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Peregrine News

Heightened Avalanche Conditions on Specific Terrain Features

Posted by Joseph Anderson

I became frustrated at the end of January 2016 when I received news that a member of our community was killed by an avalanche.  A big heavy wet avalanche took a dad from my kid’s school and his ski partner for a ride.  His partner survived, and because of that we have valuable insights into how and why they thought it was safe to be where they were.   

If you read the incident report on the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) you see a fairly clear picture that these two skiers had put themselves in a pretty bad place during a fairly unstable moment in time.  Why would they do that?  The NWAC correspondents who wrote the report are probably correct when they guessed that it was because the “alternative return route of dropping down to Bagley Creek and back up to the Heather Meadows parking lot likely meant dealing with an open and difficult creek crossing.” 

But we actually learn a lot more than that reading the incident report.  It’s thorough.  If interested it can be found here. What I’d like to draw our attention to is that on the report, listed under “Avalanche Training and Expertise” Both of the victims are listed as having “advanced training.”  But something else, something that isn’t written on the report is that when the survivor was asked why he decided that it was a safe place to be at that time he responded that “it was moderate avalanche danger that day.”  He went on to justify the decision by stating when it’s moderate they always ski that kind of terrain. 

And this is where I cringe.  Not necessarily at these two guys and their terrible mistake but that the system that these gentlemen had bought into failed them.  How did it fail them?  If they truly had the alleged advanced training then that means that they took the time and invested the money to sign up for and attend the level 1 and the level 2 recreational avalanche course.  This would be a three day training followed by a five day training.  That’s a total of eight days of classroom and field time receiving large amounts of information on a myriad of subjects such as partner rescue, snow dynamics, avalanche characteristics, how to track the snow pack and layers and stability assessment over time.  You also learn that many, if not most of the mistakes in the field are made due to heuristic or human traps that we fall into like trying to fit into a group, for example.  There is a lot of information presented in these courses that’s essentially loaded up into a double barreled shot gun and blasted at the class in the form of field and classroom lectures, skills practice, practical application in ski touring as well as many articles written by leading experts in the field.  Then at the end after everyone had an amazing week of hanging out and feeling like they’re learning some very sophisticated stuff, you then receive your level 2 avalanche certificate.  You look at it with pride, like Charlie receiving the golden ticket, getting to revel at all the new and neat information that you just received.

But then something happens.  Years latter 7.5 inches of liquid water rains down flushing through the snow pack.  There is a spike in instability but that slows down, then it gets colder, several inches of light snow falls…you’re stoked…you go skiing.  Why is it safe to go skiing that day? You go skiing because it was “Moderate” avalanche danger.  You actually most likely don’t know that it rained over half a foot of water just a day and a half ago otherwise you would not be traveling across 50 degree terrain.  You would not be traveling underneath near vertical walls over 100 feet tall with several feet of snow caked to them and over 1,000 feet of steep fluted snow beneath your feet. But you didn’t know half a foot of water fell, you knew that it was “Moderate” danger.  The rocky cliffs meanwhile are warm now with a viscous film of water percolating down from the snow above.  Large slabs of heavy wet snow have no more reason to cling to the rock face and they avalanche.

Through formal avalanche education you are taught to key into the importance of tracking weather and it’s effect on the snow and terrain.  These things are taught in the level 2 avalanche rec class. But clearly these two seemingly intelligent gents were not using their “advanced” training.  And this is the topic of my deeper concern.  Why not?  This is not an isolated case.  Every year people with reportedly “higher” levels of advanced training get in trouble by using overly simplified introductory problem solving.  Why?

For decades now formal research on how people actually learn has been revealing to us that these recreational avalanche courses would do more harm than good.  Individual learning styles and the near uselessness of lecture style teaching are important to consider, but the most consistent, and in my opinion, important finding that all research points to is that “Students come to a classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. It takes very deep concerted work to change a behavior” This is incredibly important in the world of avalanche education especially if you consider that “the only way to shift a students bias towards preexisting” experience is to “counterbalance with in depth metacognitive” or experiential learning “of the same depth of preexisting knowledge.”  This is because the mind has a prejudice towards order.  Where ever un-answered chaos is introduced the “mind will always revert back to pre-existing order.”  If a previously simple solution is introduced a new more complex solution, the simple solution wins every time until the subconscious is convinced the simple one was wrong all along.

Currently the system of teaching people how to travel in avalanche terrain is contradictory to how people learn. For people to realistically put to use the information presented in the avalanche education system you would need a semester long field based course…not five days.  But there are no plans for such things. “Ambiguously vague” is one description I’ve heard to describe the level 2 avalanche class.  And so would a five day course be in brain surgery I imagine.  Not that snow stability is as complex as the human brain, but it’s not far off. 

Here’s what is actually going on for the large majority of recreational level 2 avalanche graduates.  They begin by learning a deceptively simple color-coded system on a level one course or casually in an informal setting. They learn by experience what tends to happen through each danger level.  It seems to keep them generally safe over the years and they put increasing amounts of faith into it.  This leads to opening up more terrain that they’re comfortable skiing on any given day.  They make that decision that they’re ready to learn more and take a level 2 class. Regardless of what they learn during these classes most of the new information is complex, intriguing but also works to add confusion more than solve unanswered questions and it’s mostly put on the back burner.  What is important is that the skier knows, generally what the snow pack tends to do on orange or considerable days and what tends to happen on yellow or moderate days.  The great majority of people don’t begin tracking weather events, monitoring what leads to persistent weak layers, understanding how wide spread or variable and isolated surface hoar distribution can really be.  People don’t understand that near crust faceting may happen without an observable temperature gradient, and that the environmental conditions are more important to track much of the time than the snow itself especially when trying to predict deep slab instability.   But teach a color code?  BAM…problem solved.  Teach a simple tap test in a snow pit? BOOM…that’s how the brain works.  It worked before so why would someone change.  Besides only a dork is out taking field weather and snowpack notes over the whole season.

The crux is that right now we’re in an age where easy fixes is the socially acceptable norm.  I know that these overly simplified systems are not only what the public wants, but it’s what they are use to.  But most importantly it’s how our brain naturally learns, organizes information and puts new tools to use.  People are going to keep skiing the backcountry regardless of they’re understanding of the snowpack.  The problem is not being solved through avalanche education because we’re teaching the brain that it’s simple through a color code which cancels out the fact that it’s complex.  But staying safe in avalanche terrain was never simple to begin with.  Nature has no obligation to be simple, on the contrary.  The best you can do is remind yourself that Moderate avalanche danger doesn’t mean yellow or level 2 danger. Moderate actually means: 

Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features.