It’s About Questions, Not Answers.

Between Monday’s post about raising avalanche awareness and spending the weekend teaching an avalanche course in Colorado, I’ve been thinking about the complexities of winter travel – especially when powder skiing is a goal.

When I first started going into the backcountry, I would only go when the avalanche danger was minimal.  I knew nothing about avalanches and ignorance was bliss.  Then, I started to go with more experienced backcountry skiers, and tried to pay attention.  Looking back, I am really fortunate to have made it thorough some close calls.

When I started going through my training as a guide, I remember being boggled by the complexity of the equation.  I was in awe of those that seemed to always know the answers.  I wanted the answers too.  And I wanted them quickly.  Specifically, I wanted the answers to two questions:  Is it safe?  And, can we ski it?

Looking at the snow three-dimensionally in a Level I avalanche course

Now, I am guiding independently around the world in a variety of snow packs.  I am teaching avalanche education courses.  I am sure some of my clients and students think I have all of the answers.  But I don’t.  And assuming that I do would lead to disaster eventually.  I’m just better at investigating the questions we all have.

Traveling safely in the backcountry is more about asking questions then having answers.  I am sure these seems like some Zen-like, philosophical line of you-know-what, but it’s actually true – and fairly easy to grasp.  We all possess the ability to observe our environment.  We can gauge the wind, the temperature and the precipitation.  We can measure the aspect and slope of a mountain feature.  We can look at and touch snow.  All you have to ask is, “What does this mean?”

A major difference between professional guides and recreational skiers is that professionals never stop investigating and putting clues together. We measure what we can, and we dig into the snow to feel what we can’t see.  In the end, most of the decisions come back to the basics learned in a Level I Avalanche Course.  Is there strong, cohesive snow over a weak layer?  Is the slope steep enough to slide?  Are there obvious signs of activity, like “whompfing,” shooting cracks, and recent natural avalanches?  Is the weather destabilizing the snow?  What are the group dynamics?

Winter travel is complex.  But if you observe everything that is happening from the time you make your plans until the time your back to the trailhead, you will have time needed to organize all the pieces of the puzzle.  Even if there are a few pieces missing, you’ll still have a clearer view of what you’re facing.  It’s about questions, not answers.

Donny Roth
Brooks Range Ambassador

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