your pre-trip work on Friday evening, and you are now getting ready to go out the door Saturday morning, it’s wise to take a look at what’s happened overnight to see if there’s new information available that needs to be considered before you leave. Then, once you’re underway, field validation is the process of constantly updating your assessments, analyses, run list, and trip plan based on what you actually see, hear, and feel around you as you travel.

But before we get into the validation process, I want to tell you a story, burned into my memory even though it occurred over 30 years ago, about what can happen when your validation process fails. It was the first time I experienced a full burial as a professional guide on the decision-making team. This story perfectly illustrates how quickly the shit can hit the fan, and how missing something pretty small at the wrong time can have serious consequences.

On this particular day, we did not do a predeparture validation cycle—getting 44 people ready for a heliskiing day is hectic, and only an hour and a half had passed between finishing our morning analysis and plan and the time we headed out the door around 8:30. So we figured there wasn’t really anything new to add to our thinking.

By 9 or so the first group landed and reported good skiing. The second group landed 15 minutes later and reported light to moderate gusty winds. I was in the fourth group and, while watching the other groups get picked up, I noticed plumes of snow coming off the peaks up valley from us. While we’d expected wind, our analysis had it arriving later in the day. I didn’t say anything. After dropping group three, the pilot warned me that winds were picking up and the flight might be a bit rough. I didn’t think much of it.

At 9:45 or so, I was being picked up and could not hear my radio over the engine noise and rotor wash. In the cockpit, I hooked into the heli’s radio to hear all hell breaking loose—someone in the third group had triggered a wind slab, got pushed into a terrain trap, and was completely buried.

Fortunately, no one was injured, and we all lived to ski another day. But this is a classic example of how quickly things can change and how important it is to be vigilant at all times, even before you put your skis on. In this case, we were only a little bit wrong; our forecast timing of when the wind would arrive was off by a just a few hours. The signs were there right from the time the first group lifted off and I had time to notice them as I waited for my pickup, but I failed to connect the dots. This led to a failure in field-validating our theory. Had I been more on the validation ball, my observations of wind arriving sooner than expected would have led to adjusting our plan early enough to avoid an incident that could have had a disastrous outcome.

Wind is an important factor to validate both before you go and in the field. If it’s windier than you expected, or if arrives earlier than you expected, you may need to change your plan.

With every trip, your validation process should include asking yourself these three questions:


Question No. 1: Are my hazard assessment and risk analysis theories right?

The short answer is no.

Avalanche hazard and risk are complex and, even in the best of times, our analyses are based on very sparse data that’s rife with uncertainties. Not even professionals get it totally right—we’re pretty much always wrong about something. So, if you figure you got it right, think again. If you head into the field assuming you’ve nailed it, you’re doomed—if not today then at some point in the future.

Here’s where things get nuanced. Sometimes we’re just a little bit wrong and we can proceed with our plan, even though it’s not perfect, with only minor adjustments. Other times we are very wrong and we must drastically change our plan or face life-threatening consequences. Personally, I always assume I’m off the mark somewhere and constantly seek out new information to help me figure out where I went wrong and how badly.

“Yah, well, you don’t learn much from being right all the time.”

Being “wrong” all the time is a really difficult thing to deal with—it’s hard on the ego, it takes time and energy to make adjustments, and, frankly, it’s a bit of a grind to continually validate our theories and update our plans when all we really want to do is go skiing. As a result, there’s a strong tendency to just not deal with validation or, if we do engage in the process, seek out and lend too much weight to evidence that supports our theory instead of accepting and integrating evidence that’s telling us we are wrong.

This kind of thinking is deadly in avalanche terrain. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be continually observant and keep an open mind so you can accept and dispassionately integrate new information into your theories and plans, no matter which way the evidence leads.

Recognizing where you went wrong and accepting that it’s part of the game creates a huge opportunity for getting better at the process of staying alive. Once, after a particularly hard day, one of my favorite mentors (imagine a thick Swiss accent here) said, “Yah, well, you don’t learn much from being right all the time.” I now spend a significant amount of time at the end of the day doing a retrospective—this is where learning and growth happen.

