Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Invisibility of Small Slopes

Ironically, while large avalanches in obvious avalanche paths undoubtedly kill some recreationalists, many avalanche fatalities occur on small slopes with no obvious path. Recognizing avalanche terrain is not as simple as some people think. Big paths with wide swathes cut through the trees and lots of flag trees are obvious avalanche paths to even the most novice winter recreationalist, while more subtle, but still potentially deadly avalanche terrain frequently goes unrecognized.

Last week, during the height of a storm that saw 50 cm of heavy snow deposited in 24 hours under strong to extreme winds with warming temperatures, one of our group went out by himself and broke trail up a short, steep NW facing slope that was sparsely timbered. He had been told by a more experienced member of our group that the route he was planning was "totally safe". After breaking trail up the short steep slope he entered a gully, then crossed through the run-out zone of a large avalanche path. All of this by himself with rapidly deteriorating stability during the peak of an avalanche cycle. When the visibility cleared somewhat, it was obvious that he had remote triggered a 90 cm deep avalanche on a 30 degree slope, that, as luck would have it, did not reach him.

A couple of weeks previously, a friend of mine, leading a group of four (including herself) when avalanche hazard was rated considerable, set the track across a steep cross-loaded slope with even steeper slopes above. A kick-turn was put in right below the steepest section of the slope. When the second member of the party was in the midst of the kick turn (an awkward and inescapable position), she remote triggered the slope above which buried the second and third members on the party, the second to the neck (with hands pinned down) and the third to the waist. The first member of the party ran to safety and was only brushed by the avalanche. The last member of the party, inexplicably, had no backpack (and thus no shovel).

In both cases, small avalanche slopes were either underestimated or completely unrecognized. Although I have no real proof, I suspect the latter, as, in both cases, safer options existed that would have avoided the slopes all together.

An avalanche professional once said "when the question is stability, the answer is terrain." A useful axiom, but only if you have the ability to recognize the avalanche hazard on small, non-obvious slopes, which clearly, many winter recreationalists - even very experienced ones - are unable to do. 
A small slope that released as I approached it

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Week At Kokanee

Just back yesterday from a week of hut based ski touring in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. My seventh trip there in as many years. Now, likely to be my last. Each week has been different, with different snow conditions, different weather, (slightly) different people, and different tours and objectives accomplished.

The best week we had was 2010, when we had good weather, good stability, and were skiing in a group of three, all strong skiers. We skied big days and skied some lines that I had been looking at for years, waiting for conditions to be right. The worst year was 2007 when a Pineapple Express rolled through on our second day (first full day). Fifty millimeters of rain saturated the snowpack and there was a widespread avalanche cycle. After that, the temperature plummeted to -17 Celsius, and the snow surface froze into a deadly icy crust.

From this year, I have mixed feelings. Snow quality was generally good and plentiful. Weather was generally bad - which gave rise to the plentiful snow. Stability was generally fair to poor. A mixed bag of crusts, surface hoar, near surface facets was down 30 cm, then 40 cm, then, suddenly, 90 cm, and a widespread avalanche cycle ran through the area. After the natural activity settled, we were still concerned with skier triggering, and, rapid loading continued with heavy snow and strong winds for multiple days in a row.

Overall, we skied very conservatively and cautiously. We had no involvements during the week, which was possibly one of the only weeks out of my seven when there hasn't been at least one skier accidental avalanche - some of which I have triggered.

On a couple of days we pulled the pin on planned descents as, when we got to the top of the runs, we found them too steep and wind-loaded to commit to - and they were committing slopes. On a couple of days we skied very low angle conservative terrain while avariciously ogling steeper slopes nearby. On all those days I came home wondering if we could have skied the slope and not triggered an avalanche.

One of the issues commonly bandied around in discussions of skier triggered avalanches is the influence of so called "positive feedback". We go out, either consciously or unconsciously make decisions to ascend/descend various slopes and do NOT get caught in an avalanche. On most occasions this is simply because the snow is stable most of the time. But, we make the assumption that we did not get caught in an avalanche because we made good decisions. In fact, we may have made stupendously bad decisions and got lucky, simply because snow, as previously stated, is stable most of the time.

This is the opposite (in a way) of my feelings at the end of each ski day. Did I make good decisions or could I have skied X, Y or Z slope and found the snow stable? Was I, in fact, making a stupendously bad decision by not skiing a slope that I could have skied with complete safety?

In either case, we'll never know. I may have avoided an avalanche by good decision making or by luck. I may have forgone skiing a certain slope that would have been perfectly safe.

