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.
Jill Fredston, 56, is a longtime avalanche forecaster and educator in Alaska who coauthored “Snow Sense” with her husband and fellow avalanche guru, Doug Fesler. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on 20 years of education, safety and snow science.Students seem to be intent on getting their Level 1, 2, or 3, but certification, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is actually making safer, wiser decisions. The plus of standardizing what is taught is to make sure certain minimums are met. The downside, as I see it, is that it results in a certain amount of “dumbing down” of the curriculum and also tends to inhibit innovation among educators.
“Snow Sense” was first published in 1984 and is now in its fifth edition. While we’ve added and improved sections over the years, the bottom line is still pretty much the same. For backcountry travelers to make good decisions, they must understand the interaction of critical terrain, snowpack, weather and human variables.
We have more safety gizmos to wear when in the backcountry and there is no question that they can make the difference between life and death. But if they make us complacent enough to act in ways that are not safer, then they do not make us safer. I could still travel safely if I happened to leave my beacon home, but I would be very uncomfortable without my inclinometer, which I use constantly to help me make good decisions.