Pro Tip: Make No Mistakes After 2 p.m.
An age-old adage that keeps me honest is, “Make no mistakes after 2 p.m.”
I was in the Andes this past August with a group who made an unplanned decision, after lunch, to descend from a summit via an unfamiliar route. The group wanted to use the opportunity to explore new terrain. Fair enough, I thought. Conditions were stable. With such an experienced group of good alpinists and backcountry skiers, it seemed like a reasonable choice.
But the weather and visibility deteriorated as we descended. We were traversing half blind across big, consequential alpine features and entering into steep, unfamiliar terrain with slide-for-life conditions. I felt like I needed to break up the downhill momentum and get people to reflect on what we were doing. I stopped the group and asked them if they wanted a tip. I was there as a coach after all. They nodded.
I looked at my watch and simply stated, “No mistakes after 2 p.m.”
Making a good decision in mountainous terrain is a tough task. We deal with changing weather and conditions, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty. We know our decisions will not always be right, so our goal is to be more right than wrong. And the ability to error-correct is one of the hallmarks of a good decision-maker.
Error-correction requires giving yourself both options and time to reflect and alter your course of action. Too many incidents happen at the end of the day. People are tired. The “horses to the barn” syndrome can rush your thought process. Both of these can challenge group management in avalanche terrain.
Ease into the day and accomplish your prime objective mid-day. As the day wears on, recognize time is not on your side, and by mid-afternoon, choose wisely. You can’t afford to make mistakes.
Colin Zacharias is a consultant and educator in the avalanche and mountain guiding industries, and an IFMGA/ACMG mountain guide. He resides on Vancouver Island.