Question No. 2: What do I need to do to determine how wrong I am?

First, I do the predeparture validation: Before I walk out the door, I consider when my theories were generated and the evidence I had available at the time when plan was created. Then I assess what has happened between the time I finished my plan and now.

Predeparture validation is mostly about weather. The main weather factors that influence avalanche formation and release are precipitation, wind, temperature, and solar radiation. I look for new information about these factors: Did it snow more than expected overnight? Is it snowing harder now than the forecast said it would when I did my planning? What’s the wind been doing since I finished my hazard assessment? Is it warmer than I expected? Colder? Was I expecting it to be overcast all day but skies are already clear as I’m leaving? What’s the updated weather forecast for the day? Changes in any of these mean you need to reassess your theories.

After predeparture validation, field validation kicks in. Once I’ve left the house, I’m constantly comparing what I was expecting to what I’m seeing so I can update my theory and regularly determine if my plan is still reasonable. In the field, I’m looking at those same weather factors, but also snowpack conditions and avalanche activity.

If I figured I’d be in 20 centimeters of fluffy powder, I’d be concerned if I’m feeling stiff snow on the surface and it’s cracking around my skis as I travel, or if I’m hearing/feeling whumphing around me as a layer buried in the snowpack collapses with the added weight of my group. If I was expecting to see only small, thin, isolated wind slabs on north aspects in the alpine, I’d be reassessing if I saw bigger slabs on south aspects or an avalanche in a sheltered glade below treeline.

In addition to reassessing based on weather, snowpack, and avalanche observations, at critical points in the field, I do a gut-check. I ask myself and my group how we are all feeling about what we’re doing and what we’re about to do next. Everyone sees things a little differently, and even the least experienced person in the group may have noticed something I missed.

The search for new information, reassessment of hazard and risk, and re-examination of plans, goals, and objectives is constant, and it doesn’t stop until we’re all back safely at the end of the day.

“If I get into the habit of changing red runs to green, I’m going to have a wreck sooner rather than later. Why? Refer to the answer to question No. 1 above.”

Question No. 3: Do I need to change my plan?

Every time new information comes in during the validation process, and every time I confirm or deny and adjust my theory about risk and hazard, I ask myself if I should change my plan. While I frequently change my plan to be more conservative, I almost never go the other direction. Even if things look better than expected, it’s a rare day when I’ll upgrade my objective to something more aggressive. For example, if a run is red on my list in the morning when I leave the office but I find conditions are better than I anticipated, I do not change that red run to green in the field.

I’d strongly advise the “red runs are red—period” strategy in recreational contexts. It’s easy and incredibly tempting to convince yourself that “it’s better than I thought so we can ski more aggressively than we planned.” If you are only in the backcountry a few times a month, you might get away with doing this—perhaps for years. But if you are unlucky, or if you do it enough times, sooner or later you’re going to regret it. As a professional, skiing 10 to 15 runs a day in a snowcat or heliskiing operation 150-plus days per winter, if I get into the habit of changing red runs to green, I’m going to have a wreck sooner rather than later. Why? Refer to the answer to question No. 1 above.

It’s not easy to continually validate our theories and update our plans when all we really want to do is go skiing. But if skiing is the point, we all want to stay alive to do as much of it as possible.

What’s next?

In this article I’ve discussed the underlying fundamentals of validation. In article No. 8, I’ll walk you through a recreational validation scenario to help put it in context.

Karl Klassen took his first professional avalanche course in 1979 and spent the next 40 years working as a forecaster, guide, educator, and mentoring up and coming forecasters and guides. During that time he also sat on the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides board of directors including serving as vice president, president, then as executive director. He joined Avalanche Canada in 2004 as a public avalanche forecaster and became the warning service manager in 2009. Recently retired, he lives in Revelstoke, B.C., where he spends his time cycling in the summer and skiing in the winter. 

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