What is being human without the ability to explore? Exploration beats in the hearts of Homo sapiens. We have literally and figuratively been exploring our environment and ourselves since the Anthropocene began. Exploration of our environment is typically deduced to a delicate balance of basic mental and physical components like touch, feel, smell, sound and sight. We make mental maps of our whereabouts and help our brain create pathways for future recognition. We seek expertise. We aspire to recreate the sense of wildness that dwells deep within our dreams.
This story culminates in the rich experiences we can attain from the solitude and freedom of backcountry skiing. As in all other aspects of our lives, we must first learn a skill and then progress within that skill set in order to attain mastery. The progression toward mastery is not a simple one, and without guidance can be fatal. Backcountry skiing is inherently risky. The hazards that exist include avalanche danger, protruding objects under the snow, variable surface conditions, exposure to elements, and the list goes on. Thus, it is incredibly important to seek guidance in order to create calculated decisions under an analytical framework and eventually train our brains to identify patterns that enable us to shortcut the process when warranted.
The patterns we create and manipulate, along with our alerted senses, combine to create our intuition. As living beings we rely on our intuitive response nearly infinitesimally throughout any given day. As some psychologists have suggested, this is the automatic side of our brain. It’s the reason we can drink a cup of coffee to jump start the engine in the morning without having to think about what beans we will grind, or what temperature to put the water at, or what mug to choose in order to facilitate an elongated temperature, or how to swallow said liquid coffee. Our intuition plays a key role in helping us move safely throughout our day, and just as importantly, efficiently.
Think about the first time you drove a car. You were likely inquisitive about all the buttons and pedals. There were things that came easily because you could replicate things you had likely seen for years. For instance, you knew the key went into the ignition because your driving mentors showed you that is how you start the engine years ago. But you didn’t know how much pressure to put on the pedal, nor how to shift using a clutch. Those became your learned experiences, and hopefully they were learned in a safe environment away from other vehicles or pedestrians. In order to attain a driving permit, you had to pass a series of observed and objective tests. Years later, it is likely that you rarely think about those objectives as you buckle your seatbelt, release the clutch, and change lanes on a crowded highway going 70 miles per hour. Hello intuition.
Avalanche education is a culmination of framework. In environments that are not forgiving, where the terrain feels alive and energetic, one must harness the power and response of the calculated brain. Building blocks include weather, snowpack, and terrain analysis. This is really no different than other professions. Think business, or mathematics, or aviation or professional sports. Calculation of an action and subsequent reaction of a given variable are what create successful professionals. As Jimi Hendrix posed, “Are you experienced?” so do potential investors, clients, and backcountry travel partners. The reason being, experience means mileage and intuition. More importantly fine tuned and well-managed experience means skill in managing risk and reward.
Meet the crew. Victor, Arjun, Josh, and Jeff. Inquisitive by nature, well balanced in their goals and experiences, and under the natural act of humanness, exploration lies at the forefront of their thought. They span generations and their brains are triggered by different backgrounds and skill sets. Victor and Arjun come from a long lineage of investing, risk and reward being essential to the success of their portfolios. Jeff is a mathematics professor at a prestigious university in the Eastern states. Calculation is literally his job. And Josh is in his formative years of professionalism. Seeking to understand patterns and skills for a successful future, he has immensely successful mentors who are able to help him with a platform in other aspects of his life.
So, as each of these friends and family members are mentors to each other in different aspects of their lives, they come into backcountry skiing with similar experiences and at a baseline in the pool of progression. They all had experienced some type of failure to act as a team, whether with a guide in the backcountry or in their prospective businesses. They understood the importance of intimacy with a team within calibration of an experience.
We identify with certain labels. Things like professions, experiences, skills, emotions, and abilities are part of what create our holistic approach to skiing. Thus, as partners, this is one of the most important parts of our job for risk analysis.
After our introductions, I ask them basic questions about life decisions and they formulate responses based upon past experiences. They are actively assessing the future utilizing past mistakes and failures. Again, the theme for risk assessment in the backcountry is that the overarching framework is in place, we just need to modification tailored toward a unique environment.
