Human Triggered Avalanches Likely

PART I: What Were You Thinking

How long can I keep skinning without a headlamp?

You should be able to get up this trail without a headlamp….

I’m getting soft…..what did Steve say….oh yeah, drink some concrete and harden up.

I miss being on the boat….

Man, people were tough back in the day….

Ok, it’s actually getting hard to see…

This was the ebb and flow of my inner monologue last Friday night on the way up to the Harvard Cabin. Fortunately, this internal debate helped expedite the passage of time and I quickly found myself at the turn for Huntington Ravine. A few strides down the trail and almost immediately I could smell the fire from the woodstove. Food, friends, and dry layers were close at hand, just a few more steps. Small, light snowflakes, fell steadily and with ease as I made my way closer to the aforementioned comfort. Tomorrow would be good.

Rich and Marcia were probably a little upset that I was the only guest. I on the other hand couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my thirty-fifth trip around the sun than by sharing stories and laughing with people I respect and admire. Recently I haven’t been spending as much time at the Harvard Cabin as I would like, however, I still consider it a home away from home.

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Aghhhh, I don’t want to get up and pee…

I might be doing permanent damage….. this actually hurts….

Where is my hat?

God, I love that hat. If only people knew the full story behind that hat…..

Jesus, I really have to pee.

Fine….

I took a few steps out of the vestibule and was surprised by two things. One, the snow was still a consistent hardness (fist) from top to bottom. Two, there wasn’t a breath of wind (a partial explanation for the initial observation). All the snow remained in the trees and it was still falling straight down. I took care of business and then stood there, taking in the beautiful stillness that comes with tranquil snowstorms in the mountains, strengthening that indescribable feral connection with the mountains. This is the untold narrative behind the Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, and tweets. This is the reason we go.

Come on legs wake up.

Ahhh, I forgot how fast Rich is….

Good call saving the Ray Ray for the way down….

Hmmm, no tracks. Doug and Beth aren’t ahead of us…..no one is ahead of us.

Come on legs….

Rich and I moved past the tree he felled the day before. It is a miracle that thing didn’t fall on someone this season. Rich’s rounds are meticulously stacked on the left side of the trail so as not to be disturbed by skiers, snowmobiles, etc. Rich isn’t prone to doing things half-assed. Rather, an admirable neurosis guides most of his decision-making and resulting behaviors. He is one of the best ski partners I have, luckily we were on our way to meet up with two others, Beth and Doug.

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Our group’s collective avalanche education equated to two level ones, a level two, and a level three AIARE certifications. Moreover (and some would argue just as importantly), these folks quite literally live, or have lived, on this mountain. No one knows the terrain or the snowpack better than the friends who were assembled before me. Their intimate knowledge of Mount Washington and its unique weather characteristics have allowed us to move through this landscape with relative safety over the course of the past five years. Moreover, these are the people I have trusted (and will continue to) with my life on countless trips and adventures. They are all fully aware of the responsibility that comes with skiing in avalanche terrain. These are the friends you want to be with on a full value day and last Saturday was one of those.

We stood in the alcove of Ho Jo’s discussing plans, and after a thoughtful conversation realized that we would have to abandon a few of our objectives and be wary of the ones that remained on our run list. Since some of these options included nasty terrain traps we collectively decided that a warm up lap on Hillmans Highway would be our first line of the day. Furthermore, while discussing options another person joined our group. This individual expressed their concern about some of our initial choices. We listened to the new voice and honored our rule of defaulting to terrain that was appropriate for everyone’s risk tolerance. As we all geared up I did a beacon check.

Man, Doug is feeling it today….setting a beauty of a skin track.

I’m gonna slow down so we spread out a little bit….just in case

Quick hand shear….nothing….hmm….still fist hard….

Where’s the wind slab?

I’m going to jump on the top of that next turn…..hu….nothing

I don’t think Sarah appreciated my joke….or my singing.

Wow….this snow is gonna sluff right off the crust….hope edges are sharp…basically skiing the old bed surface.

Cut and move to the side, cut and move to the side…..maintain momentum….this is how you have to ski

Oh….time to boot.

Another quick pit….same result

Where the hell is that wind slab??

Jesus these people are quick with transitions….

Your turn up front…..kick good steps……

Halfway up Hillmans I decided to cross over to the right before the line opens up into a more prominent face and then splits into two distinct runs. I always prefer climbing on the right side because it keeps you away from the furthest left (lookers) slide path, potential rock and ice fall from the buttresses, and it puts you on a more prominent ridge vs. the quasi concavity on the left. I stopped in the middle of the slope to do another hand shear. My glove went through the new snow like it was Utah cold smoke. I shook my head and continued up the line.

