Brian slashed the convexity with his snowboard and the slope fractured. The avalanche followed as he rode away. “Well that was stupid,” I thought. I almost avalanched my client. At the top of the slope I had probed the slab with my ski pole and felt an obvious weak layer down 50 centimeters. Rather than finding another route, I ignored the information, and chose to ride the slope and complete our planned tour.
It was a familiar situation. Not me almost avalanching my client, but me ignoring obvious avalanche information and having close call. The problem is, next time it could have a worse outcome.
So, if I already know the avalanche that could get me, why don’t I avoid that situation in the future? Planning for what could go wrong in the future, and taking steps to address those issues before they occur, is called a premortem. Developed by psychologist Gary Klein, a premortem is one of the most accepted techniques for avoiding mistakes, used by pilots, surgeons, and economists. As Bruce Tremper describes in Avalanche Essentials, “It’s imagining your own obituary.”
Last summer, out cragging on the sunny limestone in Chamonix, I asked my partners, “If you got killed by an avalanche, what would be the situation?” Telluride snow safety and IFMGA Mountain Guide Eric Larson immediately said “complacency,” getting careless from day after day in the same zone with the same conditions, then it changes, and he’s too complacent to notice. Chamoinard Gaël Vallencant said “thin snow;” her three closest calls were triggering avalanches at the margins of slabs. Canadian Mountain Holidays and IFMGA Mountain Guide Andrew Wexler said “overhead hazard,” lingering too long below cornices and big faces while regrouping clients.
And the avalanche that will get me? I came up with three likely situations.
The avalanche that will get me will offer me a loud and clear warning. It will give me ample time to change course. Even a beginner avalanche student could see this bad decision-making and say, “Stop!” But I will be too focused on my powder, or summit, or putting a smile on my client’s face.
Just like on that trip in the Alaska Range when I ignored the obvious weak layer 50 cm down. That was a classic example of confirmation bias. I ignored the facts and chose to believe what I wanted. Confirmation bias is how people can say climate change is a hoax or believe a lying president.
To avoid confirmation bias I need to practice making decisions aloud. Brian would have called BS if he’d heard me say, “Let’s ski this 50 cm windslab over facets!” Vocalizing decisions will help smack logic into my asinine statements. No matter my partner’s experience level, they have snow knowledge and can call BS. It’s seeking the dissenting opinion. The Devil’s advocate.
The Black Swan
The avalanche that will get me is one I’ve never met. It’s down deep and quiet. Asleep until my naivety gets me.
I have no experience with deep slab avalanches. I’ve never seen one or triggered one. Sure, I’ve poked at massive avalanche crowns, and watched videos of massive avalanches, but my personal data set is zero. Psychologist Nassim Taleb describes situations like a deep slab avalanche as a black swan. A black swan event is difficult to predict, has a high consequence, and is easy to see in hindsight. The deep slab is my black swan. Lacking deep slab experience, my intuition can’t be trusted to sniff out a deep slab avalanche problem.
To avoid my deep slab black swan, I need to heed the travel advice in the advisory when there’s a deep slab danger rating. I will use my probe to feel the basal layers for weak snow and back off. If possible, I will completely avoid skiing the regions with deep slab. A black swan must be beautiful, but I don’t want to see one.
The avalanche that will get me has crept in while I’m asleep at the guard station. I’ve kicked off my boots and am napping up against the tree. Then, Bam! Things are suddenly very different.
As my buddy Eric Larson told me, complacency is lingering for us who are out there day after day. We relax when conditions stay the same. We miss the subtle changes that signify instability. We miss the bit of wind overnight that loads the ridgeline. We miss the bit of warming, just enough to wet the top of the snowpack.
To avoid complacency, I visit new places. New terrain keeps me observant and on my game. But I’m not always so lucky. I end up going to the same place for days in a row and fall into a routine. And get complacent. A warning should go off when when I think, “Oh, this is just like yesterday. I got this.”
The trick is to keep a beginner’s mind. As Shunryo Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." As we learn more, our thoughts are solidified, and narrowed. The trick is going out each day, looking around like a beginner, asking myself, “What am I missing here?”
And you? What’s the avalanche that will get you?