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Mountain Skills: Brian Lazar on 20 years of education, safety and snow science

Is it safer to be a backcountry skier now than it was 20 years ago? It’s a complicated question, but most snow-safety gurus believe the answer is yes. We spoke with eight leaders in avalanche mitigation and rescue about the progress made—and challenges that remain—since Backcountry premiered. 

Brian Lazar, 40, is the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the former executive director of AIARE. He is based in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on 20 years of education, safety and snow science.

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Brian Lazar digs avy safety. [Photo] Diego Allolio

Avalanche education has gone through quite a bit of refinement in the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, there were a small number of very expert avalanche educators, but there was no well-developed approach with golden objectives and consistent learning outcomes. Now, being able to decide where you’re going to go—and more importantly, where you’re not going to go, based on the avalanche hazard for the day—is more important than understanding the nuances of snow science. And I think that’s a good shift.

Avalanche courses are combatting what humans are apt to do—which is making emotional decisions—with tactics that we know have the best chance of helping people stay alive. We’re teaching a repeatable decision-making process that employs things like checklists. This has worked in other industries like aviation and medicine.

A lot of avalanche centers are communicating the risks by listing the avalanche problems, which is very new. So people are reading the forecast and they’re writing down what the avalanche problems are for the day, where they exist, and then part of the checklist process is deciding which terrain should be ruled out for the day. For example, if you read through the forecast and sat down with your group and said, “Based on the problem today, which is large, destructive persistent slabs on north aspects above treeline, we’re not going to ski Avalanche Bowl because it’s got that problem and it faces that direction at that elevation.” Then, when you get in the field and you’re all looking at Avalanche Bowl and it’s full of powder, you’re much less likely to let emotions override you and go, “Hey, why don’t we just ski it?” when you’ve made the decision ahead of time to rule out that terrain for the day.

This story was first published in the November 2014 issue. Find the other conversations in this series here.

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