avalanche!

13 Jan

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Photo Credit: Andrew Navin, Mayflower Gulch

“There are old skiers, there are bold skiers; but there are no old, bold skiers”

Mr. A and I spent all weekend becoming Avalanche 1 certified backcountry skiers; becoming more informed on the causes, solutions, escape routes, and tour planning, when it comes to backcountry travel. Considering the amount of time we spend in the backcountry, we figured it could only serve in our favor to become more educated on the great white world that we call home.

Although nearly everything that we learned over the last three days was extremely pertinent and can be applied to just about all of our out-of-bounds adventures, the thing that struck me most during our time in this Avi 1 class was our discussion on Human Triggers and the glorification of big pow, steep slopes, heck even avalanches themselves, in today’s ski/snowboard culture.

The “glorification of big pow” is visible across all facets of daily life in Summit County. Colleagues at the workplace bragging about their huge “huck” off that gnarly rock pile three miles into Little Alaska Bowl, movie nights featuring just about anything from Teton Gravity Research (don’t get me wrong, those guys are rad), features in industry pubs, you name it. But what you don’t hear about is how these “experts” prepared themselves for the gnarly conditions that they are challenging themselves with. I think a lot of people, including myself, consider themselves to be untouchable. That getting caught in an avalanche is something that will never happen to them, even though Colorado is the #1 state in the United States for avalanche related deaths and Summit County is #2 in the state of Colorado for counties with the highest avalanche incidents. If nothing else, this class gave me an idea of the lack of significance that we, as humans, carry in the wild world of Mother Nature. 

Thinking back over my year in Colorful Colorado, I can think of several instances where human triggers and the glorification of backcountry access easily could’ve come into play during my stints in unpatrolled terrain. Human triggers such as the “expert halo” or social instinct, heck even the need to get the perfect “brag” shot, has affected my decisions about whether or not I ski somewhere. Prior to this class, I assumed that the guys I was traveling with were the “experts”, that they had a plan, should we run into something that alters our plan of attack. In hindsight, they may have had all the gear and been strong skiers, but I am fairly certain that many of them had yet to take a proper avalanche safety class that would teach them the basics of utilizing their gear and reading the conditions.

CAIC has some great incident write-ups that detail the events leading up to and during avalanches across the state that involved a loss of human life. Upon reading these write-ups or even this spectacular New York Times article on the Stevens Pass/Tunnel Creek avalanche, you will see that many of these incidents involve people that are considered industry “experts” who ignored the signs that would otherwise point directly to instability in the snowpack. Yes, there may have been signs of a weak snowpack underfoot, but it was the “human mind” that lead these experts to ignore the facts and continue up into the danger zone.

Our Avalanche 1 certification class was an extremely eye-opening experience that yes, while providing us with the very basics in avalanche terrain, also opened our eyes to how naïve we’ve been about the dangers and risks that go hand-in-hand with traveling in the backcountry.  I’m not saying that you won’t find us messing around Mayflower Gulch, Humbug Gulch (a new spot on the other side of Mayflower that was suggested to us yesterday!), or Cadillac (outside of ‘Zuma), but you will find us spending more time examining the conditions, planning routes appropriate to the weather and snowpack, and understanding the risks associate with touring.

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