Managing Avalanche Risk Part 9: How To Handle Our Baggage

Managing Avalanche Risk Part 9: How To Handle Our Baggage

We all bring preconceptions with us when we head for the mountains. This baggage can be deeply buried in our psyche and, whether we recognize it or not, influences our decision-making, often in subtle ways. Like most things in the business of avalanche risk, there is no simple right or wrong answer coming, so don’t expect a definitive solution to the problem. But hopefully by recognizing where we come from, both physically and psychologically, will provide you with another tool for your decision-making quiver.


Where you come from

If you’ve been in the game for a while, you’ve probably heard about snow climates and, depending on where you live, you’ve probably developed some habits based on what you generally see in your local snowpack.

For example, if you live in a coastal range like the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, or B.C.’s South Coast Mountains, you’re probably accustomed to a warm, deep, maritime snowpack with little variation in layers. Your decision-making MO might sound something like: “Wait 36 hours after a storm ends, then it’s good to go.”

In the Rockies, your life revolves around a cold, shallow, continental snowpack with a more or less permanent layer of weak facets and depth hoar on the ground. Your decision-making standard operating procedure here likely involves constant season-long vigilance, watching that basal layer and not trusting it much until spring.

I live in Revelstoke, B.C., where we have a classic interior/inter-mountain climate that’s warmer and deeper than the Rockies but cooler and shallower than the coast. I spend a lot of time watching for the dreaded mid-pack persistent weak layer (PWL), like surface hoar or a crust/facet combo. My decision-making involves watching these PWLs as they evolve over the winter. Sometimes I can go for it, other times I’m tiptoeing around on simple, 20-degree slopes waiting for PWLs to heal.

While I agree there are various geo-climates that generally produce a snowpack that on average is regionally distinct, I don’t buy into the idea that you should always rely on the decision-making rules often cited by people who live in these areas.

Geographically and seasonally, there are lots of variations within the broad classic snow-climate definitions. When I was working in the eastern-most zones of the Cariboo Mountains of B.C., for example, I often found a shallow, weak, wind-hammered pack, even though this would be considered an “interior” snow climate. Many times, I found myself looking longingly across the valley at the deeper, more appealing snowpack of the Rockies’ west slope. I clearly remember gleefully showing a Level 3 Pro class of avalanche workers a totally crappy basal facet layer near Donner Summit in the Sierra. And I’ve enjoyed many PWL-worry free winters in the interior ranges.

Accepting that there are going to be anomalies, being on the lookout for them, and assessing the local conditions without relying too heavily on preconceived notions about your region will help you avoid the times and places where you might get caught by surprise. And it’s even more important to not assume how you operate at home will work in other places that you are less familiar with.

The snowpack is constantly changing; sometimes from minute to minute, often from hour to hour or day to day, and certainly from one week or month to another.
Your snowpack memories

“They only remember the last run.” One of my guiding mentors said this to me once when I was marveling at how stoked our guests were about the day, even though we’d skied mediocre conditions until we found a couple of runs with decent snow at the end of the day.

Our memories are short, and we tend to recall best what gave us pleasure. This can skew our ability to see the bigger picture and make informed decisions based on a more holistic perspective. From an avalanche risk perspective, our snowpack memories affect us on various scales of time.

The snowpack is constantly changing; sometimes from minute to minute, often from hour to hour or day to day, and certainly from one week or month to another. These changes are often occurring deep in the pack so we can’t always easily feel or see them.

“It’s so easy to bring your baggage from the last run, day, week, month, or even season to your decision-making today.”

If you have a fantastic first run, you may be less inclined to see changes around you as you head for your second one. When the snowpack is near the tipping point between stability and instability and the weather is dynamic, things can change quickly—what was good to go an hour or a few minutes ago might be quite different by the time you’re stripping off your skins and salivating at the thought of your next descent on the same or a similar slope.

On a longer timeframe, what you saw yesterday, last week, or last month is almost certainly not what you are skiing on now. Even harder to keep in mind are seasonal variations. If last winter was fantastic, you may be disinclined to recognize that this season is not the same as the last. If you’ve become used to a certain set of conditions over a period of years and haven’t seen that weird winter that occurs only once a decade or once a lifetime, you might not see that this season is different from what you remember from the past and have become accustomed to.

It’s so easy to bring your baggage from the last run, day, week, month, or even season to your decision-making today. That historical knowledge and information is useful and applicable, but it should not override the steps you take in your daily assessment/analysis, run list/trip planning, and ongoing validation processes. Remember our discussion in Part 7 and Part 8 about validating our theories and adjusting our plans if necessary? This process will significantly reduce the potential for our baggage to interfere with our process.

