Avalanche Insight from WWA Ambassador Noah Howell

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-

New Report: Backcountry Winter Recreation Contributes $22.5 Million to Teton-West Yellowstone Economy

A new study from Jackson economist Mark Newcomb estimates that human-powered backcountry winter recreation in Grand Teton National Park, parts of the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests, and the Rendezvous Ski Trails in West Yellowstone contributes $22.5 million annually to the region’s economy.

Newcomb and colleague Karl Meyer conducted random surveys over the course of the 2012-13 winter season of resident and non-resident backcountry visitors who participated in the activities of backcountry skiing and snowboarding (also known as alpine touring or AT), cross-country skiing both on and off groomed trails, snowshoeing, walking/jogging on groomed backcountry trails, and over-snow biking.  The survey asked for data about annual expenditures on goods and services related to these forms of backcountry recreation as well as the location and frequency of backcountry visits.

Topline findings of the report, which was commissioned by Winter Wildlands Alliance and funded through a LOR Foundation grant, include an estimated $12.5 million direct annual economic impact by nonresidents who participate in these activities while visiting the region and $6.5 million annual contribution from resident spending related to backcountry winter recreation. Newcomb estimates $3 million in annual wages to employees who work in jobs directly stemming from these forms of winter backcountry recreation and $1 million in tax revenues to state and local government.  The geographic area of impact focused on the communities of Jackson, Driggs/Victor and West Yellowstone and includes Teton County in Wyoming, Teton, Bonneville, Fremont and Madison Counties in Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana.

“We know anecdotally that winter backcountry recreation is increasing throughout the study region,” said Newcomb who, in addition to experience in environmental economics and urban and rural planning, worked for 25 years as a backcountry ski guide and avalanche course instructor. “However, to date, there has been little information available about how these activities impact our economy.”

Per person expenditure estimates are $803 spent annually by residents in-region and an additional $255 spent out-of-region on goods and services for backcountry winter recreation; and $273 per person per visit by nonresidents spent on backcountry winter recreation goods and services during their visit to the region.

Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director Mark Menlove said WWA chose the Teton-West Yellowstone area for this pilot study because it is renowned for its backcountry winter recreation, is well managed, and offers an excellent mix of recreational opportunities. “This study verifies that backcountry recreation creates jobs and contributes significantly to the local economy,” said Menlove. “It’s hugely important for Winter Wildlands Alliance, both as a pilot project we hope to replicate in other regions and as a practical tool for land managers and planners in the region to use in resource allocation and management efforts.”

The study also reinforced the quality of the winter backcountry opportunities in the region with 81 percent of nonresidents and 74 percent of residents who skied or snowboarded in the backcountry reporting they were “very satisfied” with their experience.

An executive summary of the report is available here Teton Winter Recreation Economy Executive Summary and the full study here Teton-West Yellowstone Winter Recreation Economy Report.


Success in Yellowstone!

It’s been a long, long time coming – 15 years, 1.1 million public comments and the most grind-it-out, exhaustive campaign Winter Wildlands Alliance has ever embarked on – so all of us at WWA are thrilled with today’s release of the Final Yellowstone Winter Visitation Plan from the National Park Service.

From a Yellowstone National Park that a decade ago looked, smelled and sounded more like a wild west race track than the pristine winter refuge it was set aside to be, our nation’s first national park has made a remarkable recovery. Fewer vehicles, commercial guiding requirements, and tighter restrictions on noise and emissions have led to a Yellowstone today that is cleaner, quieter, and far better for skiers and snowshoers and for the Park’s iconic winter wildlife. With today’s announcement of final regulations  governing snowmobile and snowcoach use in the Park, the protections leading to this recovery are set in place for the long haul and ensure future generations can experience the enchantment of Yellowstone’s winter season on its own terms.

Over the 15 years it’s taken to accomplish this success, WWA and our partner organizations have utilized every tool available including direct citizen advocacy, meticulous use of scientific research and substantive data, and, when called for, taking our case to the courts. Today, I offer a personal and heartfelt thanks and congratulations to all of you who created the groundswell of public support that got us here.

For the coming winter, Yellowstone will continue to operate under the same interim plan as the past four winters. This plan allows up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day in the park and sets strict noise and emission standards for all over-snow vehicles.

Beginning in winter 2014-15, the new winter use plan will take effect. This plan puts in place even stronger noise and emissions standards and manages over-snow vehicle use through “transportation events.” A transportation event is one snowcoach or a group of up to 10 snowmobiles (with a daily average group size not to exceed 7 snowmobiles). 110 transportation events will be allowed each day split among the different Park entrances and no more than 50 events per day can be snowmobile groups.

Another component of the plan is that certain side roads and trails will be set aside for skiing and snowshoeing and all of Yellowstone’s winter backcountry areas will be protected for wildlife habitat and for human-powered access.

WWA and our partners have worked closely with NPS officials as they proposed and developed the new transportation event approach. We believe this approach accomplishes our goal of protecting and preserving Yellowstone’s magical winter ecosystem while providing sustainable access that allows visitors to experience the natural sights and sounds of winter in the Park. We congratulate Yellowstone National Park on the completion of this plan. We congratulate you, our members and constituents, who insisted on a plan worthy of our nation’s most iconic winter sanctuary!

