BY JIM PLEHN
Climb if you will but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste look well to each step and from the beginning think what might be the end.
~ Edmund Whymper (first ascent of the Matterhorn)
Recent avalanche accidents and fatalities involving locals have caused many in the local ski community to question why these tragedies have struck experienced backcountry skiers. With over four decades of observations I see several common themes: the person involved was often experienced and had all the right gear; often they had taken an avalanche course; often the avalanche forecast was high. With all this safety technology courses and free avalanche forecasts one has to wonder why these incidents keep happening.
With some simple training it is easy to recognize an avalanche path and what the consequences might be if caught in a slide. Much more difficult is evaluating the stability of snow. Many techniques have been developed and can be learned in more advanced courses. All require some commitment of time. These days one can easily and quickly access regional backcountry avalanche forecasts put together by seasoned professionals.
So why is it that so many experienced people keep getting into trouble? Is all this technology and information leading to a false sense of security? Volumes have been written about the perception of risk. Different people have different tolerance for risk. Young folks yearning to feel alive often take greater chances. Maybe the answer lies in what we mean by ‘experienced.’
Experience is defined as a collection of things that have happened to someone over time. If someone has had many excursions in the backcountry without any trouble does that make them experienced or just lucky? When and with what kind of experiences does one become experienced? If you ask anyone who has ever been caught in an avalanche buried and rescued or someone who has helped on a rescue most will tell you that it is not an experience they would ever want to repeat.
Most people would probably agree that an avalanche course does not make one experienced. Forty years ago there were not many avy courses available. The best way to learn about avalanches was to join a professional ski patrol. Training was conducted in the time honored hands-on way of an apprenticeship not a few days of class work followed by some fieldwork leading to a certificate.
I was fortunate to be on the Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol in 1969. I learned from Norm Wilson the mountain manager and Bernie Kingery patrol director first-generation avalanche hunters from the 1960 Olympic ski patrol. After many years of patrol I taught avalanche courses with Norm. We would always end our courses by saying ‘Regardless of what you may think you have learned here if you really want to learn about avalanches the best way is to join a professional ski patrol where you have all the proper safety tools weather instruments explosives for testing the stability of the snow and the safety backup of the team.’ After four decades in the field patrolling forecasting coordinating rescues consulting and guiding I still think it’s the best way to become experienced about avalanches.