A mid-season reflection: What are those turns worth?

As I’ve written before, I’ve spent a lot of the last handful of years thinking about death. Not in an abstract way—what is life; who am I?—but in an all-too-real, terribly concrete way: both professionally and for recreation, the pursuits I’m drawn to require us to undertake a great deal of risk, and lately I’ve read the accident reports of peers, colleagues, friends-of-friends, and role models who bore the consequences of that risk in the most catastrophic way imaginable.

This winter, it’s not one single event that has me ruminating, but many—as I write this, there have already been 18 avalanche deaths in the 2015-16 winter season, ten of them in a nine-day period in January. This number sounds really high because it is really high. (CAIC forecaster Spencer Logan described nationwide avalanche fatality stats this season as “unusually bad.”)

Our community is coping with this in a variety of ways. In contrast to reports like Logan’s measured, ultra-scientific approach, there’s an outpouring of emotional posts on social media, some gentler than others, reminding us that avalanche accidents are preventable—true, of course, and it’s an understandable reaction, but I’m not sure placing blame on folks whose friends and families are freshly mourning them is the most productive response in the thick of a stressful accident season.

This is what it's all about. Joe Stock (far right) and an enthusiastic group of APU students on the trip where I learned that it's okay to turn around.
This is what it’s all about. Joe Stock (far right) and an enthusiastic group of APU students on the trip where I learned that it’s okay to turn around.

In the wake of all this, IFMGA guide Joe Stock—who sets a shining example of thoughtful, intentional backcountry decision-making, and whose mentorship I largely credit for the conservative style that’s kept me safe in my own career outside—posted a piece about his system for avoiding avalanches.

“I’ve never been caught in an avalanche,” it opens.

A systems-based approach to backcountry travel is a step toward ensuring longevity, for sure. But I want to hone in on one particular step in Joe’s process, because as much as I’d like to think everyone is ticking the boxes on their well-researched mental checklists before a day in the backcountry, I think a lot of recreational users don’t yet have the education to identify their personal disaster factors.

“Pause before skiing,” reads the sixth item on his checklist.

They’re deceptively simple, these three little words, but it’s what we should all be doing.

Joe briefly describes the “pre-mortem,” wherein we ask ourselves what dopey mistakes might be identified as the causes of death in our obituaries, and eliminate them before they happen.

I do this every time I click into my bindings: I imagine the people who taught me what I know about backcountry travel—Joe, the staff I worked closely with at the Alaska Avalanche School, the friends I skied with regularly in Alaska, the thesis advisor I hold in such high esteem, my husband—and what they would say if I were killed in an avalanche accident. I imagine how disappointed they’d be. I picture them sadly assuring one another that I knew better, that there was nothing more they could have said or done or taught me that would have kept me from triggering that slide. I envision the Krakauer feature in Outside magazine that would detail the stupidity of my final moments and how sad the comments section would make my mom.

It’s heavy stuff, right? I conjure all that and then, if I’m pretty damn sure it won’t come to pass—and only then—I drop in. No line, no matter how perfect it looks, is worth my life.

Even with the most conservative decision-making style, a lifetime of moments like this is possible. (Mint Glacier, Talkeetna Mountains, May 2013.)
Even with the most conservative decision-making style, a lifetime of moments like this is possible. (Mint Glacier, Talkeetna Mountains, May 2013.)

Because it’s not just my life. My hypothetical death (and the avalanche that caused it) wouldn’t just affect my friends and family and the broader snowsports community after the fact. It could, in all likelihood, affect someone else right then, in that moment. Triggering an avalanche that kills or injures someone else, be it someone in my party or another user I’ve never met, isn’t a cross I want to bear.

There’s talk in our community of developing a sort of informal backcountry code of conduct, and I believe that’s a step in the right direction, too. But while I think it’s essential that all users educate themselves, it will take time and resources to create a more informed, well-rounded community. And avalanche accidents happen to experienced, knowledgeable folks, too. And so in the meantime, we need something quick and straightforward, something anyone—with any level of training and experience and skill—can do:

Pause. Take a deep breath. 

Think of the steps you took to get here—the people who mentored you, the forecast you read this morning, the partners you bantered with on the skin track. We hear this all the time, but I think it bears repeating: The mountain will always be there. It doesn’t care that today’s your only day off or that it’s the first nice day after a big storm after a snowless winter.

Don’t let this season’s deaths have been in vain. Learn from those accidents. Make the right decision—not just for you, but for our whole community.

You won’t regret it.

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