Manageability Thoughts: Are you biting off more than you can chew in avalanche terrain?

Sarah Carpenter and her group discuss manageability on the ascent in Wyoming’s Teton Range. [Photo] Iain Kuo

For the last 10 years or so, forecast centers have been offering more than just a hazard rating: They’ve been discussing what avalanche problems are present in their forecast areas. As a backcountry traveler and an avalanche educator, I value the vocabulary of avalanche problems, which offers cues to adjust my terrain choices based on the current conditions.

Since the introduction of the avalanche problems and the additional vocabulary, guide services have moved towards discussing these problems at morning meetings. Some guide services (at least the ones I am a part of), are also discussing the manageability of these avalanche problems when they talk about the avalanche problems. The forecasted avalanche problems, the perceived manageability of these problems and the recent weather and avalanche history guide the day’s terrain selection. I appreciate these conversations, but I also see some cracks in them.

What is meant by manageability? And can we really presume to accurately assess the manageability of an avalanche problem before heading out into the mountains? How do we know where the line is and how close we are to it? I’ve found some of the manageability conversations trend towards an overconfident assessment of how close one can get to that invisible line and not actually step over it.

After listening to these conversations, jumping in at times and thinking about the term manageability a lot on the skintrack, I reached out to several folks to dig deeper into this concept. Thank you to Don Carpenter, Dallas Glass, Dave Richards, and Lynne Wolfe (to name a few of them) for talking through this concept and offering perspective on avalanche forecasting and decision-making and where this term manageability fits in.

 When I think of the term manageability, three questions come to mind:

  • Can I recognize the avalanche problem or problems?
  • How can I avoid or eliminate these problems?
  • Can I escape an avalanche if one is triggered?

Over the past many years, the vocabulary of risk has entered the skintrack conversation. We discuss our avalanche problems with regards to likelihood of triggering, consequences of getting caught, our vulnerability in the current (or future) situation and our exposure to the avalanche problem and the terrain. If, during this conversation, our situation appears higher risk than is acceptable, we ideally adjust our terrain or some other element of our travel to lower the risk.

I believe that, as a broad community of backcountry travelers, adding the conversation of manageability is doing ourselves a disservice. As backcountry travelers we should be avalanche avoiders. Most backcountry travelers see and experience very few avalanches over decades long careers. Because of this lack of experience with avalanches, we aren’t very good judges of what is manageable and what is not. If you want to gain knowledge and experience about avalanches and manageability, you have to see a lot of avalanches. Ski patrollers have a much better understanding of manageability of avalanche problems because they see a lot of avalanches. They are avalanche hunters, which is distinctly different.

Let’s dig a little deeper into wind slabs, which is where I see the most variation in people’s approaches. Wind slabs can exist on one part of a slope and not on the rest of the slope. They can be hard to recognize, ranging from shallow to deep; soft to pencil or knife hard; forming on anything from new soft snow to on old weaklayers; and can be found anywhere from common start zones, as well as further down the slope, or one one side of the slope with a cross-slope wind.

The range of this problem presents so many challenges. As Don Carpenter asks, “How do you assess a problem that doesn’t exist on your approach?” I can think of at least one accident where the party involved walked up into a wind slab problem, which, we assume, that they then triggered from the bottom of the slab. This makes for difficult to impossible forecasting. Not to mention we often underestimate the likelihood of triggering a wind slab or the size of the problem.

Additionally, we commonly overestimate our ability to escape from a wind slab avalanche and underestimate the consequence of the terrain we are in. We think we are better, tougher or nimbler than we are. Because of this, we don’t understand the true definition of manageability. How many avalanches have we triggered or been involved with? How many avalanches have we escaped? How many avalanches have we not escaped? I’m guessing that most of us have not triggered that many avalanches—if any—which makes it hard for us to realistically assess our ability to escape an avalanche.

Based on these variables, I think gaining an understanding of manageability is a long way off for those of us who aren’t triggering avalanches on a regular basis. Given that not all of us are going to get a job ski patrolling, we should seek out other ways to gain knowledge about how avalanches truly behave.

Talk to people who have been caught in avalanches. Ask questions and listen carefully to their responses. How quickly did everything happen? Was there time to react? Time to get off the moving slab? What was the avalanche problem? How deep was the avalanche? How wide? What did they learn?

Dip your toe in the water and take your time paddling out. Give yourself room to make managable mistakes by assess smaller and less-consequential pieces of terrain before jumping in the big line. This is an under-utilized technique. Eat a slice of humble pie by learning from your mistakes, from your experiences, from your environment and from your partners. Strive to be a realist and not a hero by asking yourself, “What can I really manage?”

While our industry has had major strides in how we talk about snow, avalanches and risk, I invite all of us to continue to push this conversation forward; questioning concepts and vocabulary that offer certainty in a world where snow science continues to be part science and part voodoo magic. In conclusion, I borrow a few thoughts from Alta snow safety director Dave Richards: “In my not so humble opinion, avalanches are not manageable. However, terrain is. And actions are as well. The goal of the backcountry skier is to manage their terrain and actions at all costs. If this is done right, you never have to manage the avalanche.”

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  1. Top notch article. Hubris is a common human failing. Calling avalanche deaths and injuries accidents instead of stupid decisions and behaviors such as ignoring generally moderate and higher risk forecasts, encourages naive, I am immortal thinking.

  2. Thought provoking article! One piece of feedback– voodoo is an actual religion and referring to snow science as voodoo magic seems a bit disrespectful, though I expect this was not your intent.

    • Tom Hallberg says:

      Thanks, Heather, for the feedback. Disrespect was certainly not our intent, but it is a great reminder to improve our cultural literacy when we are editing and writing stories. —Tom

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