Who do we bring into the backcountry?

There are many lessons to be found in this video; precommitment, communication with partners, and the familiarity heuristic all play a part in Roger’s story. However the one aspect of this accident that I am particularly interested in is the incorporation of adjacent actors in Roger’s decision making. There seems to be a bit of a divide between those that advocate for strict attention to the task and people at hand, while others such as Laura Adams argue in favor of a more diverse set of influences on our decision making process. Like many things in life what is actually occurring in a particular moment will dictate how we think and which memories our brains choose to employ to help make one choice or the other. However if we incorporate systems thinking into our cognitive toolset then we are inevitably forced to ask ourselves how people who aren’t present (friends and family) will be affected by our decisions. I tried to pay more attention to my thought processes this season and who I was allowing to have a say in my internal conversation of go or no go, safe or unsafe. Interestingly I quickly realized that this was actually a difficult process. Many times the allure of a particular line or a predetermined goal (classic I know) seemed to apply blinders and my world became reduced to the people I was with and the environment that I was traveling in. This is where I would arrive at a crossroad of wanting to enter a flow state where everything seemed to drop away and I was fully engaged in the present moment vs. being hyper vigilant of how and why I was making decisions. Certainly the two states of being aren’t mutually exclusive but with the benefit of hindsight I realize that it takes more practice than I initially anticipated. Anyway, enjoy the video and many thanks to Roger and co. for sharing the experience and allowing us all to particpate in the learning process.

4 Replies to “Who do we bring into the backcountry?”

  1. I might have had a bit of a different introduction to this all. From the word go I’ve had friends/acquaintances not come back. I’ve stared at lines where people I’ve known have died and it’s a internal struggle because the skier in me wants to rip that couloir apart, but the analytically mind in me reminds me of events. That’s always been in the back of my mind. So I came into backcountry skiing with a Avalanche Level 1 cert and as a Wilderness First Responder.

    I feel it’s like a pendulum for me. My state of mind is hype aware with my two children and wife at home to make decisions to come back to them, but like anything in life every decision comes with some inherent risk, but after weighing the facts (Line, elevation, pit data, partner, partners skill/gear) then eventually making the decision it’s freeing to let the pendulum back the other way where it’s about being present in the moment and enjoying that experience.. letting myself feel the sensations of the environment and the run.

    For me it’s the act of taking skins off and on is the moment where I can let that pendulum swing back and forth…

  2. Many thanks for the thoughts! The pendulum analogy is emblematic of how I sometimes feel when choosing to ski a particular line. Typically the process begins as being very analytical; check weather and avy reports, share info with partner(s), research any recent ascent/descent and resulting beta, etc. Then there is this transition in the moment where I feel a bit of a decline in my ability to be objective with my assessments of the variables before me. I guess this is the transition from cognitively making a decision to then physically acting upon it. The question then becomes is my initial analysis accurate enough to provide the widest margin of safety possible for me, my partners, and any adjacent actors involved?? This past season I found myself doubting those initial assessments, continuously feeling like I was missing an important clue to the snow puzzle.

  3. Blake, that ‘doubting those initial assessments’ feeling is more commonly known as ‘old age.’ Not just in a neurological change in risk evaluation and priorities, but also a longitudinal exposure to the negative consequences. I’ve seen so many friends (I was going to say countless friends but that would sound like I have a lot of them.) go through this, and end up backing off ‘the hard stuff’ or give it up altogether. I vividly recall one such friend (a retired Army Ranger Captain) having a potentially nasty swim in the middle of a class V rapid, swimming to a rock in the middle of the river, where he sad and bawled for a while before being rescued. He’s never run anything over a III since. Says all he could do was think of his daughter being without her father. I’ve had my own epiphanies, with skiiing and whitewater, to different ends. I blew my knee tele skiing and will never go back. I scared myself and lost some friends kayaking, and still paddle but not the ‘hard stuff.’ The difference? The intangible equation of ‘Is it worth it?’ that you talk about as a pendulum. For me, the payoff in skiing was never enough to offset the risk, in kayaking it was. Both are entirely subjective. I was late to skiing (20) and learned to paddle when I was a boy. Maybe that’s important, maybe not.

    1. Many thanks for the thoughts Andrew! First, I find it amazing how our minds can rationalize certain risks and not others (exposure and skillset have much to do with this I assume). As I was walking past some heavy whitewater yesterday I thought about how impossible, scary, and a little reckless it seemed to try and navigate that part of the river. Not sure how you paddlers do it but I have a lot of respect for the environment you recreate in. For now I will continue to enjoy my water in its solid/frozen state. There is a huge part of me that agrees with you regarding the age factor. Early thirties have come with increasingly honest assessments of where I am putting myself at greatest risk and how much time I am spending in that arena (thus I swapped the road bike for a mountain bike and no longer race/train with cars around). There is without a doubt neurological and physiological reasons for some of the changes in behavior. I am much more cautious and wary of what is acceptable to launch myself off of or down and I am increasingly respectful of what I ask my body to do on regular basis (strangely I think the rest and yoga has actually improved performance). However when I reflect on this past winter I realize that I skied a higher number of exposed and “full value” lines than I ever have in the past. So did I do a good job and make the right choices or was it dumb luck? I never really felt panicky about decisions I made this winter and I think much of this comes from having genuinely solid and fun plans B and C, as well as really vocal and communicative skiing partners. But I wonder is this enough to keep me safe (Kahneman would have a field day with this thought process)? One of the things I find myself doing is enacting clear precommitment strategies (i.e. I will not go to line X given forecast Y…..or ski with person X on line(s) Y). For me creating these personal boundaries with the environment and other skiers/climbers seems to ease my sense of panic on moderate or considerable days when evidence and decisions don’t come easily. In the end though you are correct and getting older has introduced a mind game that I welcome. It has been fun personally and academically to break it all down only to realize the large systems at play, and in turn trying to gain a better understanding of my role within those systems. Moreover I find that the question of “is it worth it” has taken on an entirely new meaning that forces me to assess the personal and communal value of my decisions and resulting actions. Needless to say there is much to be learned in the mountains.

Leave a Reply to Andrew Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s