Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stevens Pass avy musings

Today I was sent a link to an extensive article in the NY Times about the devastating avalanche that occurred last winter at Stevens Pass that killed three prominent members of the skiing community, and I must say it’s an impressive article, particularly considering it comes from the world of mass media, which is notorious for not really understanding avalanches (“It was an Act Of God!”).  Here’s the link:

It’s quite long, but a very worthy read for anyone who backcountry skis. 

The quick summary is thus:  through a series of both planned and coincidental events, a surprising handful of industry luminaries happened to be in the Stevens Pass area last winter at the same time as a major storm hit, and the enthusiastic marketing director for Stevens Pass ski  resort siezed the opportunity to organize an outing to show these folks the goods.  Word spread, more people hooked in, and when the group set out there were sixteen people heading out to ski a 3000 foot sidecountry run that was uncontrolled (ie not bombed by the resort patrollers).  They triggered a sizeable avalanche, and three people died. 

This was such a stark reminder of a great point that a presenter made at the Utah Avy workshop this fall:  the “visiting dignitary” heuristic, where locals/experts lose their sense of safety in an effort to “show people a good time”.  Stevens Pass had apparently been making big efforts to improve its image/presence on the big time ski resort scene, and the opportunity to show off to an influential crowd on the best goods around seemed to have clouded judgement a bit.   If for no other reason than allowing the group to grow to sixteen people; EVERYONE knows that this is way too many for any kind of an adventure, much less a backcountry ski outing on the heels of a big storm.  But the opportunity was there…..

It reminded me a bit of an incident in the Wasatch 3 years ago when a longtime Wasatch local took out a couple of friends who hadn’t been in the backcountry much on a super sketchy day and told them about this awesome line that they had to ski – ie showing the “visiting dignitaries” a good time – and it ripped out badly on him with tragic results.  It’s probably good to be aware of this human characteristic that we are all subject to, and when people are visiting, don’t get lured into blurry decision making just to get them the goods (in fact, chances are that even “marginal” skiing by locals’ standards will likely be plenty good for visitors anyway!)

As I read the article, I was struck by how many people were quoted something along the lines of “I knew that this was a bit serious, but I didn’t want to be the jerk who piped up about it and rained on the parade.”  Indeed, all of us have been there:  maybe there’s a critical mass of people who are on the groupthink train and we don’t want to derail it, there’s an “expert” in the midst whom you don’t feel like you can/should supercede, or there wasn’t really any opportunity to say “hey, I’m not comfortable with this”, but I’ve found that if I’m not comfortable and say as much, chances are quite good that at least someone else feels the same way and even the entire group can be relieved that someone brought it up.  And if you do it in a non-threatening way (Ash taught me the great line of “how do we feel about the safety of this?”) it can lead to a great discussion.  And paradoxically, while no one wants to feel like the weeny saying “I’m not comfortable with this”, it actually takes a heckuva lot MORE courage to say that than simply go along with the crowd and its inherent apathy, or at least the fallacy of safety in numbers.

And speaking of numbers, I alluded to it previously, but wow….sixteen people?   I always get a little nervous with more than four, and even last weekend our friends who typically ski in a 6-8 person posse lost a guy because he went the wrong way, arguably because he got a little bit lost in the crowd (he ended up fine, but exited alone, in the dark, miles from the car).  Suffice to say, with small groups it’s a lot easier to follow protocol of paying attention to partners, skiing one at a time, and make good decisions.  And again, while it takes a bit of courage to say “hey, our group here is wayyy too big; let’s do something about that!” the odds are good that there will be palpable group relief that someone spoke up, at least to generate some discussion about this important point.

On a gear-related note, it was interesting to me that the one person who had the avy airbag pack lived, while three others died.  On the surface – so to speak – it would be easy to attribute her survival to the airbag, but I think this may be a bit optimistic, since it sounds like the three fatalities were because of super bad trauma due to the heavily-treed nature of the slide path.  And the current crop of packs – with the explosion of compressed air – are not very effective once the relatively fragile fabric of the bag material is torn – by a tree, for example – and it deflates.  Not to say that airbag packs aren’t good – my understanding is that they effectively double your chances of survival – but I think this is more relevant in places like EU and AK where so much of the avy incidents are above treeline. 

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