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Avalanche discussion thread

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Been skiing all my life, and never met anyone who got more 'overconfident' as a result of avalanche training.

 

I have met a whole bunch of folks who dig pits and assess the situation in a rational manner, and ski more safely as a result, however.

 

The more you know about avalanches, the more you don't want to get caught in one.

 

Never even hear this argument, actually.

 

It's a weird one.

 

Ian McCammon apparently didn't think it was that weird:

 

The Role of Training In Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States

 

ABSTRACT: Avalanche education has become widely available in the United States, and yet trained recreationists continue to comprise over a third of avalanche victims. Does avalanche education really make a difference? This study investigated the relationship

between avalanche education and victim behavior in 344 recreational U.S. accidents, and found that victims with more avalanche

training did in fact take fewer overall risks. However, all of the risk reduction in trained recreationists can be attributed to better mitigation measures taken by these victims. None of the risk reduction appeared to be the result of trained groups exposing themselves to

less hazard. In fact, victims with basic formal training exposed themselves to more hazard than any other group, including those with

no awareness of avalanches. In light of recent findings in decision science, these results suggest that behaviorist and naturalistic

teaching strategies would be effective in improving avalanche education.

 

Edit to add: I have no idea what factors led to accidents over the weekend and make no speculation as to what I would have done differently or what the victims should have done differently. The risks I took when I was younger were inordinate, and Ian McCammon's work over the last 10 years has shed a lot of light on why I took the risks I did.

 

This researcher concludes that the More Knowledge = More Risk argument is a weird one, too. Thanks for the data driven confirmation.

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"I pulled the trigger," she said, inflating two air bags attached to her backpack.

 

"I was lucky. I'm alive because of a safety device that a lot of people aren't aware of," Saugstad said. "I want to get the word out that these packs are available and they work.

 

Someone who's survival may or may not have depended on a product they're paid to promote also almost died because decision making that most people wouldn't agree with. If there's one thing that really bothers me about how this event has been reported, it's the widespread message of "shit happens, and an airbag pack will save you".

 

I'd give her a lot more credit if she used her new national stage to say "we fucked up, and that's the real lesson" or "we knew the risks, and finally the odds caught up with us". In fact, I think that stressing the pack so much borders on irresponsible . . . except that the media had already latched onto it before the survivors were off the hill, and I know from firsthand experience just how piss-poor a job they do reporting on what people actually say, so I'm going to try not to read too much out of a newspaper article.

 

Edit: In case the above sentence didn't make it clear, this post is about how the event has been reported, not the individuals involved. There's a big game of telephone going on and all we can do is comment on the message that comes out at the end.

Edited by mattyj

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It is not at all surprising that people who take avalanche courses may be more likely to die in avalanches than those who don't. They take these courses and dig those pits precisely because they enjoy skiing or otherwise traveling in what they presume to be dangerous terrain.

 

At the same time, there is no conflict between that idea and the notion that those who take avalanche courses actually learn to be MORE cautious. That has certainly been my friends' and my own experience. I had a good friend killed in an avalanche before all of this pit and beacon thing became the rage. I have not had one killed that way since. And I've done a lot of back-country skiing, as have my friends, in the intervening years.

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Quick random thoughts:

 

The folks I ski with are conservative. Even in the worst avi conditions, however, there are lots of safe places to ski, and that's where we go. If conditions are marginal, we stay off the more prone slopes,...

 

xc skiing is where it's at. That composed 75% of my skiing this season.

 

Overall, this whole thing seems to point out something that bothers me about our (outdoor recreation) culture: "Bigger is better", "go big or go home", "lay it on the line", "man up", "the rewards go to those who risk". We get this message from marketing and we perpetuate this message in our media. How mnay times have you seen people caught in avalanches in the ski movies. Alot. That (directly/implicitly/purposefully/unintentionally, what ever) endorses/encourages/celebrates high risk behavior. And without equally representing the negative effects, leads to biased (unsafe) decisions. Sort of like ads with the wrong price.

 

"These sort of freak accidents happen". As with Tvash, it's what the news is saying but this sounds pretty sketchy to me. And the potential conflict of interest w/r/t her sponsorships makes me pause... It's not good for business to say "predicting avi hazards turns out to be a lot harder than I thought.. I may want to ski less (aggressively)..."

Edited by max

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Thanks for the update/clarification. I had read earlier in one of the news reports that the rating for the day and area was "extreme", but the media can almost be depended on to get things crosswise, especially when it has anything to do with mountaineering.

