Technical information, news, research, and opinion on avalanches, snow safety, and winter backcountry travel.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

6 Signs of Exposure

Where am I to go, now that I've gone too far? — Golden Earring

Let's talk about terrain selection for a few minutes. A few years ago I wrote a rather long article on terrain selection, which I followed up with another article that explained the statistical basis for the model. I don't think anyone would argue about the importance of terrain selection, but the simple model of evaluating slope angles isn't quite enough.

With that in mind, I'm going to write a simpler post that discusses the six universal signals of exposure. The benefits of the six universal signals of exposure is that they're easy to use ( regardless of experience ) and they can easily be integrated into trip planning. This means you can evaluate exposure before you set foot on the snow.

The Model
LOCALE. A model for analysing exposure that gives you holistic information about exposure to avalanches.

  • Is line-of-sight limited?
  • Do local terrain features obstruct your line-of-sight to terrain above or below?
  • Is your uphill view blocked by rocks or trees?
  • Can you see all the terrain above and below or only some of it?
  • Pay attention and double-check your decisions when line-of-sight is limited for any reason.
  • Limitations to line-of-sight can reduce your reaction time to zero. ( I personally feel like this is one of the most important, and overlooked, elements of terrain selection. )
  • Is the terrain open enough to produce small, medium, or large avalanches?
  • Are there open breaks in the forest that allow snow to travel unobstructed to your location?
  • How much open terrain is present and where is the open terrain relative to your location?
  • Large quantities of snow can accumulate in open areas near mountain tops before an avalanche and in valley bottoms after an avalanche.
  • Is the terrain confined relative to the size or speed of an avalanche of any size?
  • Could a large, fast-moving avalanche overrun the valley floor?
  • Are you in a gully where escape from a small but fast-moving avalanche could prove impossible?
  • Small avalanches form deep deposits in confined terrain, such as hollows or depressions, where snow can accumulate.
  • Estimate your reaction time before something goes wrong and double-check your decisions if reaction time is short.
  • Reaction time is a very important part of your margin of safety because it can tell you a lot about the true degree of exposure for where you plan to travel.
  • Has snow accumulated above or below?
  • Avalanches often start where snow accumulates, and then run downhill where they deposit snow on the valley floor.
  • Are there obstacles above or below?
  • This includes cliffs, crevasses, rocks, and trees.
  • Obstacles above may block your line-of-sight, inducing hazard blindness, and can cause traumatic injuries during any phase of an avalanche.
  • On the other hand, obstacles can block or redirect flowing snow and may offer protection at your current location.
  • Is the terrain steeper than 30 degrees?
  • Avalanches start and rapidly accelerate on steep terrain.
  • Steep terrain produces fast-moving avalanches that can release above you and travel toward your location.
  • If you trigger an avalanche on steep terrain, you may be unable to escape from the flowing snow.
  • Steep terrain can limit your line-of-sight, and indicate locations suitable for sluffs, cornice drops, serac fall, or rock fall—all of which can start avalanches above or around you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

After All The Ambulances Go

After all this time, and after all the ambulances go — Arcade Fire

Are we putting too much emphasis on human factors?

Or, is the list a bit too short?

Should we expand the list of commonly accepted human factors to include a few unflattering, but honest, additions? I have a friend here in Seattle who is a registered nurse, and a few years ago he clued me in to a wonderful practice called evidence-based medicine. I've been thinking about that for quite a long time now, and I feel like I'm ready to open the discussion.

Powder Magazine has a new series on avalanches. In the first part, they discuss a serious accident that occurred on February 11th, 2014 in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. The discussion ends with the now-familiar ( to many ) discussion of human factors. To be honest, after reading the entire article, I was unsure why there was any need to discuss the human factors. The story could just as well have been titled "Pushing Your Luck In Shitty Conditions".

The second incident that I'm going to add is the accident that took place on December 16th, 2013, in the backcountry at Jackson Hole Ski Area in Wyoming. After that accident the survivors had many things to say about what went wrong, and their remarks included comments about additions to avalanche education. If I'd written an article on this accident, I'd have given it the title "The Link Between Incompetence And Death In The Backcountry".

