Buried Weak Layers

Trips are popping up and the calendar is filling in. The hit list seems to grow daily. Gear is dialed. I’m fit and chomping at the bit after two less than satisfactory winters in the Wasatch. We are lacking in snow, but I’m extremely fired up for the season! Winter can turn on in an instant and it’s actually trying right now. I don’t mind the slow start though it gives me time to temper the fire and properly transition.
I make it a habit to read Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain every year.

That’s got my head back in the game and I’ve been thinking a lot about avalanche awareness. Thinking about what I think I know and what I know I “know” and what I know I don’t know. There have been many avy incidents lately where experienced friends and professionals have died, or had close calls. These haunt me and drive me inward to ask what happened and question myself and how I might prevent failure. And I’ve found myself writing about this fascinating subject. Partly because I don’t see certain things being discussed and I want to open up the discussion, even if it’s just between me, myself and I. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert, or an avy professional. I’m just a guy that has spent a lot of time in avalanche terrain and is trying to figure out something that really can’t be figured out. Thanks to some great teachers like Bret Kobernik and Tom Kimbrough, I know I don’t “know” and never will “know” snow or avalanches. But maybe in observing my thoughts and beliefs I can better understand where I fit in with this complex process of stepping foot into the snowy mountains.

“Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”
-Herbert Spencer-

Questioning and the awareness it brings is one of the many things I love about being out in the mountains in winter. Backcountry skiing forces one to be aware, observant and alive. To venture “safely” it is foremost about observing and inquiring into what is going on and then traveling in accordance with the results. Most of the attention is paid to examining the external world. How much snow fell last night? Where is it blowing? What weak layers exist? What are the terrain traps? Where would the best up-track be? Where will the “safe” skiing be? What if this slides? How are conditions changing throughout the day? This is all very important stuff that needs to be understood and experienced, especially for the beginner. With some education, the right partners, time and patience, it’s quite easy to observe, predict and understand the snow beneath us. What doesn’t appear to be so easy is processing the information clearly and lining it up with our desires, motives and plans.

“Human factors play a significant, if not dominant, role in avalanche accidents. Indeed, McCammon’s results suggest that only 4% of avalanche incidents might truly be called “accidents” insofar as there were no hazard indicators present.”

Here’s a great article on our role as the avalanche triggers we are. Human Factors in Avalanche Incidents by Steven Larson

This isn’t new to those of us who have been around. But what is next? If I am the problem then I am the solution, but what to DO? The discussion seems to end there. I can’t just tell myself, “don’t fall prey to the heuristic traps”. That’s like saying don’t be human. What steps can I take?

Leftover carnage from a close call in Days Fork a few seasons ago.  How did we talk ourselves into skiing the NE aspect that we all knew held CONSIDERABLE danger?! We were starved for powder and footage and let scarcity and familiarity lure us in. Six of us safely skied the slope one at a time. The slope then released underneath me after Andy Jacobsen had already broken trail back up to the ridge. I was fully submerged and swept through the trees and then popped out on top of the debris pile. We learned about HARD SLABS the scary way that day. Photo: Jay Beyer

So, what if we look at our insides like we look at the snow pack. What if our inner world needs to be observed just as keenly as we do the external hazards in order to see where strengths and weaknesses lie.   I believe the internal is just as important a place to “know before you go” and much more important for those of us who have years of experience and can read and “know snow”. I need to stay alert and aware to what’s going on INSIDE before heading out into the mountains and during the day as moods, thoughts and desires change. I’m asking myself to stay aware to what is driving the decisions I’m making.
I like to add these questions to the inquiry. What is my motivation? How do I feel about this? Where is my head at? Why am I skiing this? Would I ski this if it wasn’t being filmed? Would I ski this if I was alone? What is my gut telling me? These observations are just as important and help to line up my internal desires with the conditions of the mountain. This is a great benefit in touring, that it gives one time to take everything in and process it.

Before heading out, I’m heading in. And after digging around for buried weak layers, I’ve noticed the following motives and possible weaknesses for this season.

-Getting out more and more with people I don’t know
-I’m very eager to tick off some projects that have been on the hit list for years
-We’ve had 2 poor seasons that have kept me from the bigger lines
-Pressure from self and sponsors to “produce”
-I feel like I know the Wasatch really well and when to go where. I can ski safely on any day in any condition
-The Wasatch sees so much traffic that it hardly feels like backcountry. It’s easy to forget to respect it.
-Trying to film un-tracked lines pushes us further and can make us loose focus on safety
-I’m stronger and more fit than ever, but the feeling of invincibility can be very dangerous

And some weak facets of myself I’ve encountered before-

-Trying to impress others-Just trying to keep up, not paying attention
-Letting others take the lead and make the call for me
-Thinking the gear will keep me safe
-Not really understanding what is at risk
-Rushing to beat the crowd

Running down the heuristic traps like a checklist seems too tedious and I can never remember them all off the top of my head. To simplify and cover the bases I think it’s adequate to be aware of motivation. If the primary goal isn’t to align the days travel and turns with the current conditions then I’m in danger of bringing the house down.  The game of matching up the snow with the objective is the goal, and a fun challenge.

How do I continue to check in and stay internally aware?
At the trail head when I hide the keys on the truck (not in the gas-cap) and before heading out, I make a practice of touching the truck, the truck becomes my goal for the day, returning to touch it again (it is a nice truck). The peak, the line, the shot, the project, everything that goes on in the mountains is all secondary to returning to the truck.
Checking in with others and asking how they feel is very important, then ask them what they think about the snow. There is a difference between the two questions. How do the two line up?
Constantly check in with myself. Check in before decisions are made, before a peak is chosen, before a skin track is set, before the descent is made. Make decisions in “the moment” (overused new age term) because in each new instant there is fresh information from inside and out that should determine the next move.
And finally, I have a mantra I repeat at the top of every descent. It helps clear my head, forces me to choose the slope from the right mindset, not because I’m rushed,  not because it’s being filmed, or I’m trying to impress someone, or the snow is really good, or any of the endless number of ulterior motives.

There is a time for all things to be skied, pay attention to what lies beneath the skin and the snow to find it.

“External nature is only internal nature writ large.”
-Swami Vivekananda-