 

That said, I'd have to admit that there's enough of a difference in perception between "considerable" and "extreme", that some people might, especially out on the slope, feel safer making a choice to traverse a questionable, yet familiar route. For myself, "considerable" is already too close for comfort, and would likely be a rating that would encourage me to either stay out of the backcountry that day, or to choose a known,proven route on safe terrain. Once again, the person killed in an avalanche on a day of "considerable" or "moderate" risk/probability is still just as dead as someone killed on a day rated "high" or "extreme".

 

Regarding the efficacy of the avalanche airbag device, I just watched the video posted above, and it's pretty impressive. They definitely seem to be on to something. If this thing works to keep you up and out of grinding, smashing, crushing tumult of the chaotic mixing bowl in the main deep flow of the debris, then that's a major breakthrough. There's still a little matter of speed and dangerous terrain/fall exposure to take into account, but to simply prevent being buried is no small thing.

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What would a climbing site be without the puffery?

 

I read once that a 12 foot fall has a 50% chance of killing you.

 

You might laugh, but you'll probably want to talk to my neighbor first, who recently fell 10 feet and broke his pelvis literally in half. He'll probably never walk normally again.

 

Glad I have a stick clip now...

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Many good comments and resources above.

 

Nobody believes they'll land on the wrong side of statistics, and that's part of the problem. Just ask what cancer docs hear from patients, what search and rescue teams hear from their subjects, and what lottery ticket buyers have to say. Unfortunately, many people search for the data that support the conclusions they've already made rather than absorbing the data with an open mind and seeing what conclusions it leads them to make.

 

I read once that a 12 foot fall has a 50% chance of killing you.

 

It's not the fall that kills you. It's the sudden stop.

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I love fresh powder and BC skiing, but I'm on the conservative side, too. I've spent 75% of my time on the XC trails this season with all the variable layers, although I plan to head out this weekend at least to poke around away from the XC trails and chairs.

 

I feel badly for those that died, but am glad that Elyse Saugstad had an ABS and the presence to deploy it, saving her life. Still, she was incredibly lucky. She was originally in what she thought was a safe spot, "in the trees"--I'm glad she didn't get pummeled by the trees, or anything else, once she was swept up by the avalanche. I don't believe airbag systems yield a 90%-plus survival rate, which is what I'm reading presently from several news sources. Too many folks in avalanches die from trauma. An airbag system certainly didn't save poor Nate Soules in the Telluride sidecountry last week: Mixed reaction to airbags article

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This researcher concludes that the More Knowledge = More Risk argument is a weird one, too. Thanks for the data driven confirmation.

 

The conclusion is that more knowledge and experience = greater use of mitigation measures that counteract equal or greater exposure to risk. And the research certainly doesn't conclude anything is weird since more knowledge = greater risk (or at least the same risk) was one of the hypotheses tested in his paper.

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It's all weird, no?

 

This accident reminds me to hold some beacon practice, which I try (and usually fail) to do every year. Start digging in under a minute (that's in controlled conditions, of course) is the goal. Most folks can manage that after a handful of tries. Also a good exercise to work out what first aid stuff you need for a combination of hypothermia and trauma. A foam pad and something to splint with are handy.

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Lots of good comments here about knowledge, equipment, good dynamics, skills, etc. Folks might be interested in reading Bruce Tremper's book "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain." He covers all of these topics.

 

When people ask about my climbing, skiing, canyoneering, adventures I often say that while my adventures have become harder / more difficult they have become safer. The biggest reason willingness to walk away and come back another day.

 

A quote from a good friend - "We all do dumb things, most of the time we get away with it. But when we do not, the consequences are often deadly."

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I have usually operated under the 3 strikes rule which is that when I have 3 (or sometimes less) reasons to not be in a situation, I bail. Reading this article shows that the greatest frequency for avi occur when 3 obvious indicators where present. Something to think about.

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That '3 strikes rule' (3 errors in judgement) applies commercial plane crashes and probably many other types of accidents as well.

 

If you've got a bad feeling about something, pay attention to it.

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The recommended book is considered the "bible". The overall approach is beginning to change to focus assessment on the specific dangers inherent in the snowpack that day which leads to efficient testing. Yet, you still can't go wrong by trying a comprehensive approach.

 

I researched airbags awhile back. The survival rates quoted were of victims that were not initially killed by trauma in the slide - if I remember correctly. That's why they were so high. Survival doesn't mean that you weren't hurt.

 

No, there is not a 50% risk of dying in a fall of 12 feet. The last comprehensive compilation of heights/fatalities that I read showed almost a linear relationshuip between feet fallen and death. Now you may have a 50% chance of living from a 50 foot fall. However the chances of you walking away are very slim. At 90 feet, the risk of dying is close to 99%. There is the odd event where someone lives in a horribly long fall, generally by happenstance of the impact zone. A couple of skydivers have lived when their chutes did not open.