Who, what, where, when, and why? These are all questions we ask regularly in our daily lives. Who are the people we are traveling with? What are we seeking to accomplish? Where do we want to accomplish these tasks/ goals? When will be the best time for safety and conditions? Why are we comfortable going there with this particular group of people on this particular day in these conditions? There are so many questions within backcountry skiing risk analysis but rarely do we have objective answers.
This is where the power of education comes in. Questions need answers in order to grow. Those answers don’t need to be binary, but they can refer you to a particular place in your brain or on paper. Thus, the risk management framework that we use as educators can be instilled, sometimes very carefully in the adult learner, to formulate and analyze a certain decision.
To the mathematician, slab mechanics may be easier to understand. The basis of strong verses weak snow and the empirical data represented by each facet seem rather straightforward. But articulating that to your team, realizing the influence of terrain, and knowing how that all interrelates to a travel plan may be a bit overwhelming. For days the crew engaged with avalanche terrain and made incredibly complex decisions as a team. They worked together under the notion that their first goal was safety, the second goal being able to ski the best conditions on that particular day. They were the antithesis of the modern day inquirer seeking nothing but instant gratification, reward, and skill.
Lifelong learners. They have assessed, calculated, recalculated and recalibrated countless important decisions over the course of their lives and brought those experiences with them into the classroom. They were open to failure, to growth, to deconstructing biases, and most importantly to enhancing their understanding of risk in the mountains.
On day one, Jeff basically ingested the empirical data of the avalanche assessment and the coming forecast and was able to help articulate to the rest of his team why the numbers were important. His understanding of slab mechanics was well above the basic level I am used to seeing in the first course of the avalanche education progression. He managed to use snow density to assume impending slab instability within the snowpack. His skills as a mathematician greatly enhanced his team’s decision-making capabilities based upon snowpack analysis.
On day two of the course, Victors progressing understanding of the difference between aspect and the temporal limitations of the compass rose throughout the day. He took a theory that he had learned in the classroom and prescribed it to actual terrain, dictating that the south-facing slope ascending towards Breccia Peak would likely be crusty due to a combination of aspect to sun and wind, temperature, and elevation. He was right. We opted to traverse a shaded embankment in order to avoid the brutal side hilling on crusty snow. These small decisions can compile and make the sometimes overwhelmingly physical nature of backcountry skiing very attainable.
During their avalanche rescue scenarios, Arjun learned the art of the quick transition. Being able to easily eject from your skis to move efficiently through hardened avalanche debris is a critical skill in avalanche rescue. He dialed in his system of storage and was able to quickly deploy the tools needed in order to assist in the rescue response. His response times quickened exponentially and he was able to locate, extricate, and free a buried partner well within the timeframe of asphyxiation.
Josh’s mind raced with possibilities. He greatly increased his ability to read topographic lines on a map and understand how they would relate to terrain. He became obsessed with the options at his fingertips. His team watched as his mind became open to the endless possibilities. Josh became the key contributor and facilitator for morning terrain discussions. Working with his partners to create safe and efficient routes and select quality ski lines while accounting for the variability of weather greatly enhanced their collective experience.
We all have something to learn. They all learned, created, explored, shared, and participated in the building of their team. They opened up new avenues. They closed down mindsets that they now realized as being unsafe. They realized certain expectations and formulated new responses to the risky environment that they were trying to wade into. None of them came into the risk assessment with a mastery of any of the content. Nor did they leave with it. Rather, they learned the tools and skills necessary to facilitate decision-making in an extremely complex environment. They broadened their horizons and participated in a social contract of their collective creation.
Avalanche education can, at times, be a conundrum. We seek a certainty we will never attain. Within the existing paradigm we must shift our focus away from cultural norms and use our imaginative brains. Detach from the outside world for a few days, immerse in the natural world, and re-imagine the possibilities of your future. Join me.