Students practice search and rescue techniques.

Finding Humility: A First Step in Avalanche Education

By Allison Perry | Telluride

L ast Wednesday, a photograph of Olivia Buchanan’s calm, smiling face appeared in the Durango Herald, a visual of youth, beauty and health.

The photo was completely at odds with the story that ran beneath, announcing her recent and almost unfathomable death at 23 years old after she was swept away by an avalanche while skiing the backcountry near Silverton.

This story resonates in Colorado and the larger ski community because it is a story that is becoming more and more common, and, sadly, less and less surprising.

Like the three professional skiers who died in avalanches earlier this season in Patagonia, including phenom JP Auclair, and two members of the US Olympic Development team who perished in Austria, Buchanan was, according to the Durango Herald, not only passionate but also experienced and prudent in the backcountry. She had completed a Level 2 Avalanche Safety Course and studied snow science at the University Of Montana. She was familiar with the area she was skiing. And although she liked to push herself,  she “was not one to take chances.”

Perhaps most troubling is the conditions that day did not indicate to her or her partner that an avalanche was likely to occur where she was skiing. Nor would they have indicated it to anyone else in that situation, experienced or not.

Buchanan’s death insinuated itself into my head and refused to leave.

As a backcountry skier, I am far less educated than she was. As a relatively recent transplant to the San Juan Mountains, I have a far less intimate knowledge of the terrain I have begun to ski on a more and more regular basis than did Buchanan.

It was with her in mind that I stepped into the conference room in the Mountain Village Town Hall to finally take my Avy 1 course, believing that I would be inoculated with a step-by-step guide on how to avoid the same fate as Buchanan. We would learn what she did wrong, and how to avoid it. I felt almost relieved sitting down with my notebook on the first day of the course. I was finally going to be able to control my destiny when traveling in the backcountry, or at least be able to learn those skills and start honing.

After completing most of the course (I had to reschedule the last day due to a nagging knee injury) I realized my almost arrogant misconceptions on that first day of class, thinking that an Avy 1 course would somehow instantly provide me with some sort of impregnable cloak of safety, despite the fact the course was only three days long.

What it turns out I was really lacking was not only education but, as I learned, humility.

Being able to view the backcountry (and the wilderness in general) through the lens of humility is probably the biggest lesson learned from my Avy 1 class, and it was not something I was expecting.

A skier-triggered avalanche observed by the author in Ophir.

A skier-triggered avalanche observed by the author in Ophir earlier this season, on a day where danger was labeled “moderate” at all elevations by the CAIC. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Every lecture or skill discussed in my Avy 1 class came with a warning that nothing is really ever a “golden ticket” to ski a certain slope, and although this is not what anyone wanted to hear, it resonates far beyond the classroom.

I don’t think I’m alone in that I naively assumed that an Avy 1 Course was going to dole out so many golden tickets to ski certain things in certain conditions that I would be skipping home like Charlie, ready to throw on my skis and haul ass to the chocolate factory.

However, decisions made in the backcountry are always going to be subject to Mother Nature’s approval, and sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t want to play by your rules, even though our “rules” are largely determined by science.

As course instructor Josh Butson said on the first day, “This class doesn’t make it easier to make decisions. It gives you the tools to make better decisions.”

And indeed, the focus during the course was usually not concerning situations in which there was a “right” decision. Rarely are there scenarios that black and white in the backcountry. And without giving away course lessons or secrets, everything taught in an Avy 1 course comes with the caution that what you learn is merely a jumping off point, and that there is simply no substitute for practice, experience, and more practice.

We learned massive quantities of information on terrain choice, decision making, and identification of problematic patterns in the snowpack. We engaged in rescue drills and learned that despite the fact we all thought we knew how to use our equipment, we really did not know the first thing. We went over hypotehtical scenarios, looked at pictures, and addressed seemingly endless options, never satiated with a simple “that’s absolutely right, let’s move on.”

So if there are rarely any decisions that guarantee safety, aside from practicing, why not just save yourself a few bucks and buy a few books?

Or, if everything is left to chance and there is nothing you can do to change that, why not just buy an ABS pack and forget about even trying to mitigate circumstance?

What’s the point of taking a course, paying money, sacrificing a weekend, if all you walk away with is the knowledge that humans are almost completely impotent when pitted against the great wide open, and that the only scientific certainty is that there is no certainty?

For one thing, as one of our instructors said on day two, it is possible to “recognize your level of uncertainty, then manage your uncertainty.” Furthermore, it is possible to gain the tools to recognize when your uncertainty is whining so loudly in your ear that you should just pack up and go home.

