Consider Your Partners 

It’s rare that avalanches come crashing down from above with no warning. They most often occur occur when conditions indicate avalanches are likely, and most accidents are triggered by the very people who get harmed. In many ways, avalanches aren’t the problem; people are. This is why the first step in avalanche risk management is careful consideration of your riding partners.

Think about your riding partners' qualities with regard to:

  • Formal training
  • Tangible skills
  • The mental shortcuts they often take

You probably don’t have an unlimited choice of who to ride with, so the idea is to not be exclusive and only ride with “perfect” partners. Each day, you can choose appropriate partners for the day’s objectives, or choose appropriate objectives for your partners. Over time, these daily considerations will help you develop a great riding crew. 

Formal Training

Avalanche training is the primary formal training to consider in your partners. In the United States, the American Avalanche Association, or A3, is the organization responsible for overseeing avalanche education. The A3 writes the guidelines that avalanche educators adhere to, so that there is consistency from one class to another, and a clear progression for students to follow. Ask your partners what level of avalanche training they have, and more importantly, watch their behaviors to see if they put their education into practice.

  • Awareness/Intro level classes are very short – usually only a few hours indoors or a partial day outside. Although valuable information can be communicated during Awareness/Intro classes, they are not intended to prepare anyone to travel in avalanche terrain. Instead, they just make people aware that avalanches do occur and are dangerous, so that they can seek out further education if they do plan to travel in avalanche terrain. 
  • Rescue classes, typically one day, provide avalanche rescue practice and can be taken every few seasons to refresh. Simply being good at rescue is not an effective risk management plan, so avalanche avoidance skills as taught on the Level 1 and 2 should be prioritized over rescue skills. However, there’s also no excuse not to be good at avalanche rescue. Take a Rescue class to compliment the Level 1 and 2, practice the skills often, and take regular refresher classes.
  • Level 1 classes usually take place over three days, with a significant portion of the class taking place on the snow instead of indoors. Because avalanche accidents require the wrong combination of people, conditions, and terrain, most Level 1 classes will focus on these three topics. The Level 1 is considered the standard level of training in the U.S., and a reasonable goal would be for yourself and all your riding partners to take a Level 1 and commit to putting the education into practice.
  • The Level 2 is also typically a three-day course, and gets more in detail on the same topics as a Level 1 (people, conditions, and terrain). Often the emphasis is on conditions, to better reduce uncertainty when no regional avalanche forecast is available. 

Medical training in the U.S. is significantly more complicated than avalanche training, due to the numerous specialized disciplines and environments. While riding snowmobiles in avalanche terrain, the most relevant discipline is "wilderness medicine." However, don’t dismiss other types of training; your riding partner who works as an urban E.R. nurse will probably be invaluable in an emergency. 

Wilderness medicine classes have similar progressions to avalanche classes. Usually, Wilderness First Aid is introductory and lasts a few days; Wilderness First Responder is more thorough and lasts around a week; and Wilderness EMT borders on professional-level training – taking at least several weeks to achieve. 

In general, all wilderness medicine classes teach students to “pack and ship” – to assess, stabilize, and evacuate patients. It’s important to recognize that miles from the truck, there’s often not much more to be done for an injured partner. Getting them back to the truck without causing more harm, or deciding when to stop messing around and call for outside assistance, might be the best that you can do. 

As with avalanche classes, all the medical training available does no good it if can’t be implemented. Besides checking with your partners regarding their level of training, also make sure they carry first aid kits to put that training to use if it’s needed. At least some of the supplies should be carried in vests or backpacks and not on machines, in case rider and machine are separated.

Tangible Skills

Riding skill is an easy quality to observe and consider in your partners. For most mountain riders, pushing their skill level and having minor misadventures is part of the fun and learning process. But where is the line between a minor misadventure and a major one, and does that line move when you’re in avalanche terrain?

On some days, you may not want to invite people who can’t reliably ride the terrain you have in mind. Maybe where you plan to go, the easy riding has avalanche exposure, or there are difficult moves needed to avoid exposure. On other days, you may appreciate the company of riding partners regardless of their riding skill. On these days, you can choose a different area where avoiding avalanches doesn’t mean difficult riding or must-make moves. Both examples demonstrate effective consideration of your partners’ riding skill. 

Riding style deserves similar attention. Mountain riding has become incredibly diverse, with many sub-disciplines like boondocking and hill climbing. Manufacturers and the aftermarket have responded with specialized equipment, and it’s now possible to own multiple machines for different purposes. 

