10 Common Missteps of Avalanche Pros

Wanna stay alive out there? Of course you do! So, learn from the mistakes even the experts make.


Todd L. Guyn is the mountain safety manager at Canadian Mountain Holidays in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Guyn has been on the CMH staff for 22 years, a storied guide service that has operated in a three million acre area in the Columbia Range west of the Rockies since 1965. The 125 ski guides CMH employs represent more than 1,400 years of combined experience and knowledge of snow science and backcountry ski operations in hazardous avalanche terrain. Suffice to say, man, they know what the hell they’re talking about.

At the International Snow Science Workshop held at Breckenridge, Colorado, at the beginning of October, Guyn presented a compilation of the most common mistakes avalanche professionals make. In order to identify the most pervasive issues backcountry practitioners confront in and regarding avalanche terrain, Guyn polled CMH guides with 10 or more years of experience. As Guyn pointed out during his presentation, the observations of the most seasoned ski guides illuminated to hold true what Mark Twain so eloquently wrote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what ya know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  1. MISAPPLICATION OF TERRAIN

Guides may at times push terrain past the point of safety due to client expectations or choosing the path of least resistance. At times the “I want to ski this because it looks really fun” problem was noted.

  1. IMPATIENCE WITH CONDITIONS

When trying to deliver on client expectations, time is often an issue and viewed as a hurdle. Guides reported trying to do too much, too fast in avalanche conditions. Powder fever is a real thing and it often gets skiers in trouble, even the smart ones.

  1. TRYING TOO HARD TO OUTWIT THE HAZARD

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

–HL Mencken

Often pros find themselves trying to think around an issue through logical and analytical problem solving. Yet, sometimes waiting is the best and only option.

  1. ACTING ON EMOTION

The devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, pros deal with rational information gathering to properly inform decisions and the emotional draw to just ski some really awesome terrain with blower pow. The power of the emotional part of our brain can out weigh the rational part

  1. NOT BEING VIGILANT TO CHANGES IN THE ENVIRONMENT

Weather and snowpack go hand in hand. Awareness to current changes in weather patterns is just as valuable as digging a pit. Failure to recognize environmental changes can lead a guide to make inconsistent avalanche predictions.

  1. LETTING FAMILIARITY INFLUENCE YOUR MINDSET

Extended time on snow in repeated locations will lead to familiarity and intimate knowledge of terrain. However, it can also lead to overconfidence and complacency. Perception of knowledge is much different than actual knowledge.

  1. INFORMATION OVERLOAD

More beta and data is not always better. The sheer volume of available information can be daunting. Guides reported a need to ask themselves “what do I need to get this task done, what is essential to what we need to achieve?” Figuring out what is of utmost importance and value, and then sticking to it, is paramount in avie terrain decision-making.

  1. UNDERESTIMATING CONSEQUENCE

Failure to make necessary adjustments to terrain choice can be directly related to a lack of respect toward the destructive magnitude of an avalanche. Terrain and snowpack can produce a catastrophic event. But, because these events do not occur every day or every time a group is in the field, guides can be lulled into a feeling of diminished concern. Sometimes, they can underestimate the size of avalanche the terrain can produce.

  1. UNDERPLAYING OF UNCERTAINTY

The Canadian avalanche industry defines uncertainty as the state (even partial) of the deficiency of information related to the understanding or knowledge of an event, its consequence or likelihood. There is a difference in what is actually known and perceived truth.

Realizing and understanding there are unknowns in avalanche forecasting needs to be built into decision-making

  1. LACK OF COMMUNICATION

The main contributing factor in consequential events reported by guides was a lack of communication, from large-scale teams to one-on-one interactions. Subpar communication leads to below standard information sharing, which in turn can lead to a dangerous experience in high consequence terrain.

Guyn concluded his presentation by offering simple ways to curb these missteps:

  • Keep learning, be humble, uncertainty equates to humility and an opportunity to gain knowledge
  • Listen
  • Think (but not too much, just enough)
  • Slow down, be patient
  • Recognize and accept uncertainty

Photo by Karilyn Kempton

Comments
  • Eric Burr
    Reply

    Too many pros dying in avalanches hurts the industries’ bottom line and chances of survival politically. It’s time to back off that margin of safety far enough and long enough to convince the skeptics that it’s not “just a crap shoot.” That includes adventures on days off. The media doesn’t care that no clients were killed. “Experts” killed in avalanches wherever and whenever, all count against the profession’s reputation. As a retired heli-ski guide now teaching XC skiing to the stay behind family members and friends that chose not to fly, here in the North Cascades, I hear about what they’re thinking – and it often isn’t good.

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