SnowSchool Curriculum Update

A program of Winter Wildlands Alliance, SnowSchool is an unforgettable winter adventure that combines hands-on science education with outdoor snowshoe exploration for 28,000 K-12 students each winter.  The recent cold autumn weather is a good reminder that the SnowSchool season will soon be upon us.  But it’s far from business as usual this year; with major changes happening across the country’s educational landscape it’s clear that the SnowSchool program must also evolve in order to stay relevant.

Chances are you’ve heard about the education reforms happening across the country right now.  A coalition of twenty-six states has led the development of the Next Generation Science Standards.  This new educational framework moves American science instruction away from a presentation of mere facts, and towards more contextualized and meaningful science learning.  Based upon international benchmarking, the Next Generation Science Standards aim to more fully engage students in the practices of science.   This development has also coincided with the National Governor’s Association led creation of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and language arts.   With a majority of states adopting one or both of these reforms, the result is big changes in American education.

To keep SnowSchool up-to-date amidst these changes WWA has been working hard to align the program with the new national standards.   SnowSchool has always been about introducing youth to the wonders of their local winter landscape and fostering ecological literacy among students.  At WWA we believe our ability to achieve this goal is greatly enhanced by aligning SnowSchool with new developments in education.  And while our existing 2013 SnowSchool Curriculum and Activity guide has recently been updated to align with the new national standards, the process will be an ongoing one.  To stay relevant in the new world of science education a program like SnowSchool must strive to be more than a simple “one and done” field trip.  To address this issue WWA has been working for some time on developing components of the SnowSchool program that create dynamic classroom learning experiences which in turn connect to learning experiences in the winter environment.

The results are, for example, 6th grade students working with hydrologists in the classroom to construct a model of their local watershed system prior to their snowshoe field trip.  And this winter at the high school level SnowSchool students will work with snow scientists to gather local snowpack data and, once back in the classroom, compare the data with historical trends.   The result of these modifications is that SnowSchool participants are transformed into passionate student scientists and snowshoe explorers.  As we work to implement these ideas on a national scale, your continued support of WWA helps provide an exciting SnowSchool experience for thousands of students across the country.


Embrace the UP at the 9th Annual Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival

Boise, Idaho — Winter is full of ups and downs so why not celebrate winter and embrace the UP?  It’s time to dust off the skis, pull on your parka, grab your ski buddies,  and celebrate the fun and beauty of winter at the Ninth Annual Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival.  The ten unique films included in this year’s Backcountry Film Festival will inspire you to embrace the UP.  The Backcountry Film Festival makes its world premiere November 1 in Boise Idaho and will then tour to more than 100 showings around the world.

The films come from renowned filmmakers who search backcountry corners across the globe to submit their best work, and from grassroots filmmakers who take a video camera out on their weekend excursions and submit their best films.

The festival was created in 2004 to highlight Winter Wildlands Alliance’s efforts to preserve and promote winter landscapes for human-powered users. From a single showing in Boise that first year, the festival has grown to include showings in locations throughout the United States, Canada and overseas to Antarctica, Europe, Australia and Asia. Funds raised stay in local communities to support like-minded, human-powered recreation efforts and to raise awareness of winter management issues, avalanche safety and winter education programs.

This year’s program includes:

  • Valhalla from Sweetgrass Productions and winner of the 2013 “Best of Festival” is the tale of one man’s search to rediscover the freedom of his youth. Feeling the distant heat of it’s fire still burning in the mountains of the frozen north, he sets out in search of those tending the flame—the untamed, the wild, and the outcast dwelling on the fringe.
  • Trail Break by Powderwhore is a beautiful black and white portrait of deep powder skiing.
  • Morning Rituals, is a day in the life of an undercover ski bum.  Presented by Chris Dickey of Orange and Purple.
  • Youth, from filmmaker Corey Rich, inspires us to pack up the kids and proves that backcountry skiing is a family affair.
  • Bolton Valley is the story of how a small community fought to save their beloved ski area.  Winner of “Best Conservation Film” award.
  • Nokhoi Zeekh: In search of the Wolverine.  Five Americans set off on a month-long ski expedition through northern Mongolia to document one of the world’s most iconic but least-known winter species.
  • Bigger Braver, filmmaker Luc Mehl turns the camera on a young female athlete who shares her insight into the courage and strength involved in seeking big mountain adventure.  Winner of “Best Short Film” award.
  • From filmmaker and storyteller Fitz Cahall at Duct Tape then Beer comes Strong.  Capturing Roger Strong’s reflections about moving forward after a tragic avalanche.
  • Poor Man’s Heli, skier Antoine Boisselier thinks outside the skin track and comes up with a new and unique way to the top of the mountain.  From Mike Douglas at Switchback Entertainment.
  • From filmmaker Jason Thompson and Drew Stoecklien comes Take the Ride, asking the question; “when you have a dream will you buy the ticket? Will you Take the Ride?”

Best Conservation copyBest of Festival 2013 copyBest Short

We encourage you to buy your ticket and take the ride!  Come embrace the UP with Winter Wildlands Ninth Annual Backcountry Film Festival.