I'm interested in why we so often choose to view avalanche accidents exclusively through the lens of human factors, and if we are going to do this, I am going to propose a few additions: stupidity, laziness, and incompetence. The long and short is that both of these accidents are textbook examples of what not to do, and no amount of education is going to overcome the inertia of laziness, stupidity, and unacknowledged incompetence.

Avalanche education gives participants a foundation with which to develop the scientific and psychological tools to travel safely in the backcountry. Yet you and I both know that many participants fail to follow established best practices, and that many accidents occur as a direct result of such failures. So while it might seem awful to propose adding "laziness", "stupidity", and "incompetence" to the list of human factors, are those words not applicable for backcountry skiers who fail to properly apply their training? Haven't we all walked down that road a few times? Those of us who have been lucky enough to survive should try to remember that it only takes once.

Before this comes across as judgmental or snarky, please allow me to add a few caveats: I'll put myself at the top of the list of people who have gotten themselves into trouble through laziness, stupidity, and incompetence. Second, if we aren't going bother challenging ourselves in this regard, then who will? No, really, if we aren't going to bother challenging ourselves in this regard, then who will? Why should we be afraid to call incompetence what it is, especially if it is our own.

( FULL DISCLOSURE: I was asked by the editor of The Avalanche Review to review the article about the Pucker Face accident. My remarks here are not a result of my participation in that regard. )

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Snowflakes & Avalanches

It's hard to believe, but I've been nibbling away at this blog for five years now. The last few years haven't had a treasure trove of exciting posts because I've slowly been running out of things that I want to say about avalanches. So if anyone has any good ideas, please get in touch via the information on the About page.

That said, I trust everyone is ready to start skinning in hopes of powder. I'm ready to start skinning whether or not there's anything good to ski down, but I'm content to wait until the rocks are covered. Of course, once the rocks are covered, we have to start worrying about avalanches. So I'm going to wait a little longer and watch videos to help pass the time.

Here's one to get started:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Washington Terrain Ratings

It's the little things that kill—Bush


Terrain Ratings
( AUTHOR'S NOTE: This post was originally written four years ago, but it has been one of my most popular posts, and I thought that it deserved to be featured again. )Most people are familiar with the idea of terrain ratings, but if you are not familiar with the ATES technical model, review the following video:

This document contains terrain ratings for ski trips in Washington State. These terrain ratings provide an overall picture of the avalanche exposure for the terrain listed. The author's interpretation of ATES parameters are as follows:
  • The ATES rating system considers avalanche exposure. Other hazards exist.
  • The amount of exposure increases by at least 1 order of magnitude for each rating level.
  • Exposure to avalanche terrain does not increase in a linear manner.
  • Exposure for a simple tour might be viewed as a value of 4.
  • Exposure for a challenging tour is 16.
  • Exposure for a complex tour is 64.
  • In addition many tours have elements of each classification but these ratings are constructed with the entire tour, including the return, in mind.
  • Tours rated challenging are not conservative choices when the danger rating is considerable or higher.
  • Combine these ratings with the current avalanche danger and your personal risk acceptance level.
Exposure to low angle or primarily forested terrain. Some forest openings may involve the runout zones of infrequent avalanches. Many options to reduce or eliminate exposure. No glacier travel. Choose these trips when avalanche danger is Considerable or higher.
  1. Aiken Lava Bed
  2. Alpental To Source Lake
  3. Amabilis Mountain
  4. Artist's Point
  5. Clara Lake
  6. Hidden Valley Snoqualmie Pass
  7. Hyak Nordic Trails
  8. Diamond Head Road Ski
  9. Diamond Head Trees
  10. Earl Peak Approach via Bean Creek ( Before Climbing To Earl Pass )
  11. Heather Ridge To Skyline Lake
  12. Icicle Ridge
  13. Marble Mountain
  14. Merritt Lake
  15. Mt. Angeles
  16. Narada Falls To Reflection Lakes ( Avoiding the obvious avalanche slope near the parking lot. )
  17. Narada Falls To Paradise
  18. Olympic National Park Lodge Run
  19. Olympic National Park Toilet Bowl
  20. Olympic National Park Waterhole Trail
  21. Olympic National Park Obstruction Point Ridgeline Tour
  22. Olympic Hot Springs
  23. Paradise to Glacier Vista
  24. Silver Basin Flats ( No travel on steep, open slopes around the basin. )
  25. Stetattle Ridge
Exposure to well defined avalanche paths, starting zones or terrain traps; options exist to reduce or eliminate exposure with careful route-finding. Glacier travel is straightforward but crevasse hazards may exist. Choose these trips when avalanche danger is moderate.
  1. Alpental To Ridge Above Snow Lake
  2. Cement Basin
  3. Castle / Pinnacle Saddle
  4. Crystal Lake Basin Forested Slopes
  5. Diamond Head Chutes
  6. Eagle Mountain
  7. Earl Peak Approach via Bean Creek, Including Uphill To Earl Pass
  8. Goat Rocks To Treeline
  9. Governor's Ridge
  10. Heather Ridge Backside
  11. Heather Ridge Moonlight Bowl
  12. Hurricane Ridge
  13. Jim Hill Mountain
  14. Jove Peak Approach
  15. Jove Peak South Face Lower Slopes
  16. Kendall Ridge
  17. Lake Stuart
  18. Lichtenburg Mountain North Side
  19. Marmot Pass, To Treeline
  20. Mazama Back Bowls
  21. Mazama Ridge Ski Slopes
  22. Mission Peak
  23. Mt. Catherine
  24. Mt. Margaret
  25. Mt. Roosevelt
  26. Mt. Tamanos
  27. Naches Peak
  28. Narada Falls to Reflection Lakes ( travel up or down the obvious avalanche slope ).
  29. Norse Peak
  30. Paradise To Cowlitz Rocks
  31. Paradise to Panorama Point or McClure Rock
  32. Paradise To Stevens Canyon Via Road
  33. Peak 7828 approach only.
  34. Phantom Trees ( Up to 600 vertical feet / 200 vertical metres below summit. )
  35. Pickhandle Basin
  36. Skyline Ridge
  37. Silver Basin Lower Slopes ( up to the party knoll )
  38. Tunnel Creek ( South side of Cowboy Mountain, Stevens Pass ).
  39. Wedge Mountain, Travel Confined To Ridges, Forested Slopes
  40. Yakima Peak
  41. Yodelin Trees
Exposure to multiple overlapping avalanche paths or large expanses of steep, open terrain; multiple avalanche starting zones and terrain traps below; minimal options to reduce exposure. Complicated glacier travel with extensive crevasse bands or icefalls. Choose these trips when avalanche danger is moderate or low.
  1. Alaska Mountain
  2. Bacon Peak
  3. Big Slide Peak Summit & North Face
  4. Burroughs Mountain
  5. Butter Creek Drainage
  6. Boston Basin
  7. Camp Muir to Nisqually Bridge
  8. Cannon Mountain Northwest Face via Avalanche Path and Central Colouir.
  9. Cashmere Mountain Summit
  10. Cashmere Mountain Traverse
  11. Chair Peak Circumnavigation
  12. Chair Peak South Basin
  13. Chickamin Peak
  14. Clark Mountain
  15. Colchuck Peak
  16. Colfax Peak
  17. Cowlitz Chimneys
  18. Crystal Lake Basin Open Slopes
  19. Crystal Mountain To Chinook Pass
  20. Cutthroat Pass
  21. Cutthroat Ridge Descents
  22. Dome Peak
  23. Dragontail Peak
  24. Earl Peak Southwest Face
  25. Earl Peak Southeast Face
  26. Earl Peak North Bowls
  27. Eightmile Mountain
  28. Eldorado Peak
  29. Forbidden Peak
  30. Fuhrer Finger
  31. Glacier Peak
  32. Goat Island Mountain
  33. Goat Pass ( Mt. Stuart Area )
  34. Goat Rocks Alpine
  35. Grindstone Mountain
  36. Heliotrope Ridge
  37. Hidden Lakes Peak
  38. Horseshoe Lake
  39. Jack Ridge
  40. Jove Peak South Face From Summit
  41. Lichtenburg Mountain South Side
  42. Lichtenburg Mountain West Side
  43. Lichtenburg Mountain Summit
  44. Lundin Peak
  45. Marmot Pass, To Saddle
  46. Mt. Adams
  47. Mt. Baker Summit
  48. Mt. Buckner
  49. Mt. Howard Summit
  50. Mt. Olympus
  51. Mt. Mastiff Summit
  52. Mt. Maude
  53. Mt. Rainier Carbon Glacier
  54. Mt. Rainier Sunset Amphitheatre
  55. Mt. Rainier Liberty Ridge
  56. Mt. Rainier Summit
  57. Mt. Rainier Glacier Basin
  58. Mt. Rainier Steamboat Prow
  59. Mt. Saint Helens
  60. Mt. Snoqualmie To Summit
  61. Mt. Ross to Davis Peak Traverse
  62. Mt. Shuksan
  63. Mt. Stuart
  64. Mt. Stuart Sherpa Glacier
  65. Mt. Terror
  66. Mt. Triumph
  67. Olympic National Park Klahane Ridge
  68. Paradise to Camp Muir
  69. Peak 7828 To Summit
  70. Ptarmigan Traverse
  71. Pyramid Peak
  72. Red Mountain
  73. Reflection Lakes To Castle Peak
  74. Reflection Lakes To Pinnacle Peak
  75. Rock-Howard-Mastiff Mountain Traverse
  76. Rock Mountain Summit
  77. Ruby Mountain
  78. Sahale Arm
  79. Sarvant Glaciers
  80. Silver Basin Upper Slopes ( to ridgeline or summit of Silver King )
  81. Silver Star Mountain
  82. Sinister Peak
  83. Skidgravel Peak
  84. Slot Couloir
  85. Sylvester Lake
  86. Tatoosh Range Traverse
  87. Table Mountain
  88. Three Fingers Mountain
  89. Tower Mountain Northeast Couloir
  90. Unicorn Peak
  91. Union Creek
  92. Van Trump Park
  93. Vesper Peak
  94. Wedge Mountain, ( Any Travel On East Face )
  95. Whitehorse Mountain

