I’ve heard it often joked that the most important thing learnt since March 2020 in these pandemic times, is to just not make any plans. Perhaps more accurately, we should say; be prepared to change them as the conditions change. In the mountains it’s perhaps not a good idea to make NO plans, but changing them to suit conditions... now that's not a bad idea is it? Humans are not actually good at changing plans once committed. Just as we get overly committed to plans, we get overly committed to beliefs. We unconsciously place more weight on evidence confirming these beliefs, while downplaying or explaining away evidence contradicting these beliefs.
Decisions too, are difficult, and there’s only so much mental energy available to make them (look up decision fatigue!). To cope with this constant stream of information and the myriad decisions we must make every day, humans rely on heuristics – rules of thumb, routines – to simplify and eradicate much of the decision making we have to do on a daily basis. This leaves us with spare mental energy to apply the full decision-making process to those decisions that are complicated, or really matter. Where am I going with all this? Well, each of these natural human traits has led me to have at least one, if not more, close calls in the mountains. From each of these, I would like to think I have learnt a lot, but it’s difficult to prevent slipping back at least a little, sometimes. It makes sense to me when I consider the closest calls – they were due to getting distracted (something else humans are naturally REALLY good at…) and overlooking or simply forgetting to look out for conditions, and changes in conditions.
The snow was at least three days old – plenty of time to settle. Three friends socialising, kicking up through knee deep, loose, dry powder, and enjoying the start of a bluebird serene day. With sunrise, the snow started to ball up on loose shoelaces like cute little pompoms. Further up the ridge, it steepened and we climbed up – two in front, and I brought up the rear. Suddenly the whole slope below me fractured, and hissed quietly off the side of the mountain. We froze. Wait, what?
With the benefits of hindsight: every day since last snowfall had been extremely cold and calm. Not much settlement at all had occurred - which was pretty obvious from the loose snow we’d walked into, and from how it had started to ball up immediately with the first touch of solar radiation. We just had forgotten to pay attention. Committing to our plan - our route. The rule of thumb - wait 24-48hrs after a storm before venturing out. Believing it was settled, and not noticing the evidence that it had not, and only noticing the lack of natural avalanche activity. The human tendency to distraction…. lucky we got lucky. I’ve probably gotten lucky before - the problem with avalanches is you can get lucky and not know it, and walk away thinking you’ve just made good decisions.
So where AM i going with all this? I finally decided to do my ARM 5 (aka Avy 1) in the last few months. Why? A combination of factors. I was becoming more and more uncomfortably aware that I was often not contributing to decision making conversations as the rest of the group. What I had to contribute was more like speculation than actual analysis and informed opinion. I was also very aware that a decision made on one day, in one state of mind, might be different on another day even if the exact same conditions and information were available to me. I wanted to be more useful to my climbing partners, to events like the Remarkables Ice and Mixed festival which operates within avalanche terrain, and to be able to contribute higher quality useful information to services such as InfoEx.
I had a number of different opinions expressed to me (decisions are difficult!) - that ARM5 would not be useful if i wasn't to become a ski patroller or use it in another professional context, that I would find it very interesting and if it contributed anything to keeping myself or my partners safe then I had no excuse to not do it (!), that the quality of the course and format was not condusive to learning much (opinions from 7+ years ago, when ARM5 was Avy 1 and radically different). However there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction from a select few people for whom I hold a great deal of respect, so in the end that made for a pretty easy decision. Call it part of my online shopping spree while in MIQ...
I was so surprised with how directly applicable I found the course was to recreational climbing. I would have predicted just some kind of enhanced knowledge of snowpack structure that i'd be able to apply in the hills. My biggest takeaway is quite far from that however - ongoing development of my own systematic, repeatable processes. Analysing expected avalanche hazard - the information you aim to target in the field, and the key factors in your assessment of hazard for the day. Considering forecast, and combining this with the previous analysis to forecast how you expect your hazard to develop and change over the day. Every morning before heading out into the field we would complete this hazard evaluation checklist - just as I would complete a gear checklist. And just as a written gear checklist prevents you forgetting things, so does a written hazard evaluation.
What do you cover in the duration of the course? The nature of avalanches - how they form, how they start and move.
Terrain evaluation and appropriate risk strategies. If you can avoid the white dragon, it can’t bite you.
Meteorology and snowpack influences; the knowledge of weather information sources and how to interpret them - picking good conditions (and avoiding bad conditions!) from readily available information sources, and predicting how those conditions will change over the day, and coming days - pretty big drawcard for climbers right there!
Snow formation and metamorphism, snow profiles, tests, and avalanche observations… getting into snow science! Not just looking at grains under a loupe - though that’s pretty fun - there’s another wealth of information to be tapped into regarding mountain conditions through an understanding of the meaning of these formal observations. Using others’ observations, and being able to add to that body of knowledge to inform others in the backcountry.
Then into the planning and decision making processes - hazard evaluation and communication. Human factors and decision making. Risk mitigation and planning. How do we form a plan for targeting information to collect, based on what we know? What are we most concerned about? Mitigating risks not just lying within the snowpack, but sitting overhead, or within our own heads in the form of complacency, distraction, or the influence of other human traits waiting to trip us up.
And finally - avalanche search and rescue. It’s pretty appropriate to leave this to last, as that’s what it is; a last resort. In reality, if you’re pulling out your transceiver something has already gone horribly wrong. For climbers this is especially pertinent. The terrain we travel in (and the fact when we’re on foot) means we aren’t searching out that deep powder, and we really need to avoid any and all avalanche hazard as much as possible as it doesn’t take much to take you off a bluff or the side of a mountain! All of the previous topics of study work together to prevent your avalanche involvement in the first place, and that’s the place I think we would all prefer to be in. However… if something has already gone horribly wrong, you want everything to go awfully right, so make sure you brush up those skills. With a partner under the snow is not the place i’d like to have discovered the quirks of the signal suppression on my transceiver. The inanimate plastic plate that suffered instead didn't seem to mind.
If there’s one main takeaway I would have from trying to coordinate a multi-burial rescue scenario, with some “victims” without transceivers on is… wear your transceiver. Or you might get someone like me trying to run an organised probe line! The education is there and very accessible, and the value of the full ARM5 course over a shorter backcountry course was well worth it in my books.
I have left most backcountry courses I have taken with a lot of uncertainty over how I would actually make a decision based on the information I was seeing in the field. However the approach was different in ARM5, and now (maybe I was just slow to learn before! It wouldn’t surprise me) I understand that the process for decision making can begin far before you even put on boots and set foot on snow. A systematic process for hazard evaluation is repeatable, and I left this time with a clear picture of how to apply this immediately, including reflection and reassessment of the process so we would continue to learn from and refine it long after the final course exam was over. And may I never forget - i've still got so much to learn.
However you choose to obtain it, ongoing education and development of good risk mitigation procedures is one proven path towards making our amazing mountain experiences also repeatable.
footnote: some publicly accessible resources that I found valuable...
Slide: the Avalanche Podcast
because Doug Krause's deadpan humor and sentiment of "not practicing your rescue skills is like pissing on your partner" made for great COVID Level 3 running entertainment
Any 90's New Zealand children will know Jim Hickey!
Did you know you can compare forecasts on Windy.com?
If they all agree (or disagree...) you can interpret that for an idea of the uncertainty in the forecast.
And a quick overview from the MetService on how to interpret their weather forecasts