As I came to realize throughout that weekend I spent learning how to speak the language of avalanche, snow pack, depth hoar, surface hoar, leeward slopes, wind loading, and terrain management, the more intangible lessons our instructors imparted upon us were by far and away the most important.

And you can’t get those from a book. Or an ABS pack.

One of an Avy 1 courses’ objectives it to attempt to teach novices that they are not experts. Some of the most important techniques in the backcountry have nothing to do with skiing or snow, but knowing when to be able to assess a situation in which ego, group dynamics, summit/powder fever, or just plain false confidence are taking over.

An instructor demonstrates how to dig a pit and some basic snow stability assessment techniques.

An instructor demonstrates how to dig a pit and some basic snow stability assessment techniques, but cautioned that these tests should never (particularly at the Avy 1 level) form the basis for a decision upon whether or not to ski a certain slope. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Sometimes knowing that you need to turn around and sacrifice some turns precisely because you are just that aware you do not know whether the situation is safe or not is a far more valuable skill than being able to do a snow stability test on a column of snow in the super awesome pit you just dug.

Sometimes knowing how to be the one to say “we don’t know shit, and the conditions aren’t helping” and forcing your group to ski low angle, less brag-worthy terrain makes you that much braver than the others willing to cross their fingers, close their eyes and just go for it because, hey, they’re going to ski it too.

Having a plan is always essential, but part of this plan involves being humble and allowing oneself to always move aside when the forces do not align in a way that indicates relative safety. “Don’t make lists,” our instructor admonished us on our second day in the classroom, citing people who become dead set on skiing a certain line, or making it to a certain destination on a certain day. “We ski what the weather and conditions allow us to ski. Always.”

I vowed at that very moment to stop believing I had any power over nature, and that my system of setting “ski goals” for myself was just as silly as my course was making it out to be.

I not only wrote that down, but underlined it. Twice.

The instructors are a big part of why taking a course is essential to those who want to even attempt to make better and safer decisions in the backcountry. In the wake of Buchanan’s death, one of our instructors told a personal story of his own mistake in the backcountry, triggering an avalanche that swept both of his travel partners (who believed they were in a safe zone) into the trees, where they sustained serious injuries. Although they lived, and it could have been far worse, he is clearly still affected by the incident, particularly how it exposed for him just how flawed many assumptions about safety can be.

Think skiing in the trees is always safe? I used to. I don’t anymore. And I’ve definitely read books and articles emphasizing that trees are not always safe. Hearing and watching someone who had gone through the experience of seeing that firsthand, and seeing even a glimmer of how traumatic it was (and remember, everyone got out alive in this case) drove the point home for me.

A student practices search and rescue techniques.

A student practices search and rescue techniques on the resort, where buried victims are simulated with backpacks and beacons. (Photo by Allison Perry)

And I’ll remember it every single time I ski the backcountry.

Furthermore, how could any of us far less experienced and educated humans, presume or even pretend that the decisions we had made in the backcountry up to that point were the best we could have made.

As I took inventory of my decision making in the backcountry I was appalled at how many times I had fallen victim to common and flawed patterns of thinking and assumptions that could have easily been the reason I didn’t make it out. In fact, pure luck is likely  the reason I am not another story appearing in a local newspaper, my photo staring off the page towards a life I will no longer have the chance to live.

What I am getting at here is that an Avy 1 class is not only essential if you want to ever get to a level where you can actually start acquiring the knowledge needed to analyze the snow pack and make decisions that are less riddled with insecurity, but also that having the insight of people who have this kind of experience, and their guidance is not something that can be substituted.

I can walk away from my Avy 1 course knowing all the mistakes I’ve made already, how to at least work on not repeating them and others, and, perhaps most importantly, with a deep sense of gratitude for my life and a respect for the backcountry that will keep me honest and keep me walking on the safer side of a very thin line.

Can I get that Humble Pie ala mode please?

About the Author

Allison Perry

Allison Perry was born and raised in New York City and earned a BA in Political Science from The University Of Wisconsin - Madison and a JD at Case Western Reserve University School Of Law before moving to Alaska with the hopes of becoming the next Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Although she went so far as to pass the Bar Exam in Sarah Palin's playground, she became disillusioned with law and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist and a photographer. She moved to Colorado in 2010 and after a few years ski-bumming and retailing, she was finally able to transform her freelance writing into a full time career at The Watch. Allison believes local journalism is an essential part of living in a small town, and strives to write objectively, in plain English, with a critical eye and a dash of sarcasm here and there. She is stoked to be a part of the San Juan Independent.