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Just before the “narrows” Rich took over the lead. I turned around and carefully dug both heels into the slope behind me. Looking down I remarked at how the front points of my crampons were overhanging the small ledge I had kicked in. Funny the things we do for “fun.” Staring down the line, I was thinking about how good it felt to be in the mountains, while simultaneously recognizing how tired I was. I was tired from trying to physically catch up after an early season injury, tired from preparing for and taking my AIARE level 3, and tired from the chaotic schedule that results from having two jobs. More than anything else though, I was (am) even more mentally and emotionally fatigued by having suddenly lost my best friend to a drug overdose. This was the third unexpected and tragic fatality of someone I loved in as many years. The finality of death can be difficult to accept regardless of the age of the deceased, or the means by which they died. However, loosing peers, young, vibrant, and seemingly indestructible personalities is something I have yet to comprehend. I stood there staring down Hillmans Highway listening to Brad’s laugh, recounting Charlie’s countless expressions of love, and hypothesized about Beata’s once beautiful future. I have been carrying a lot of extra weight recently. I was tired.

Typically, I like being out front kicking steps, breaking trail, and putting my head into the wind. In the past few weeks though I have been content being at the back, taking in the view, and allowing my friends to do the work (diffusion of responsibility and social loafing 101). As I turned around to follow Rich and the rest of the group this was where my head was at; thinking about far, distant things that had nothing to do with the fact that the slope angle was changing. An easy observation that was more easily overlooked.

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Come on Blake….

Relax, you are here for fun….mellow out…sing a song…..stop being so agro…

Hmm…snow picked up and visibility is headed south….

Whoa…the top is super scoured…looks like GOS last week

Hu, crust isn’t as prominent here in the shrubs…tail of the ski went right in

Did you drink water? You really need to drink more water….

Then I heard Beth shout, “ok, Blake is first…..birthday turns!!”

Hillmans was filled to the brim with snow. Despite seeing heavy skier traffic, this is still one of the more aesthetic lines on Mt. Washington (especially up in the narrows). I shimmied my way to the edge of the perch we had built and looked down into the entrance. I remember thinking to myself that the first few turns looked like garbage. The start zone was an amalgamation of old icy bed surface, sastrugi, and pockets of new snow. Not the hero turns I had so gloriously imagined. I told the group I was going to go first and would quickly turn left under where we had just put skis on. I wanted to stop here so I could take pictures of people skiing past. The plan was for everyone to leapfrog me and regroup on skiers left by the entrance to the Christmas tree.

Aghhh that was a bad turn….wow, this sucks…go further out….

Ok…..a little softer here

You’re skiing like crap….

Shorter turns…..

Snow feels a little better…

Ok….cut hard left into the pocket…

No!!

Dig in….get your leg out of that thing

Keep moving forward….

AVALANCHE!!!

Oh shit, I hope no one is below us…

There I was, at 9:00am last Saturday, perched on a thirty-five (+/- a few) degree slope, nervously watching snow slide down the mountain while yelling AVALANCHE as loud as I could.

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Note: You can see debris (light colored snow) right of skier.

PART II: A Deeper Look

We choose to recreate in a complex and dynamic system that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Therefore, just like all the other aspects of our lived experiences, accidents, miscalculations, errors, and mistakes are inevitable. Our goal is to try and reduce the potential consequences of our missteps as much as possible (e.g. wear your seatbelt, start saving early for retirement, “caution, the contents of this container may be hot,” etc.). Accordingly, the winter alpine environment will never be absent of risk (unless one practices complete avoidance), especially if we choose to travel in avalanche terrain during moderate, considerable, and high danger ratings. We try and mitigate our exposure to certain hazards by preparing well, continuing our education, and having thoughtful conversations with trusted partners.

As backcountry skiers, we “are primarily concerned with dramatic system changes known as ‘discontinuous transitions’ or ‘critical points’ (Connelly, 1996, p. 1). The transitions of greatest threat to backcountry skiers are human triggered avalanches; these phenomena are an emergent response to a complex winter ecosystem similar to a financial collapse in a complex monetary system (Stewart, 2002, p. 367). Emergent events occur when a system transcends its components and the result is “greater than the sum of its parts” (Stewart, 2002, p. 367). Furthermore, they transpire because the coupling of seemingly benign system failures go unnoticed by decision makers who are attached to old information and fail to revise their plans (Cook & Woods, 1999, p. 17). Thus, backcountry skiers should regularly reassess their environment over the course of a ski tour and adapt plans to newfound data.”

I wrote these words three years ago as part of my qualifying paper for graduate school. I wrote them in an effort to lessen my, as well as others’, exposure to dangerous “discontinuous transitions.” I had been mentored by some of the kindest and most knowledgeable folks in the backcountry community and this was my early attempt to pay that generosity forward.

