Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Would You Do?

I hadn't been paying much attention to what has been going on in Canada this year until my friend got caught in an avalanche near Kaslo. After that, it seemed like every few days I would hear of some calamity or near disaster befalling one group or another in the mountains of Canada. 

Around mid-March a party of three on the Wapta traverse triggered a SPOT beacon and thus began what might possibly be one of the most protracted rescues in the Canadian Rockies. Details of the incident have yet to emerge (if they ever will), but, at 7.30 pm during what would turn out to be a lengthy winter storm, one member of the team fell unroped into a crevasse. The remaining party members “dangled a rope down” the crevasse then dug into a snow cave and awaited rescue. 

A week or so later a skier was killed in an avalanche near Mount Sifton in the Columbia Mountains. Apparently, the skier was checking the stability of the slope while his two companions waited at ridge top. This was one day after a snowmobiler was killed by an avalanche near Hell Roaring Creek in the Purcells. Around my old home town of Nelson, a snowboarder took a 500 metre ride when his “intentional ski cut” down a steep, wind-loaded, unsupported convexity in a chute released and he could not ride out to his planned “safe spot.” 

When I hear about incidents like these I always wonder if I might have done the same thing in the same situation. Some times, I feel I can say categorically “no, I would not have done that.” I certainly would not have tried to ski cut the slope that caught the snowboarder in the Bonnington Range. In my experience most people have no idea how to safely ski cut a slope and their supposed “safe exit strategy” is an illusion that disappears when the slope rips on them. Ski cuts should be done on short, low consequence slopes which allow you to ski across the top of the slope and quickly back up out of danger. No chute can be safely ski cut.

In other situations, I find the answer much less clear. Would I have been wandering around the Balfour High Col (off route, it turns out) at 7.30 pm in a blizzard? Unlikely, but, I have found myself on two notable ski traverses in the past blundering around big glaciers with big crevasses in white-outs, due to what was eminently clear to me at the time was just plain bad decision making. Both times I was with groups that were impervious to any of my arguments that would have avoided us being in that place at that time. Yet there we were.

Last year a friend of mine, within five minutes of setting out on her first ski touring day from the Kokanee Glacier Cabin, managed to trigger an avalanche from above that buried two members of the party (one to neck, one to waist) of four. Bizarrely enough, it turned out that one member of the party had no backpack (hence no shovel, etc.). Again, I feel confident that such an incident would not have happened to me, but, not because I am some kind of avalanche guru, merely because I wouldn't ever put an uptrack where my friend was breaking trail. A safer and easier route exists perhaps 50 metres to the east. 

Similarly, I can honestly say I would never have got caught in the Kaslo avalanche that injured my friend in early March. I think I would never have skied that slope given their snowpit test results, but, I'm not 100% confident about that, having been lured on to dangerous slopes in the past by ambition. I only feel certain in the Kaslo case because the skiing would have been shit on a southwest facing slope, and, while I may not be an expert on snow stability, I do know enough to pick an appropriate aspect to ski to get the best snow available at the time. 

We all have a tendency to explain the mishaps of others as being due to personality factors, while our own mishaps are judged to be the result of situational factors. Perhaps this is how we maintain a feeling of our own competency in the world, or maybe we just like to gloat over others misfortunes.

I have to honestly admit that, looking back on my own multitude of incidents, almost all were my own fault in some way or another – usually the culmination of poor planning and poor decision making, but sometimes from pure ignorance. As Alfred Sheinwold said “Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won't have time to make them all yourself.” In order to do so, however, we must honestly ask ourselves whether we might not have done the same thing in the same situation.


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