Dying in an avalanche is probably a horrible way to go. Just prior, you were having the time of your life (literally), and now you are buried under chest-crushing snow, gasping for breath, unable to move an inch while suffering the pain of a shattered leg or some similarly awful trauma. At least it will probably only last about 15 minutes, but that’s a long time to replay the last decision you will ever make, trying in vain to will yourself just a few moments back in time to do it differently.
Surviving an avalanche, while significantly better, is likely the same experience right up to that point that your partners finish digging through a ton of snow to clear your airway. Instead of dying, now you only have the nightmare of dealing with your friend who was also caught but didn’t survive. You and your remaining partners decide to leave the body for authorities to recover, and begin the task of getting back to the trailhead with your injuries and without your sled. Eventually, your focus will turn to the loved ones that your friend left behind, and what you’re going to tell them.
Either way, if you die or if a partner dies, the real burden will be on the survivors. At least the dead only spend a few minutes second guessing that final decision; the surviving friends and family will spend a lifetime. It’s for this reason that you owe it to your loved ones to avoid dying in an avalanche.
The good thing is that avalanches are not mysterious things that come crashing down from above with no warning signs. They require people to trigger them, in the wrong combination of conditions and terrain. With practice, you can learn to recognize the conditions and terrain required, so that you can avoid being the trigger.
Although this learning continues for a lifetime, there is a process to follow that can help you reduce your risk even as you gain experience. “Risk management” is this process in general terms, and this text describes a risk management process specific to riding snowmobiles or snowbikes in avalanche terrain.
Risk is defined as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives” (International Organization for Standards: ISO 31000). Given this definition, risk reduction is the attempt to reduce uncertainty, to reduce exposure to the effects of uncertainty, and to reduce the consequences of errors. Risk management is the process that’s applied to achieve this. In the context of avalanches, risk management is the process applied to:
- Reduce uncertainty about avalanches
- Reduce exposure to avalanches
- Reduce the consequences of errors
If avalanches, exposure, and consequences were simple things, the risk management process would be equally simple, and probably go something like this:
- Reduce uncertainty by digging a snowpit to determine if avalanches are likely
- Reduce exposure by going left or right depending on the hole you dug in the snow
- Reduce the consequences of errors by wearing protective gear and carrying avalanche gear
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Mountain riding, including the people who do it and the environment it’s done in, is incredibly complex and dynamic. Uncertainty about avalanches, exposure, and consequences can be reduced but never eliminated. Your risk management process needs to factor the remaining uncertainties and provide room for error.
Donald Rumsfeld (US Secretary of Defense, 2001-06) summarized uncertainty well when he said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The conundrum is that reducing uncertainty takes practice and learning, which implies mistakes, and in avalanche terrain mistakes can have very serious consequences. You need to create conservative enough safety margins to practice and learn without getting killed while doing it. And as you learn, be cautious that your level of confidence doesn’t outpace your competence.
Although your risk management process needs to be more robust than just digging holes in the snow and wearing safety gear, it also doesn’t need to be burdensome. When applied well, the “Daily Flow” is an elegant way to structure your riding day. It allows for fun riding while reducing uncertainty, reducing exposure, and reducing the consequences of errors. It also provides opportunities for lifelong learning. The following is a summary:
- Consider Your Partners: Consider the qualities of your riding partners as they relate to risk; including both avalanche and non-avalanche risk.
- Anticipate Conditions: Use the regional avalanche forecast and other resources to anticipate weather, snowpack, and avalanche conditions for the day.
- Create Safety Margins: Based on what you expect from your partners and conditions, create safety margins using terrain and timing. Allow room for error.
- Confirm Details: Evaluate options within your safety margins. Confirm details like possible routes, a time plan, and an emergency response plan.
- Stop to Talk: At the trailhead and then throughout the day, stop to talk about conditions, terrain, and group management.
- Manage Your Group: Use communication techniques and spacing and spotting techniques that are appropriate for the conditions and terrain.
- Maintain Awareness: As you ride, use the Conditions Alerts and Terrain Alerts checklists to maintain awareness. If you observe anything unexpected, stop your group. Otherwise, continue until your next planned stop.
- Debrief: At the end of the day, debrief what went well and what didn’t. Did you do things right or just get lucky?
- Submit Observations: Let the nearest avalanche center know what you observed, using language that you are comfortable with, and/or images and videos.