Last Saturday, a failure had gone unnoticed. We all agreed to update our plans according to new data, but unfortunately there were still variables unaccounted for. Truth be told, I knew sluff management would be a necessary tool to have ready, because I/we knew the new snow wouldn’t bond well with the old surface. Our day in and day out preparations told us this, our collective experiences and training told us this, and our frequent field observations and data acquisition told us this. But the fracture and resulting propagation didn’t conform to said knowledge.

We sat around the table and debriefed the close call. I don’t like making mistakes, anywhere, let alone ones that might put someone else’s health and well being in jeopardy. Fortunately, my partners were kind, honest, thoughtful, and objective with their feedback. Similarly, the snow rangers who were with us were equally as considerate and compassionate. They simply sat and listened, asked pertinent questions, and carefully collected information to try and help others make informed decisions. All of this was achieved free of judgment or blame (this is what it means to be a professional), primarily because they themselves have had close calls. This is a fact that I continue to find comfort in. Knowing that the people I admire, respect, and look up to, have all experienced near misses. Every. Single. One.

In hindsight (more on this in a minute) our snowpack predictions were pretty spot on. However, our terrain choice (the ultimate silver bullet) was off by a few degrees (literally). Moreover, my inner narrative regarding the terrain and current conditions fell squarely within Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) assertion that “the illusion that we understand the past tends to foster overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.” I can’t, nor should I, speak for other members of my group, but this was my big take home message. Throughout the morning thoughts such as “I have seen this snow before,” or “we skied this same storm a few years ago” wandered in and out of my explicit and implicit decision-making process. Ultimately, I gave too much credence to the validity and applicability of previous experiences and the information I collected wasn’t sufficient enough to override these powerful narratives.

I have made many errors before. The first big one happened years ago in Idaho and it resulted in the destruction of old growth trees, and fortunately not my livelihood. Another occurred in a whiteout on Mt. Rainier that almost landed us on the evening news. Or most recently when chasing an early season storm concluded with a broken fibula. And these are just the mistakes I am aware of. The most insidious errors reside in poor feedback loops, which means they are slow to reveal themselves.

I look back on these oversights and do my best to learn as much as I can from them and to share that knowledge with others. However, hindsight is a finicky teacher. Often, after the fact analyses make it appear as though information about a critical variable (e.g. human factors) is readily accessible to decision makers at the time of the accident. However, this Newtonian approach to event analysis is flawed because it is often “based on a different perspective and on different information than what was available to the practitioner in context” (Cook & Woods, 1999, p. 6). A more appropriate perspective is to accept the fact that sharp end decision makers are always faced with degrees of uncertainty that cannot be exactly replicated post event.

Just like any other aspect of my life, I do my best to reduce errors that have a potentially high cost attached and that have the ability to negatively impact boundary actors and systems (e.g. friends, family, co-workers, etc.). But I’m not perfect; I will continue to make mistakes, and I will do so openly in order to help develop a more compassionate and respectful backcountry community. Collectively, we gain nothing from shaming individuals based on myopic insights. Such opinions do not represent a depth of knowledge, but rather are evidence of hindsight bias at work. In a 2013 interview with Sportgevity, Bruce Tremper addressed this “culture of shame” in the wake of Amy Engerbretson’s Grizzly Gulch avalanche (Blind Spot). “More importantly, almost all avalanche pros have several stories about their own near misses and accidents. We know that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When you deal with mediums like snow and weather, where there is so much uncertainty, our risk reduction measures can only take us so far. I’m always reminded of my favorite cartoon where one rat is standing above a maze with a bird’s eye view watching another rat negotiate the maze and he’s pointing his finger and shouting, “You idiot!”

hindsight

Moving forward I will keep in mind Ed Lachappel’s lesson from An Ascending Spiral (The Avalanche Review, vol 25, NO. 4, 2007) that within the avalanche industry we exist on a continuum of learning in which the same information is regularly presented to us at increasing levels of complexity. If accepted, this cycle perpetuates a lifetime of learning. Last Saturday I interacted with the snow in a new and profound manner, thus, it was a poignant lesson in my ongoing education.

The Avalanche:

Date: 20170401

Time: 0900

Location: Hillmans Highway

Elevation: 4,900ft

Aspect: E/NE

Slope Angle in SZ: 37 deg.

Type: SS

Trigger: AS

Size R: 2

Size D: 1.5

Hillmans Highway Avy

One Comment

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  1. Blake, thank you for sharing. I agree with the judgement free part and strive to now adapt it to my life as well. The knowledge you and Mark gave me in AIARE I has helped me so much and already in one of my mistakes on Hillman’s. Do well and thank you for sharing, Jimbo

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