Decision Making (Part III): THE AVALANCHE by Joe Schwartz
This is a story about an avalanche. Well, it’s actually more a story about the decisions (or lack of) that led to an avalanche that fully buried a friend, and left her with serious injuries. This isn’t a story from my wild youth, when I was riding the dangerous combination of ignorance and boundless enthusiasm. No, this happened last season, after over 25 years of backcountry skiing, with over 15 of those years as a professional ski guide.
I am omitting many details about the rescue logistics. That was the straightforward part. Years of training my rescue skills, and carrying the necessary gear led to a quick recovery, resuscitation and extraction. That whole sequence of events was “best case” in a pretty “worst case” situation. It was a reminder of “practice makes perfect”. That said, getting ourselves into that position was a harsh realization that my decision making skills had deteriorated over the years, particularly in a recreational setting when skiing with friends or family.
Last year was a unique season on Vancouver Island. We are generally blessed with copious amounts of snow in the winter months. Being so close to the ocean, and having our ski terrain sitting at relatively low elevations means with the snowfall comes occasional rain. Short term, not fun, but these melt-freeze cycles set up the snowpack into one big stable chunk of cement, ideally topped with occasional fresh pow. Not last year. Consistent cold temps and snow translated into great skiing, but with deeper instabilities in the snowpack usually reserved for more interior-based snowpacks.
I was used to this silent passing of the torch when my wife and I would go skiing, and had become accustomed to internalizing the decision making, not wanting to burden her with the stress of decision making. This bad habit had become the norm for recreational days out, and today was no different.
We had been tracking a deep persistent weak layer for a few weeks, and it had seemed to go dormant. No test results on it, no recent avalanche activity. A new storm had arrived, and there had been 20-30cm overnight, another 30 the day before, all accompanied with moderate to high winds, and cold temps. Due to the new snow and winds, the avalanche danger rating had spiked to High at all elevations. The skiing was going to be good, but conservative terrain choice was key. My wife and I met up with friends at the base of the mountain, drove as far as we could, unloaded the snowmobiles and rallied up towards a zone that I had explored only once before. I was excited to show these friends this zone, as they were new to the Island ski scene, and to this area. The sledding was tough going, with limited visibility on a blown-in track. After a couple dug out sleds, we made it to the start of the ski tour. To this point our conversation was limited to catching up and a few curses directed towards the sleds. Decision making had been passed to me, by default. It was my zone, I was the guide, and the one with the most backcountry experience. I was used to this silent passing of the torch when my wife and I would go skiing, and had become accustomed to internalizing the decision making, not wanting to burden her with the stress of decision making. This bad habit had become the norm for recreational days out, and today was no different.
As we moved up into the terrain, I chose a very conservative uptrack, avoiding all terrain of consequence. Our first run basically followed our track back down. Fun, to be sure, but not very exciting. As we snacked at the base of that run, I considered moving into a new area I’d not been. I really wanted to show my friends some cool terrain. We had such nice snow, it’d be a shame not to enjoy it. I rationalized that we’d continue to exercise caution in any avalanche terrain, while hopefully getting some nice powder turns in. On the climb up we observed several small natural avalanches failing in the storm snow in small, very steep features. Assessing our proposed descent from the top of the climb, I felt like we could stick to a supported, treed ridge all the way down into the thicker treeline below, avoiding bigger features to both sides of the ridge. To this point in the day, we hadn’t had a real group discussion about decisions that were being made (to this point, solely by me). We had a discussion about the terrain we were about to move into, but I really didn’t allow for the other members of the group to discuss how they felt about those decisions.
We dropped in, one at a time, to a re-group point. From there, one of the group members moved down the slope to set up for some pictures. She stopped at an unexpected small roll-over, and I skied down to her to help navigate that. Our blinders were on at this point, with the only options (to us) being to continue down. We never considered just stopping and climbing out the safe ridge we had been descending. As she moved through this small feature, we felt a large settlement, and the world around us broke apart. The deep persistent weak layer layer we hadn’t discussed that morning had woken up with the new snow load and our unfortunate tickle of a weak point on the slope. We were both carried into large old growth trees. Luckily, I was on the ridge and was hit by the least amount of snow, and ended up on the surface, charging downslope with my transceiver out. Unluckily for our friend, she was carried further downslope, and buried under 1.5 metres of snow.
A realization (in hind-sight, of course) was that the majority of training I had to that point was focused on the eventuality of an avalanche accident. I was very prepared for this moment. A small percentage of my overall training had been spent on decision making, and the human factors that affect that process. I had become poorly conditioned to deal with decision making outside of my usual professional setting, where I had at least established operational frameworks to assist me and my guiding colleagues. That weak link in my approach to a day of backcountry skiing had led to this incident.
Once the helicopter departed, with our friend on board, I collapsed in tears of frustration and anger. How could I, after so many years of training and guiding and miles in the mountains, put people I loved in this position? In the days that followed this incident, there was time for much reflection, and multiple debriefs with valued mentors and peers. I was able to put this experience in perspective, and learn and grow. I approach days out in the mountains differently now, and try to impart some of my learnings on the students I work with every season on avalanche courses. I still make mistakes out there, and find myself cutting corners in my decision-making process on occasion, but I work hard to be self-aware of those moments, and continue to develop as a decision-maker out in the mountains.