As one old bold mountaineer once said, "everything was good until it wasn't".

Remotely triggered, 90 cm deep, 30 degree well supported short slope

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'm Not Your Guide

I don't know why it is, perhaps a combination of personalities and places, but I so often find when I am out ski touring with people that they expect me to make all the decisions, and, in effect, be their guide for the day. This is not the role I signed up for, not the role I want, and not the role that is in the best interests of the group. All too often when people - consciously or not - view you as their guide, they are not really paying attention to where they are going, where they have been, what objective and subjective hazards are on the route, or how to manage those hazards. Not only have they no situational awareness, but, there is no capacity for them to catch my mistakes if I happen to get it wrong - and I do get it wrong sometimes. I think of these people as disengaged.

One reason, I suspect, for people being disengaged is that I am frequently going to new areas - areas that are new to them, new to me, or new to all of us. In these unfamiliar locations, it's astonishing how many people will say, "I don't know the area, so I am relying on you." Well, frequently, I don't know the area either. But, I'm engaged, I looking at the map and the terrain, I'm assessing the hazards and deciding how to mitigate them - I'm fully involved in the process. If you never engage in the process, you'll never learn how to move through and manage the terrain and groups yourself, and, you'll be like 99% of the other weekend warriors out there, endlessly going to the same old areas and doing the same old things. Comfortable no doubt. Worthy, definitely not.

So, next time we get to the top of the peak we are going to ski off, instead of just standing there, mindlessly stuffing food and liquid down your gullet, do what I do. Look around, assess the various descent options, and mitigation strategies, ask yourself how might this go horribly wrong and what will we do if it does. In other words, work out how the f**k we are going to get off this peak that is steep, rocky, and avalanche prone on all sides.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, it's not all up to me and you are not just here for the ride. 

Now how do we get off this?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Heading out on a ski day today, my legs were both heavy and shaky, I felt weak and had trouble simply putting one foot before the other, my heart was pounding, and even the smallest exertion caused me to "suck wind" big time. Tough for me to admit, but I am overtrained.

Not all that surprising really for a neurotic/addicted exerciser such as myself. A normal week for me is four Crossfit WOD's, four climbing work-outs, and four days of ski touring, racking up as much as 2,000 metres a day. You can do it for a while, but eventually, it hits you hard. You find you've dug a hell of a hole, and now ya gotta get out.

Overhead squats with a 35 pound pack

Monday, February 6, 2012

The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way. Dale Carnegie.

The simplest definition of metacognition is "thinking about thinking." But metacognition really involves more than just thinking about thinking and is generally thought to encompass three aspects. First, developing a plan of action, second, implementing the action plan, and finally evaluating the plan.

High level metacognitive skill enables people to recognize what they don't know, plan strategies for acquiring needed knowledge, assess and refine those strategies even as they implement them, and finally evaluate how well the strategies worked. Clearly, metacognition is an essential element in both goal setting and goal attainment.

Debriefing is one way of fostering metacognition by asking, after the fact, such questions as, what did we do well, what could we improve upon, what would we do differently next time. But, as I learnt recently, many people (perhaps even most) are uncomfortable with the idea and process of a debrief.

Possibly the entire concept of thinking about thinking is foreign or perhaps the idea of having to admit mistakes is difficult. Personally, I frequently debrief after completing tasks, activities or working towards goals. In my opinion, there is no shame in making a mistake, the only shame lies in not learning from your mistake. 

Engaged in learning

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ski Touring At Kootenay Pass

Yesterday, we had a peaceful, fun day touring around out of Kootenay Pass. The Pass is a funny place, the parking lot can be packed with vehicles, but, if you avoid the popular and dead-obvious locations like Baldy Rocks, Lightening Strike and Cornice Ridge, you can be almost guaranteed solitude. True, tracks are, as every where, being seen further afield than in previous years; still, most people don't venture very far from the road.

Our route took us up to Signpost Pass and on to a western outlier of The Crags, down the south side and then east to ski a couple of 450 metre runs down the south side of Peak 2115. I don't ski all that often at the Pass, as the drive is long, and, I've skied up most everything within a day's distance, so anything I say has to be taken with those caveats. But, I've never seen tracks over in this area, despite the fact that it is less than 4 km from the parking area.

On our way back, we found the trail we had broken to Signpost Pass pulverized by a hoard of snowshoers, yet there was only two tracks descending the south side of The Crags and neither track went to the bottom of the run, and precious few tracks anywhere else.

It goes without saying we were alone all day.

No one about but us