If we don't hear the whispers, we get hit by the screams.
I felt the snow pack settle weirdly under my skis as I arced an otherwise very satisfying full compression turn through the soft powder. I exited the steep gulley and skied to the creek bed where the guide was waiting for me. Half expecting a compliment on the elegant turns I had just made, he only said, "I've got eyes on her"...
Little did I know that, just as I was finishing my own stellar run, my bride was fighting for her life. She had triggered a sizeable slab avalanche that had run to ground, taking her for a terrifying ride to the bottom of the gully. I turned to look back up the slope and all I could see was the bright red of the air bag she had deployed from her avi pack at some point in the run. I had no time to freak out. By the time I was aware of the event, I already knew she had survived. I had no idea how close she had come...
Good judgement comes from experience which is often the result of bad judgement.
I started wandering into avalanche terrain at 19 years old, in my first season of ice climbing. For the first few seasons, I put no thought whatsoever into the risks I was taking. I was climbing frozen waterfalls in gullies that had formed underneath massive snow slopes, blissfully unaware that they were dying to funnel their violent snow masses on top of me and my partners, and sweep us away.
With every season that I miraculously survived, the more horror stories I heard. Famous climbers were getting bombed to their deaths or triggering their own slides into oblivion. Amateurs and experts, dilettants and professionals: the mountain took them all. I started paying attention.
I started reading about avalanches and avalanche safety, took courses and hired guides to teach us what they knew about managing the days and coming back home in one piece. Like most domains, the more we learned, the more we realized that we really didn’t know shit. Even the snow scientists and public safety professionals we met approached avalanche terrain with great reverence and great humility. Most of the time. They are, after all, human.
Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers and ice climbers are the groups most at risk. We are all passionate about going out and we all know at some level that we are in danger when we do. Every year, there are numerous incidents and fatalities and the volume of incidents occur in that same order. We are all learning together what works and what doesn't. We are all going to keep going out. How do we do it more safely?
Tacit and explicit knowledge are different inputs to a decision making process.
When Tania and I started skiing in the backcountry we decided to do so only with professional ski guides. We also understood that we needed to elevate our own avalanche awareness and practices. Guides bring specialized training and equipment to the day, in addition to years of hard-won experience from their own close calls. There's lots of rationality and science to bring to bear, but it's still a bit of a black art.
It makes no sense for me to abdicate the responsibility to at least participate in the decison making. If nothing else, it's an interesting learning experience, offering a rich set of metaphors useful in my work guiding entrepreneurs in their personal lives and businesses. No harm in asking questions and maybe the guide appreciates the occasional check on his or her logic:
- “What hazards are we most concerned about today?”
- “Why are we going that way?”
- “What happens if something goes wrong?”
At the core of this aspiration however is a serious epistemological limitation: we don’t know what we don’t know or need to know and we often don’t know what we do know. This is true for all domains of knowledge: we all live somewhere on a spectrum from casual ignorance on one side and wisdom and qualified judgment on the other. We don’t always know even what questions to ask. Experience offers painful lessons not really learnable any other way.
We flew into a lodge for a few days of ski touring over New Year’s this year. We thought it would be an interesting way to ring in another year. When we started climbing on the first day, I asked one of the questions I have been trained to ask: I wanted to know what the primary hazard was. On this excursion, the guides were concerned about deeply buried facets: the sugary snow on which dangerous snow slabs sit. When these deep persistent snow features get a large enough trigger (falling snow, wind, temperature changes, cornice failures or the weight of a skier), the snow pack can release all the way to the ground. I was making my way to enlightenment up the dangerous mountain of ignorance...
Good tactical decisions are made possible by a good strategic decision.
When risk managers like mountain guides deal with dynamic snow and weather conditions in real-time, they have to reconcile the demands and dreams (and unrealistic expectations) of their clients against a sober assessment of their capabilities, the conditions in the environment and the very real exposure to injury and death.
The first strategic choice is the objective. What's the plan that makes the most sense? This is at the outset a hypothesis that requires the humility and modesty to remember the wisdom of Mike Tyson: "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face". The original plan requires many modifications in real-time as the mountain reveales her mysteries. These tactical decisions are all within the context of the bigger decision we've already made.
On this day, we were aware that our guides had made the strategic decision to enter a generally stable zone and to ski the mellower lower-angle slopes that were less likely to run. We discussed the plan, decided we were up for the challenge and went about the path, enjoying the day as it unfolded.