Almost by definition, different riding styles approach terrain differently. Although someone who prefers boondocking tight trees can still have fun riding with someone who prefers steep hill climbing, the reality is they will have disagreements about where to ride and how to ride it. Good friends in non-avalanche terrain can probably work through these disagreements. But in avalanche terrain, these different approaches are likely to impact your group management and increase your risk. Either ride with people who share similar riding styles, or choose a riding area with limited exposure to avalanches.

Navigation and mechanical skills are qualities that may be difficult to observe until something goes wrong. Imagine a day of riding with partners who lack these skills; the ride would be full of wrong turns and break-downs. So long as you’re not in avalanche terrain, this would be frustrating and stressful, but it probably won’t kill you. But in avalanche terrain, these problems could become consequential. A wrong turn or the difficulty of towing a broken sled might lead you to go someplace you didn’t plan to. More generally, the frustration and stress might negatively impact your ability to maintain awareness and manage the group. Make sure some people in your group have navigation and mechanical skills and carry the appropriate tools, or else choose to stay close to the trucks and far away from avalanche terrain.

Mental Shortcuts

Less obvious than formal training and tangible skills, but equally important qualities to consider, are the mental shortcuts that you and your partners regularly take. People use mental shortcuts when decision making in everyday life, and these are so common they are often subconscious. But mental shortcuts can become dangerous in avalanche terrain. Pay close attention to the shortcuts that you often take, in addition to those of your partners. If any of the following mental shortcuts are shared between group members or otherwise cause concern, account for them when you create safety margins (Adapted from “Hueristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications” by Ian McCammon (2004)).

  • Familiarity is the tendency to feel safer in familiar settings, and to think that past experiences in these settings help predict future ones. If you haven’t seen something happen in the past, you’re less likely to spend the mental energy on it looking forward. You may assume that familiar terrain is safe because you haven’t experienced avalanches there before, or that familiar conditions are safe because in similar conditions you haven’t triggered avalanches. When going to familiar terrain or riding in familiar conditions, make sure your safety margins allow room for the unexpected.
  • Acceptance describes the shortcut of allowing social factors to dominate decisions. One self-explanatory version of this used to be known as “Kodak courage” and is now “doing it for the ‘Gram.” But cameras or cellphones need not be involved - this shortcut can take many forms and is likely to be present anytime you ride with other social people. Consider what form this shortcut might take, and factor it into your safety margins. For example, if you have a new person in the group who might feel the need to impress the rest of you, you could agree in advance to stay farther away from anticipated avalanches than you would otherwise. 
  • Consistency/Commitment is when you’re likely to keep anchoring off an earlier decision. It’s easier than completely re-analyzing every subsequent decision, especially if you assume little has changed or if you’re too committed to acknowledge the change. Picture this happening on a riding vacation away from home: You’ve already decided where to go, and when you get there you’re likely to ride regardless of the avalanche conditions. This shortcut is used in more subtle ways and on different scales, and is most likely to be present when there are stated goals or time constraints on your ride. As you near a goal or push a time constraint, you’re probably using this shortcut if you or your partners show less engagement when you stop to talk. If this is a pattern for you and your partners, try to plan for rides with several options (or open-ended goals) and minimal time constraints.
  • The Expert Halo is the mental shortcut that assigns expertise and leadership to a person based on non-relevant factors. The “natural” leader isn’t always the person with the most avalanche knowledge. It might be the most assertive person in the group, or the best rider, or the common social link between people. Make sure you don’t just follow a leader in silence, and if the expert halo is assigned to you, elicit opinions from other group members throughout the day. If you know you’re riding with someone likely to assume the expert halo but who doesn’t actively engage in avalanche risk management, create conservative and very clear safety margins to mitigate the leadership void.
  • Tracks in the snow or other people riding in the area may lead you to assume it’s safe just because someone else is doing it (this mental shortcut is also called Social Proof). If you’ve ever walked in a busy city, you may have used this shortcut by following a crowd across a busy intersection without first checking the traffic light. It can be a reasonable shortcut in that environment, but not in avalanche terrain. The first person on a slope is not always the one to trigger an avalanche, and there have been many accidents where the slope was full of tracks before someone triggered it. Even if people aren’t riding the same slope, their mere presence in the area might give you a false sense of security. If you ride in popular areas, your safety margins should minimize avalanche exposure. If this isn’t satisfying, create safety margins that avoid popular areas.
  • Scarcity is the subconscious inclination to ignore information if a scarce resource is at stake. Most snowmobilers know this as “powder fever.” Of course, riding fresh powder is an important goal for most mountain riders. When untracked snow is involved, you can probably assume that you and your partners might ignore some potentially important information. The key is to know when to plan for it. If a bad season or limited riding days make untracked snow scarce, create appropriate safety margins on the few powder days you experience. Or if where you’re riding gets tracked-out quickly, use timing margins to mitigate this mental shortcut as the day progresses.