By Rob Coppolillo
Every day, a thousand times, you and I make gut-level decisions about risk and reward. Drive to the movies? Eat a Marathon Bar during the flick (if I survive the drive)? Tell the gigantic biker behind me to quit kicking my seat? Get a marg after? Jaywalk after dinner? Rock gym with friends? Burning Man this summer?!
If you paused to consider the risks and rewards associated with each of these events, it would be debilitating. Truth is, we do it on some level, but for most decisions in our lives we play fast-and-loose and have a vague sense of our risk acceptance and expectation of reward. Is our skiing like that, too?
Risk and Probability
Eating the occasional candy bar or tying in at the rock gym are both relatively low-risk activities. But are they? Sure, with a bit of care we can eliminate most of the risk associated with each behavior (exercise and brush your teeth; double-check your belayer and your knots), but risks like obesity and being dropped in the gym are actually quite serious. In truth, we’re probably confusing a low probability of suffering negative consequences of the risks and the risks themselves.
Take driving for example. Coming down from the mountains you pass thousands of cars. If a single one of those drivers had a seizure or was drunk, s/he could easily crash headlong into you and kill you. The chances of that happening, though, are relatively low. It’s not that driving isn’t risky; it’s that the chances of you being the unlucky one to be killed by a drunk driver are infinitesimally small.
Think about your skiing in these terms for a moment. Is skiing a particular slope worth dying for? Most of us are going to say “no.” We all go skiing, though. We feel like we’ve lowered the chances of dying by choosing mellow terrain or skiing slowly, etc. We like to say, “Get the Gear, Get the Training, Get the Forecast, Get the Picture, Get Out of Harm’s Way.” It’s our process for reducing the chances of being avalanched, injured, or killed.
But what if we make a mistake? The one given in human endeavors is we will always make a mistake. Suddenly that sense of lowering the probability of an accident seems less reliable. It’s not if you’ll eventually make the wrong call; it’s when. You, me, everybody riding in avalanche terrain. Count on it.
If you know you’re eventually going to blow it, then the question is less “will this slope avalanche?” and more “what happens if it avalanches?” That’s a way different proposition. Now you’re allowing for the chance of making a mistake and considering the consequences of it. As the experts will tell you, any avalanche in unsurvivable terrain will be…you guessed it, unsurvivable. As much as you’re focusing on the avalanche bulletin, snow science, and making the right decision, consider the consequences of an avalanche when assessing your line. Ask yourself, “If I took a ride on this slope, what are the consequences? Is there anything I could do to lessen the consequences?”
So first, what are the consequences? Is the avalanche bulletin calling for loose dry sluffs or deep persistent slabs? Way different beasts. Are there terrain traps below? Are you eight hours from the road or 20 minutes to the trailhead? Would a lost ski mean a frostbitten overnight, or just a wallow down to valley bottom? Do you have a means of communicating with the outside world?
Consider the slope you’re skiing, your location, your team’s strength, and the avalanche problem of the day—do all these things make an injury or accident more or less severe?
You’ve identified the risks, considered the probability of an accident, and discussed the consequences. Can you do anything to mitigate the negative consequences?
We’re back to the process—Get the Gear, Get the Training, Get the Forecast, Get the Picture, Get out of Harm’s Way. Built in to each of these steps are means to mitigate your overall exposure to backcountry hazards. The right gear helps you respond in the event of an accident. The training gives you some tools to short-circuit problems in decision-making and make the right call in choosing terrain. The forecast focuses you on the relevant problems in your zone—weather, avalanches, snow conditions. The big picture helps you tour plan and then devise specific strategies to stay out of harm’s way.
One strategy worth expanding upon is getting out of harm’s way. No, this doesn’t mean skiing off the avalanche once it starts, though that always provokes cheers in the movies. Think of harm’s way as “exposure”–are you exposed to a potential avalanche? Where on a particular slope is the exposure worse? With a crevasse (or trees or rocks) just below you? Booting a couloir with a cornice above? Could you move even 15 feet to your right and greatly reduce your exposure? Don’t think of harm’s way as a general idea; drill down to the slope scale: where on this particular feature is safer? More dangerous? Now act upon your keen observation!
You and your team’s process should become refined and ingrained, so you can do it efficiently and regularly. If it’s a three-hour nightmare, you simply won’t do it. Once you’ve gotten the process down, you’re well on your way to staying safe in the backcountry. Unless…
It wouldn’t be journalism if we didn’t pull out some 50-cent words. Risk homeostasis, there you have it. Writing in the journal Injury Prevention, Gerald Wilde informs us, “Risk homeostasis theory posits that people at any moment of time compare the amount of risk they perceive with their target level of risk and will adjust their behavior in an attempt to eliminate any discrepancies between the two.
In ski/ride terms, this means if you dial back the risk with terrain selection (mellower slopes), gear (wearing a balloon pack), or a travel technique (skiing one at a time), you’ll just bump the risk up in another way (hucking, mach’ing turns, etc). Spooky. Balloon packs are a big deal right now and they’re effective, to be sure. Stats show they can double your chances of surviving a serious avalanche, but if we unconsciously bump up our risk tolerance in another way (rowdier terrain or gang-skiing a slope, for example), any advantages a balloon pack confers are quickly erased by our riskier behavior.
This is tricky stuff, keeping tabs on one’s (often unconscious) decisions and whether or not they’re affected by our ski partners (ever shown off for somebody?), our gear (willing to huck because you’re wearing a helmet?), or the conditions (bluebird day, why not go huge?). Nobody but you can do a gut-check and see how you’re making decisions. Be honest with yourself.
We live our lives in constant flux, saying “yes” to one thing and “no” to another, “maybe” to yet another. Most of the time our gut decisions work very well for us, but in the backcountry…not so much. Intuition gets over-emphasized; sometimes there is a time and place to slow things down, apply your process, and make a dispassionate and rational decision.
Death is the last stop on the wild ride of life; we all know that. How quickly you get there is another story. Between almost no risk (sitting on the couch in a helmet) and the express-train to lights out (skiBASE’ing K2 after soloing it in winter) lies the life we’re playing out. How much risk are you willing to take to get good turns?
Consider the risks you’re taking, the chances of an accident, how you’re mitigating the consequences, and talk about it with your team. You need to be riding with folks with a similar mindset and outlook, otherwise your objectives and process will be mismatched within your crew.
And as for Burning Man and Marathon Bars…yeah, substantial risks involved. Just stay away from the blue “pills” and remember to brush and floss.
Rob Coppolillo is an IFMGA-licensed mountain guide and co-owner of Vetta Mountain Guides, based in Boulder, Colorado.