It's always important to remember that the snowpack varies—from valley to valley, aspect to aspect, and even turn to turn.
The terrain that shapes us

It’s easy to forget that the snowpack is highly variable over space (terrain). What I’m feeling on this turn might be completely different three turns lower. What I’m experiencing on this aspect and elevation will almost certainly not be indicative of what I’ll find higher, lower, or around the corner. What I saw in that valley may not be even close to what I’ll see in this one.

“My nightmares are generally about the less obvious and smaller stuff, notably terrain traps”

Over the years, I’ve developed an almost pathological aversion to certain kinds of terrain. People I’ve worked and skied with over the years have suggested my phobia borders on the irrational. This may be true. I know for sure that there have been times when, even though all the logic and data and analysis says “Go!” I’ve not skied terrain simply because a certain feature makes me feel uncomfortable.

Yes, big avalanche paths are scary and obvious, but I trust my daily process to keep me away from those unless hazard is low and my confidence is high. My nightmares are generally about the less obvious and smaller stuff, notably terrain traps. Unsupported slopes with cliffs or thin, rocky areas below; gullies and creeks; rapid transitions from steep to flat; open water; avalanches that run in or into or through trees, even small ones; tree wells. These are the kind of features that trigger a deeply embedded almost irresistible, negative emotional response. It’s not that I never ski places like this—of course I do. But even when the logic of my analysis and support from my team allows me to overcome my fears and I do expose myself or my group, I feel distinctly unsettled and am hypervigilant until I’m out of there.

I know the cause of this fear. A significant percentage of close calls and near misses and serious incidents I’ve been personally involved in or have seen as a rescuer or investigator have involved terrain traps.

If you’ve never had a bad experience with a certain kind of terrain, these kinds of fears probably seem illogical. I offer you this raw and probably crazy-sounding personal anxiety-ridden story hoping you get something out of it.


The experiences that influence us

Avalanche conditions are cyclical. Sometimes there are 30, 50, 100, or more years between cycles. So just because you’ve never seen something before doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen. One of the most common things I’ve heard when investigating an accident involves a statement something like, “I’ve been (insert activity) in this place for (insert number) years, and I’ve never seen this happen here before.” This kind of argument is also one of the most common justifications you’ll hear from people who don’t have a daily process when they are trying to convince you to do something that feels a bit out there and you’re expressing doubts.

While our past experiences are an important piece of the puzzle, they are only one part of a much larger picture. For me, it’s a mistake to allow my experience to unduly influence or overrule my daily process—especially if I’m tempted to be more aggressive.

The signs of extraordinary situations are generally there, even if they seem unlikely or unbelievable based on your personal or local knowledge and experience. When forecasters and guides are using words and phrases like “exceptional,” “never seen before,” “tricky,” or “challenging” to describe the conditions, it’s a sign that you may want to rely less on your personal experience than you normally might. When you see or hear reports of conditions or events that are outside your realm of experience, it’s probably time to pay more attention to other opinions and advice rather than rely on your historical knowledge.

For me, this cuts both ways. There are times when I add significant safety margins if I’m thinking it’s weird or out abnormal out there. And, while it’s less common, there are also times when I put my personal fears aside and push past them if my trusted teammates and the data and analysis indicate I’m being irrational and it’s go-time.


The takeaway

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to the question of whether we’re letting our baggage play too much of a role or not. I’m not saying never trust your experience. But I am suggesting it’s wise to not trust it implicitly. My approach is to make sure that I use my experience wisely as part of the process that leads to your final decision. Some things I keep in mind are:

  1. It’s not a good idea to bring your preconceptions with you when you travel from your home area to a different region.
  2. If you think your local snowpack is always going to look and behave the same way over space and time, you’ve either not been paying attention or haven’t been around long enough to recognize an anomalous situation when you see one.
  3. No matter how familiar you are with your local snowpack or terrain, don’t shortcut the hazard-assessment and risk-analysis process. The daily process is where you’ll pick up the anomalies that regularly occur over time and space in all snowpacks everywhere.
  4. If you are in avalanche terrain, avalanches can happen even if you’ve never seen one there before.

Probably the most important thing for me is that I need to have a done my due diligence and come up with a reasoned and reasonable plan based on all the data, information, experience, and knowledge available to me at the time. I will not always be right, but hopefully I’ll be right enough that nothing seriously bad happens. And if I’ve done everything I can as well as I can and do make an honest mistake that has an undesirable outcome, I can live with myself afterward because I can explain and justify why I did what I did, even if I was wrong.

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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