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Mountain Skills: Managing Risk and Responsibility

On February 28, 2014, a Missoula, Mont. snowboarder launched into the Mt. Jumbo backcountry ready to carve perfect turns. Farthest from his mind was triggering a massive avalanche that would decimate two houses, bury three people and kill one. It’s a dramatic example of how someone’s actions in the backcountry can affect others.

SnowSports Industries America estimates there are currently 3 million backcountry riders out there and, with easier access, many folks are heading out without the wisdom, knowledge or awareness that was once ingrained into one’s backcountry initiation. And avalanche professionals around the country are noting an increase in independent parties endangering one another.

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Code of Conduct Rule #1: Make only pretty tracks on the mountains. Fairy Meadow, B.C. [Photo] Kene Sperry

Drew Hardesty, longtime forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, can tally nearly a dozen incidences in recent years like skier-triggered slides that crossed Teton Pass, Galena Pass and Upper Little Cottonwood and rider-triggered slides taking out parties below in the Wasatch and Whistler backcountry. Most of these incidences don’t even make the news.

“The risk we’re assuming is more than just the risk to ourselves,” Hardesty says. “The ‘Freedom of the Hills’ has always been one of the draws of exploring the mountains, with the opportunity to test one’s mettle and skills through self-reliance and preparedness. However, today’s backcountry is not the same as it was 20, or even 10 years ago.”

Hardesty, and other industry professionals, wonder if, unless the backcountry community starts to figure out a “code of conduct,” closures like those enacted by Utah Department of Transportation in the Wasatch will start occurring, and jurors might start making the rules.

“I think the ski community wants to define ‘standard of care’ ourselves,” says attorney and Utah Avalanche Center Board Chair, Rich Mrazik, referring to defining our responsibility to others. “I think we will be sad and disappointed if we allow that to be defined by eight to 12 jurors who don’t really understand.”

While some backcountry users might cringe at the idea of rules and regs—after all, part of the appeal is getting away from all that—Hardesty sees it from a different angle: “A code of conduct can allow for greater freedom. Freedom from harm.” Here’s some conduct to consider.

Know the Current Conditions
Ask Yourself: What’s an appropriate objective for today?      

Challenge yourself to get on the computer every day and read the avalanche forecast. Bonus points for reading the extended discussion, afternoon discussion and observation submitted by others. Using this knowledge, choose appropriate objectives based on group size, dynamics and skill level, and have a contingency plan if something goes wrong. “The right time, place, slope and intention of doing things makes all the difference in the world,” Hardesty says. 

Know the Day’s Hazards
Ask Yourself: What kind of avalanches might occur today?

“With certain avalanche problems, they’re more predictable and manageable, versus when you have a deep or persistent slab and it’s harder to predict when they might fail or where,” says Sarah Carpenter, co-director of the American Avalanche Institute. “Use the avalanche forecast to help you chose appropriate terrain to limit your exposure but also the chance you might expose another party.” When deep instabilities are prevalent, consider whether or not it’s worth gambling in high-traffic areas where consequences could extend beyond you and your group.

Stay Updated
Ask Yourself: What are the avalanche control plans for the local Department of Transportation and relevant resorts?

Dawn patrols are cool but not when they delay highway control crews from getting their job done. Same goes for when ski patrollers are trying to bomb an area. Although you might sneak in a great powder run, you also might trigger the same slide that control crews are trying to keep from harming others. “Imagine what it would be like if ski patrol [or DOT] did avy control work without any warning?” Hardesty asks, flipping the issue into perspective.

Consider the Old and New Golden Rule
Ask Yourself: Are we descending on top of others? Are we ascending beneath others?

“Ten years ago, there’d be no one out,” ski mountaineer Andrew McLean says of the Wasatch. “Now, you look back and there are already 15, 20 people coming up your skintrack behind you.”

In crowded areas, questioning whether or not you’re behind others is becoming just as important as not descending on top of others. Picture this: you’re motoring up a couloir taking advantage of some early bird’s track. How will your presence effect their option to descend without endangering you?

Trigger Slopes Only When Appropriate
Ask Yourself: Could others be harmed by this ski cut or cornice cut?

“It’s important to be aware of your surroundings,” Carpenter advises. “Nobody’s perfect, we all make mistakes, so if you’re going to ski cut you need to have some level of certainty of the avalanche problem your dealing with. Giving yourself a margin is really important. When I think about backcountry skiing, a lot of my risk management is centered around avalanche avoidance rather than mitigation.” Avoid cutting cornices or making ski cuts if visibility is poor, if your view of what’s below is obstructed and in high-traffic areas where others could be harmed.

Be Prepared For A Rescue
Ask Yourself: Can we initiate our own rescue?

In an era of personal locator beacons and cell phones, calling for a rescue can be as easy as calling for take out, but should only be done in life-and-limb emergencies. Have the tools and knowledge to initiate your own rescue, including a first-aid kit and resources to construct an emergency rescue sled.

Get the Dialogue Rolling
Ask Yourself: How can I start these conversations in my own community?

“We need to acknowledge we’re making a decision,” Hardesty says. “We have to own and acknowledge the consequences of our actions in the backcountry or create a social contract.” And that means starting the conversation with anybody who’s willing to participate: friends, guides and avy professionals are good people to start with…over beer, preferably.

Assume Responsibility
Ask Yourself: Am I willing to take responsibility for my own actions?

More experienced partners might absolve your group’s action in a logistical or legal sense, but there’s no escaping the realities and emotions that come with tragedy, whether you’re a group’s experienced leader or not. “If you don’t feel comfortable, you shouldn’t be there—either leading or following,” McLean says. “A lot of people are blindly following their leaders.”

Go Farther
Ask Yourself: Are there crowds over the next ridge?

“A lot of people complain about crowds and maybe it takes an extra hour [to] pretty easily get off the beaten path,” Carpenter says. “You just need to be a little creative.”

Hardesty agrees on the best way to avoid problematic interactions. “If you don’t want to accept the risk of playing in a crowded sandbox, the answer is simple,” he says. “Go farther.”

This story was first published in the December 2014 issue. To read more stories like it, subscribe here.

Comments

  1. seems people are out to have fun in snow country, on that exstreme high
    pushing the limits. Not thinking of the possibility of their actsions could
    effect other people in dangerous ways. Have attitudes it is all about them.

  2. Great article but we have to remember the human factor involved. People make irrational decisions all the Time in the backcountry which they later regret, so making us accountable with a seperate board is very subjective and a goal I believe impossible for human beings. That said, I agree with the sentiment 100 per cent!

    • Pete smith says:

      Good article, lots of respect for many of the commentators, spent much time in the Wasatch back country. Don’t assume that because you know one region and snow pack you know all – tread most carefully when visiting ranges that you are not familiar and always always seek local advice. Take you time Cheers and good turns Pete

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