Leaps of Faith and Mountains

One fundamental principle of safety for winter backcountry travel I have learned is to never go it alone. This is one of the basics they teach you. If you are alone and bad things happen, the consequences become more much severe. Whether it’s immobilizing injury, avalanche burial, or falling into a tree well, you’re probably going to need someone to help you out. In the case of an avalanche, typically the most serious objective danger, all of the standard burial rescue tools (beacon, shovel, probe) require the immediate presence of another person to dig you out. Honestly, I think the only reason to wear a beacon when traveling by yourself is for body recovery; that is, if you’d prefer a nice mahogany casket to an icy tomb.

Even with trained companions in your immediate vicinity, the avalanche survival curve is shocking. Between fifteen and thirty minutes of burial, the survival rate drops in half, from above 90% to below 50%.

Nonetheless, plenty of people do travel alone in the winter. There are many reasons. Understandably, many people simply prefer the solitude that wild alpine environments offer. They trust themselves to stay safe, and they base their decision to venture out alone based on some combination of education, experience, familiarity and attitude. But regardless of anyone’s personal threshold for risk, traveling with someone else simply remains a solid idea.

I am part of a new generation exploring the winter backcountry. Breakthroughs in equipment have increased accessibility, and new media technology has increased exposure and interest. But when it comes to risk tolerance, I think I am more conservative than most I have met. I have turned down opportunities to ski in the backcountry because I did not trust the judgement of someone in the group.

It takes a lot to place your trust in another person. You have to be willing to surrender some piece of yourself and risk being vulnerable. Most people are able to do this, with varying degrees of ease. Some people find risking this exposure to be extremely difficult, but trust in personal relationships is a prerequisite to go places with someone. You must be able to trust their judgement and their intentions, or everything breaks down extraordinarily quickly the moment you face the crux of the matter.

Approaching the summit of Round Top, near Carson Pass, I knew I trusted the people I was with. One, an old friend, unquestionably trustworthy, trust earned through experience. The other, a newer friend-of-a-friend, trusted implicitly by proxy and by gut. Most people use such heuristic cues, vague rules-of-thumb, snap judgments at the periphery of consciousness to evaluate situations and people.

When evaluating whether to travel with someone, I pay close attention. Before a tour, this person asked a litany of good questions. Do we have a map and compass? A headlamp for each person? A first-aid kit? What’s our turnaround time? This indicated to me that their head is in the right place. When confronted with a tempting but sketchy slope, I feel confident this person will prioritize self-preservation over powder.

On the other hand, on an in-bounds day last year, a different friend-of-a-friend demonstrated total disregard for the group by leading everyone into super steep, icy, and tight trees and then leaving everyone in the dust. When discussing a hike up to a backcountry gate, this person displayed little concern for the high avalanche danger reported by the local avalanche center, and did not carry a probe, beacon, or shovel. I also learned this person’s record included repeat criminal convictions. This person might be an amazing skier, but is that any indication of good judgement? Would I trust them to save my neck, if it came down to it?

These examples represent the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to people. Using representative rules-of-thumb enable us to manage everyday situations which prioritize expedient evaluation and decision-making, avoiding the mire of analysis paralysis. But in alpine environments, using these rules-of-thumb to evaluate terrain and conditions can also be misleading,  focusing our attention on specific indicators that were important yesterday but might be obscuring red flags today. When simple decisions carry serious consequences, snap judgments can turn out devastatingly wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to be melodramatic. Our route up Round Top did not offer any serious objective danger. We planned it that way. Snow conditions were stable and avalanche danger was low. The approach up the summit block gradually revealed itself as a magnificent staircase of scree, granite, and ice; it was a class 2 scramble, no fatal exposure, no ropes required. But these sorts of thought exercises are important.  This was our first serious tour out into the backcountry this winter, the first time that group go/no-go decisions needed to be made this season.

You have to be mentally prepared to evaluate the people and places around you and make consequential decisions. Alpine environments offer plenty of variables that can demolish the best laid of plans. In the coming spring and summer, as I plan to develop my set of climbing skills, I expect these sort of considerations to grow exponentially in gravity. I have rappelled off of cliffs and into couloirs with the assistance of guides, but not yet on my own. The exposure when rock climbing and mountaineering can grip you with intensity; the necessity for trust in a belay partner is absolute.

When accidents happen, it’s typically impossible to isolate any one factor involved. The difference between living and dying is so thin, it’s hard to say what pushed it over the edge. But the human factors are always present. This is why trust is so important. When critical decision points are reached, you have to trust that your partners have the same priorities as you. The decision to go ahead or to turn around could be the most important decision of your life.

A ski bum/instructor recently claimed to me that his sister had a PhD in snow science and she asserted that the closest level of confidence one could achieve when predicting snowpack behavior was 18%. I laughed at the absurdity of this all-encompassing quantification (like the answer to life, the universe, and everything), but it brought home the point: it’s impossible to know for sure. All you can do is try to identify and manage the risks, practice good decision making, and exercise safe route planning.

I for one am looking forward to a lifetime of experience in the backcountry. After all, no powder day is good enough to make it your last.