Every individual, whether they are alone in the mountains, or part of a group, must be aware of the conditions to prevent being in, or causing an avalanche. Avalanche education is critical for minimizing risk, and as a responsibility to be taken very seriously for the people you are with.
Specialized avalanche training provides sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions. Sometimes the essential knowledge gained from these courses is realizing that you still don’t fully understand what you see, and that you must be very cautious in these situations.
In addition to standard condition-based knowledge, it is also critical to understand human factors. I grew up ski touring in California’s Sierra Nevada where I skied hundreds of days without seeing another skier. With no one else around, we made our own decisions based on what we saw and how we understood the conditions.
In the Alps, where it’s common to see dozens of other skiers on some popular tours, I realized I could not just follow other people and believe things are good.
This is something I struggle with. With so many people around, and even so many mountain guides, it’s easy to fall in line and simply assume people know where they are going and what they are doing.
It’s necessary to maintain our own self-reliance, by thinking critically, and independently of other groups. That means continually monitoring and analyzing conditions, making informed decisions, and not blindly following anyone, especially not knowing where they are going, why they are going there, or what their skill level is.
I often see these two things:
- Many people go where others have gone before them, assuming that since it’s been skied, it can safely be skied again.
- Many people don’t go where no one has yet gone, even though conditions allow for it.
These two situations are obvious, but they both indicate that many people aren’t making independent decisions. When the time comes when there is no one around to follow, they may have a difficult time making their own decisions.
Avalanche courses teach ways to interpret different scenarios as well as the understanding that you must remain independent and responsible for your own actions.
We have our own case study from this very model. On a perfect spring day, after nearly a meter of new snow fell and the skiing was fantastic, we identified that our group's decision making had the potential to be influenced by heuristic factors. Within our own group, we made the decision to reign in our enthusiasm for the great snow and remain conservative. We were seeing warning signs that the conditions were dangerous. Other groups pushed into terrain with a much higher risk of avalanche. Disaster struck. You can read our full story at: Marmolada Avalanche.
Telling stories like this are meant to caution, which we hope leads to educating oneself about snow safety.
KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
Avalanche safety and rescue requires knowledge, skills, and experience of the following:
- Ability to interpret the weather, snow and wind events as they influence avalanche conditions
- Ability to identify avalanche terrain
- Developing a plan to travel in potential avalanche terrain with or without local forecasting information.
- Creating a risk management strategy, as a potential group leader
- Making terrain choices in a group
- Avalanche rescue training
- Beacon use
- Simulated rescue training and plan
- Understanding human & heuristic factors: Learning to think critically and independently to make the best possible decisions