 

I have taken a couple very long falls on very steep, hard snow. I cartwheeled 640 feet down a hard snow chuite and walked away with bruises and abrasions, and everything stripped off my pack, my goggles stripped from my face, etc. I see so many mountainerring accidents where people slid much shorter distances and died. I was very lucky. I can't imagine taking that fall in an avalanche, getting beat up by the blocks of ice tunbling with you.

 

Believe in that little voice that says, "Maybe this isn't a good idea today". That little voice and an optical illusion scared me to death a couple years ago, and I turned around . Two days later I returned and saw a 2 mile slide and avalanche debris piled 60' high in the deposition zone.

 

 

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Probably a good reminder to delay plans when things are looking scary, was heading into the Wind River Range yesterday but 2 to 4 feet of snow and 40+ mph winds are keeping me here.

 

I would add that another risk in avy country in such conditions is that one often cannot see what one is beneath. You might be on perfectly flat terrain and still get killed, as has happened here in Wyo several times in the last few years.

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I know most people here are from the pac NW, but has anyone taken avy courses both in the rockies and the cascades? I feel like the cascades are usually fairly easy to tell when the avy danger is really high, like it snows 4 feet of heavy wet snow, things are going to be sliding. Out here the snow is very light, and it can snow a foot or so with minimal avalanche danger.

 

Are the classes different based on the different kinds of snow? If you go somewhere new would it be worth it to retake a class to familiarize yourself with the snow conditions that are more likely to be encountered?

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The principles of avi safety covered in any decent course address all kinds of avalanches, regardless of locale.

 

We have all kinds of conditions, and avalanches, here in the PNW.

 

Edited by tvashtarkatena

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I know most people here are from the pac NW, but has anyone taken avy courses both in the rockies and the cascades? I feel like the cascades are usually fairly easy to tell when the avy danger is really high, like it snows 4 feet of heavy wet snow, things are going to be sliding. Out here the snow is very light, and it can snow a foot or so with minimal avalanche danger.

 

Are the classes different based on the different kinds of snow? If you go somewhere new would it be worth it to retake a class to familiarize yourself with the snow conditions that are more likely to be encountered?

 

Yes, take a course in Bozeman. Continental vs Coastal snow packs behave differently.

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The principles of avi safety covered in any decent course address all kinds of avalanches, regardless of locale.

 

We have all kinds of conditions, and avalanches, here in the PNW.

 

Yes, the principles learned in an avy course should apply everywhere, but I know the class I took emphasized conditions that are typical to the pnw. So overall, I think there could be real value in taking the same class in different regions.

 

While we do have all kinds of conditions in the pnw that any bc traveler should be aware and ready for, we do have typical conditions that are different than typical conditions in other locales.

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I know most people here are from the pac NW, but has anyone taken avy courses both in the rockies and the cascades? I feel like the cascades are usually fairly easy to tell when the avy danger is really high, like it snows 4 feet of heavy wet snow, things are going to be sliding. Out here the snow is very light, and it can snow a foot or so with minimal avalanche danger.

 

Are the classes different based on the different kinds of snow? If you go somewhere new would it be worth it to retake a class to familiarize yourself with the snow conditions that are more likely to be encountered?

 

The principles are the same, but local knowledge is invaluable. I know when I was living in Colorado I experienced some scary shit in the snowpacks there that we never see here. Montana is probably somewhere between the Cascades and Colorado Rockies. Even if you don't take another course locally, it's worthwhile to seek out experienced people in your area to learn from.

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Yup, our climate is obviously different from the Rockies.

 

Still, it's the 'untypical' snowpacks that'll get you. There really is no 'average', only what's actually happening in that snowpack at that time, regardless of where you are.

 

IMO, it's best to work from basic principles during each and every snowpack assessment. You'll be prone to fewer erroneous assumptions that way. The snowpack responds only to weather history and terrain attributes, not which state you're in. Wet point releases happen in MT and depth hoar climax avis happen in Wa. After 2 weeks of clear, midwinter nights following a big storm cycle, WA can start to look a lot more like MT than you might think, particularly in the higher terrain. Not as common a condition around here, perhaps, but we all live in the here and now, no?

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I don't disagree that 'untypical' conditions can get you and I think we should all be prepared for them, but plenty (most?) of avalanche accidents here have happened in classic cascade conditions. I personally think those 'typical' conditions are what bc travelers should have down pat as that is what we are normally out in.

 

no love for the locale snow... tsk tsk...where else is 4" bottomless?

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Snow Pits: I have not seen a report that the group dug and evaluated snow pits. Its would be interesting if they did to see what the slope slid on. I sure hope that all folks out in the BC are digging snow pits

 

 

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