Ski guides have the luxury of being expected to operate clinically. Within the client / guide dynamic there is a clear leader and a clear objective. There is also the understanding that there will be as big a margin of safety as is practical. I have recently been out touring with lots of friends and peers, and I am noticing the difference in the way the group operates. It gets me thinking about the decision making process.
Heuristics is the term commonly used in avalanche education to describe the ways that people solve problems in the backcountry. It literally means an experiential based process that a person uses to discover something on his own. In 2002, Ian McCammon presented still widely used research at the International Snow Science Workshop. His research led him to conclude that five different heuristics are common in backcountry skiing accidents. When I am skiing with friends and peers, I am constantly asking if we are falling into one of these “heuristic traps.”
This year, much of the western part of the United States has been entrained in a fantastic cycle of significant storms followed by a few days of clear, warm weather. As a backcountry skier, it doesn’t get much better than this. But this is one of the key ingredients to one of McCammon’s traps, commonly referred to as “Powder Fever.”
Even experienced, conservative backcountry skiers can fall victim to powder fever. In the morning you read the avalanche report and determine that you will avoid certain aspects, angles, and elevations. You go out for a warm up lap and the snow is perfect. You go back up for a second lap and want just a little more pitch. You’re infected. Everything feels so good. Wouldn’t it be great if you get that longer, steeper, deeper slope just around the corner? You haven’t seen any sign of instability all day.
It must be good, right?
This is the time to check your emotions and apply some simple science. Get out some of the tools you’ve brought with you and do a quick investigation. Your shovel and probe are great tools that don’t have to be reserved for a rescue. In tricky snowpacks a compact snow saw may be extremely helpful. You may find that the instability isn’t where you’ve been, but is where you want to go. Or it may be in both places, but doesn’t react on the lower angle slopes.
Remember, sound reason in the backcountry is balanced and unemotional. We all have a million reasons why we should go for that next run. It is important to look for the reasons that we should not as well. Let some simple scientific investigation balance out those strong emotional pulls.
Brooks Range Ambassador