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Know the Snow: Managing risk

Posted: March 29, 2013 - 12:03am

Back when I was a young lad, trying to work his way into the avalanche world, I used to test the stability of small, freshly-deposited wind pillows by simply skiing through them. Occasionally, I released a small avalanche and skied out of it. It felt heroic, it made for good stories and looked cool.

But it was also very dumb.

I learned that this is a practice better left alone after having a scary experience. I released a small pillow above cliffs. As I was grabbing to the slope for dear life to avoid going through the cliffs, I came to the conclusion that heroic and cool are not healthy considerations to keep in the profession I am trying to work my way into.

As days get longer and spring is starting to make an appearance, I see more and more tracks in the backcountry, some of them on lines that haven’t been skied earlier in the season. As I see these lines, my mind starts wonder: Are the conditions safer than a month ago? What lines can I ski under different conditions? How do you manage risk in the backcountry? The answers to these questions can be very complex or relatively simple.

Over the years, I learn that keeping it simple may cost me a few good powder runs, but will also increase my margin of error and it’s likely to keep me skiing for a few years longer.

So, is the snowpack safer now than earlier in the season? The answer is “it depends.” Every season is different and every day within a season can be very different from the previous one. So, the simple answer is no. I am not assuming that conditions are safer in the spring than in mid-winter just because the calendar says so.

Risk reduction can come in many ways. A common approach to risk reduction is carrying equipment, like Avalong or balloon packs, that can increase the chances of survival when caught in an avalanche. I like and use this safety equipment.

But the fact is that this equipment will only make a difference in a relatively small amount if incidents. About 80 percent of the people caught in an avalanche survive the event without fancy avalanche survival gear. In most cases, they ski or ride out of the avalanche, stay on top, self-arrest before the avalanche grabs them, or get rescued by their friend. On the other hand, this equipment will not save you if you get carried over cliffs, through trees or into crevasse. (Bruce Tremper from the Utah Avalanche Center has an excellent blog entry about the effectiveness of the avalanche air bag here: utahavalanchecenter.org/blog-avalanche-airbag-effectiveness-something-closer-truth)

Furthermore, on un-survivable terrain, every small sluff avalanche can quickly turn into a deadly one.

My main method of managing my risk is through terrain. Avalanche survival gear, although useful and often effective, is only a supplement. These days, I am more humble about my ability to get myself out of sticky situations. In fact, I try to avoid getting into these situations in the first place. I like and use survival devises to reduce the risk. But regardless of the gear I carry, the people I am with and how cool I want to be, I am not going on slopes with un-survivable avalanche consequences unless I am 110 percent sure they are not going to slide. I may not be the radest guy around, but at the end of the day my wife and kids are just happy to see me coming back home, regardless of the lines I ski.

Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster who lives in North Douglas; contact him at simenhois.ron@gmail.com.

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