We climbed hundreds of metres and skied several pitches, eventually winding our way through the trees and up to a ridge that would be the final run of the day. We skied the first pitch one-by-one. It was a little steeper than what we had been on, and nothing felt out of place in the decisions to keep pressing on. But it was getting late in the afternoon and we had one short pitch to finish before skiing out a drainage and back up to the lodge...
The lead guide took a few moments to consider the final path and then set off down a steep gulley. We all waited until he had traversed off the run and took a safe stance at the bottom where he could see each of us go down. When the tail guide gave me the signal I tore down the slope. I picked my way down the features of the gulley, steering around various minor hazards and then found a flow that had escaped me most of the day. I started railing long radius GS-style turns through the powder and made my way to the lead guide and the revelation of the result of the experiment to ski this particular route...
Tania had been engulfed and battered from behind by a huge volume of snow. We had all been trained to swim to stay on the surface and look for exits off the path of the moving snow. With a clear head, she kept her cool and fought her way valiantly back into the light...
The tail guide was on top of her in no time, while the lead guide was climbing back up. Her face was above the surface and she had a clear airway but was partially bured in snow that had quickly set up like cement. She could barely move a single hand. I watched this from below having no idea how much snow had come down. They got her on her feet and we carefully skied back to the lodge, thankful that we had found her skis. She was unscathed other than a bad bruise on her thigh where she had hit a rock or stump...
Earlier that day, I had set "gratitude" as the theme of my year...
Passengers enjoy the ride. Partners determine the game plan.
I'm not here to litigate the decisions made that day with the benefit of hindsight. There's no fault to find here or blame to assign. We had conscientious guides with a strong duty of care. They will do their debrief as professionals and this incident will be a part of an ongoing collective learning process.
Various tactical and strategic decisions have different probabilities of working out or not. An understanding of those probabilities is a kind of wisdom that comes from study, field data, experience and conversations with other members of the field. As amateurs we have far less of that than the professionals, but that doesn't mean we're irrelevant to the decision making process. We have valid instincts and intuitions that can strengthen and add useful colour to the process.
I am however interested in what this event has to teach us about human factors, goal setting, tactical decision making and hazard evaluation in any kind of risky venture with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and volatility.
No one was harmed in the process so this is an opportunity for tuition-free learning. This is also the time of year where most of us think about and declare our plans for the year. So here is what we have taken from this event:
- A well-scrubbed strategic objective is as free from ego as our joint consciousness allows. This is the first dimension of human factors: clarifying purpose and intention and what we want out of the experience. What are our unstated expectations? In what way are we in fantasy about what we want to achieve? Is what we are likely to gain worth the effort and the risk? What sort of failures can we live with? What hazards are off the table completely? Is what we propose, the best way to go about achieving success in the venture? A good tactical decision is not a replacement for a good strategic decision and nor does good strategic thinking remove the need to pay attention during execution.
- A better plan is the result of more questions and more discussions. The professionals have much to offer the venture but they are as human as we are. The little voices inside our heads are there to keep us safe. There is much value in instinct and intuition in the absence of clear and credible judgement. Self-doubt or fear is not a reason to not challenge a decision or plan. We are all creatures of habits but that does not mean we cannot train ourselves to question the situation when something feels off.
- While it is easier and in someways more relaxing to just enjoy the ride as a more passive passenger, it's ultimately more interesting to take the posture as a full partner in the venture or invite the other participants to do the same. It does not work to abdicate responsibility to staying alive and well to anyone else. Professionals have much to add in terms of safety and security but I am the ultimate chooser. We all need to be alive to the signals and noise and the whispers from our ever-vigilant subconscious selves. Blind faith is not a replacement to thoughtful action and due diligence.
shaken, not deterred
That which does not kill us builds our character and wisdom if we take the time to reflect on the experience and process. Tania is a different person than she was at the top of that run. So am I and so are the guides. The experience changed her and she now knows something more about herself. She was measured. She rose to the challenge. She is grace under pressure.
This event has not dampened our enthusiasm for experiencing the thrills and beauty of back country experiences. Tania and I are ready to head into our next adventure with eyes open wider, knowing full well that they are only as open as our current knowledge and experience allow. We carry something precious forward from this day. We are profoundly grateful that we are alive to fight another day and go about our business for another year.