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Beware the human factor

Hugh Zuker

The avalanche fatality that occurred in Five Fingers Bowl on March 6 caught the attention of everyone in our community. Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) is no exception. Regrettably, in most years our team is accustomed to recovering one or two avalanche victims. This year’s snowpack has been exceptionally tender, and we are sure that there have been more than a few unreported close calls.

The fact that this latest incident was during an avalanche class, and that the victim, John W. Jenson, was a fellow rescuer (Atalaya SAR in New Mexico), has shaken up quite a few of us. A few of our team members attended the memorial services in Los Alamos last Tuesday, March 29.

As rescuers and educators, Mountain Rescue’s role is not to second guess the decisions of other backcountry users. Nor do we want to discourage the use of the backcountry. As a group, we are here to 1) disseminate knowledge of, and respect for, backcountry risk management, and 2) to respond to those who need help … without prejudice.

The bottom line on avalanche danger is that there is no danger if no one is out there. The exposure begins when someone decides it is “safe enough” to go in. Unfortunately, backcountry access will always be an exercise in risk management vs. risk tolerance ” there is no guarantee of safety.

The premise of avalanche education is that if you have an understanding of the danger signs and approach the conditions in a thoughtful, organized manner, you are more likely to recognize risk and make safer, more informed choices. MRA absolutely agrees with this principle, and encourages people to get educated.

It is sobering to consider the data compiled by Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC is at http://geosurvey.state.co.us/ avalanche/). From 1980 through 1997, 38 percent of backcountry avalanche fatalities occurred to people who had advanced avalanche awareness training, and 28 percent to those who had “some” training. Seventy-eight percent of the fatalitiies were people considered to have advanced skill (skiing, riding and backcountry travel, etc.) in this type of terrain.

It is not that avalanche education puts you at greater risk, it is that the “expert” users of avalanche terrain are those who spend the most time out there. In other words, the experts expose themselves to the most risk.

It comes down to: 1) how good your threat assessment is, and 2) how likely you are to pay attention to your assessment. In avalanche circles, this is known as “the human factor.” The problem for humans, especially those who spend a lot of time in high risk areas, is that we get complacent. The cliche, “He skied that area for years and never had a problem,” tells the story. Humans tend to believe that the more times they navigate a risky area without getting caught, the “safer” it is for them to go in. Thus, experienced folks are sometimes more susceptible to underrating the danger signs they see.

Our Colorado snowpack is among the most treacherous in the U.S. mountains. Thinner, colder and dryer, our pack tends to develop weak layers and poor bonding. This makes it very difficult to know how stable the snow is even a few meters from your carefully analyzed snowpit or shear test.

Avalanche forecasting provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the CAIC, while extremely helpful, is at best a broad brushstroke. The CAIC uses the International Avalanche Danger Scale to give each aspect (i.e. each direction a slope may face) a rating of forecasted avalanche danger ” Low, Moderate, Considerable, High and Very High.

But add back in the “human factor” and you see another initially odd datum.

The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE is at http://www.avtraining.org) is one of the main organizations that trains avalanche instructors and provides standard curricula. In a chart they provide to Level 1 trainees, they show the percentage of avalanche deaths that occur in each of the five levels of danger. Only 1 percent of these fatalities occurred when the rating was Very High. Six percent got caught in Low. Eighteen percent died when the danger was rated as High. Three quarters of the fatalities happened when the danger forecast was only Moderate to Considerable (30 percent during Moderate, 45 percent during Considerable avalanche danger)!

Early this winter, when the danger was at its worst, most people knew enough to stay out of the high hazard areas. In “better” conditions, people take more risks ” and get caught.

Our concern at MRA is that more and more people are going through the ski area boundary gates without thinking it through. The backcountry is being increasingly seen as a place for “everybody to enjoy.” The Colorado resort industry seems to be encouraging this. Very egalitarian.

Ski patrollers know how following a set of ski tracks can suck people into closed or dangerous areas. We worry about the followers who go into the backcountry without personally assessing their risk and taking the time to check in with their own sense of danger.

In his book, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,” Bruce Tremper gives his “rap on responsibility.” One of our rescue leaders suggested I include it in this letter as it conveys our point of view so eloquently (some of the following may be paraphrased):

“Our culture rejoices in the concept of individuality, that we have the right to do as we please, even to the point that if we kill ourselves through risky endeavors, well, then it’s nobody’s business but our own. With every rescue, body recovery or accident investigation and the funerals that follow are the tears of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and friends whose lives will never be the same. There were also the invisible strings attached to the rescuers who risked their lives, the innocent people below on the trail or road who were nearly buried by the avalanche they triggered, and the lawmakers who passed restrictive rules for others in the wake of an accident or lawsuit. Catastrophe and sorrow, it seems, always make ripples that travel to the edges of every pond.

“Everything we do affects others. When we break a trail through the snow, others will follow. When we decide not to cross a slope, others will listen. When we check everyone’s beacon at the beginning of an outing, everyone will think about avalanches. We see young people doing stupid things in the mountains and we teach them a better way with patience and compassion, everyone will be safer. There are no unconnected dots.”

MRA asks you not to follow blindly ” don’t put your life completely in someone else’s hands, not even an “experienced” friend or a guide. The best backcountry artists around are still human and can make a mistake. And many of the best of the best are dead.

Get educated, understand the risk, think for yourself.


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