The New York Times recently published an article by Heidi Julavits entitled “What I Learned in Avalanche School.” The article provides valuable insights that could help avalanche educators better teach skills for safe enjoyment of the mountain world. As educators it is often difficult for us to have clear insight into what preconceptions students bring, and what skills and knowledge they hope to gain. The history, bias, fear, and prejudices which participants carry to avalanche programs further muddle the curriculum and goal. Julavits was frightened and thus, did not have the desired takeaway we would have hoped.
The purpose of avalanche education is not fear, but respect. Educators’ end goal is to give students a three-part framework in which to assess, evaluate and then mitigate avalanche hazard. These three components all work together: Is there a hazard? How significant is it? How do I reduce my exposure to it?
Any activity involves risk, but there is often a vast gulf between the perceived risk and the actual. If people could accurately make the distinction between perceived and actual risk, insurance companies would be out of business! Insurance profitability depends on our over-estimating the probability of something happening and our willingness to pay the premium and guard against it.
Writing for the
Tremper concludes, with the Avi I course risk management algorithm in mind, that the risk in backcountry skiing is the same as driving one hour to and from a trailhead. Most Sierra Mountain Center students come from the Southern California area, driving 5-7 hours one way. So, the greatest risk is in the car, not the mountains. How many Avi I students apply a risk management process to their driving? Are they obeying speed limits, passing with care, and not talking on the phone or texting? Our observation of drivers and accidents along Highway 395 would suggest otherwise.
In SMC’s Intro to Avi course, we start by asking students how they sit with feelings around avalanche learning. Is it bliss, terror, overconfidence, expertise or wisdom? The fact students sign up for an avalanche course indicates that they are probably not in a bliss state regarding avalanche. More students admit feelings of terror. Unfortunately, some also exit the course in terror. Terror and fear-mongering are certainly not our goal in avalanche teaching. Fear is a good, healthy thing and has been since our distant ancestors swung out of the trees onto the plains of Africa. Fear keeps us alive. But paralyzing fear is equally unhelpful.
Avalanche education does not focus on morbidity and mortality, as the Julavits’ article seemed to imply. There is little point in calculating who among us is likely to get tumbled in an avalanche on any given day. Do we spend time with our friends calculating when they are likely to crash while driving 6 hours to a three-day instructional course? We seek to make backcountry travel a repeatable experience to give a lifetime of pleasure and enjoyment (the same lesson driver education teaches, really). We do this by teaching some science, some skills, and adding in some smart decision-making.
Risk management does not occur in isolation
When we do route-planning exercises, we too often see students select a line that does indeed avoid the avalanche problem, but which introduces other problems. For example, the route up the rock buttress to the side of the snow avoids the avalanche danger, but it introduces the danger of climbing steep rock with skis on the pack, boots on the feet and the high chances of a fall.
Avalanche educators should seek an overall decrease of risk and exposure by students, without wild swings from over-protection to under-protection. In other words: Big Picture.
We wish for students to finish our course with an understanding of avalanche phenomena but also respect for it. To our students, we say, “venture into the mountains with humility, openness to learning. Subjugate your goals and bucketlist to the dictates of the environment.” Our students should know they can always find reduced-risk activities to enjoy even on a day that might have a HIGH danger rating. We encourage them to set dangerous plan A aside and enjoy plan B or plan C. Avoiding avalanche terrain altogether, our students can have fun with friends doing short runs low down, away from danger. They will enjoy being alive in a magical environment. Watch snow fall, dig around in it, examine the infinite variety of snow crystals.
Did John Muir ever have an unrewarding day in the mountains? He certainly had difficult ones, but by remaining open to experience and prioritizing survival, he enjoyed every day. So should we.