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flashlights & Explosions

I don't know what more to ask for, I was given just one wish—Royksopp

I have been writing about avalanches for five years now, and I've done a respectable amount of professional work, all pro bono. Part of that work involves reviewing accident reports for publication, some of it involves avalanche education curriculum, and I do a bit of work involving computer analysis of various things. Every now and again I answer a question from a friend or relative of someone who was killed or injured in an avalanche.

There's something I've noticed that other professionals have noticed as well: the mountains change, the names of the people change, but by and large the accidents are carbon copies of each other. If you've read my blog for long enough, you'll notice that I'm always looking for patterns in piles of data. This is mostly simple process: I'll review literature, with a computer if I have to ( for word counts and semantic analysis ), and I'll ask questions. When all is said and done, I'll think about it, sometimes for a long time, and then I'll arrive at a conclusion. With luck, this conclusion may be useful to others as well.

People have been wondering for a long time if avalanche education makes you more likely to get involved in an accident, and while I don't have a particularly scientific answer to that question, I think it's much fairer to say that the education and training are blamed because they're such easy targets. It's just like sex education ... I mean sex education just teaches teenagers how to have sex, right? So if we stop educating teenagers about sex, the problem will go away. I'm not sure about your politics, but I refuse to let my politics get in the way of my common sense.

In reality, recreational backcountry skiers who are involved in accidents often fail at the most basic of tasks: they choose terrain that is entirely inappropriate for current conditions. Here are some of my ( redacted / additional ) comments for an accident review in which I participated over the past few days.
  • It takes REAL skill and discipline to get the basics right again and again and again.
  • ( You know why? Because the basics are repetitive and dull and pretty fucking boring! )
  • Learning to rigorously apply basics is the heart of skill. Knowing how to do something is not the same as knowing how to do something the right way, but true mastery starts with the basics. If you don't have the basics down, then you're just an amateur, even though it's pretty easy to fool yourself for a long time.
  • But, if you get the basics wrong, pretty much everything else is wrong too, and your knowledge and experience stand a good chance of making things worse. Yeah, knowledge and experience could help... or they might push you closer to the edge. That's really what happens if you get in the habit of ignoring the basics... pretty soon you'll be ignoring more important stuff too.
  • The importance of getting the basics right is well-known in most domains.
  • Everything else is just damage control and/or covering your ass.
The first item is really important. You have to get the basics exactly right, and I don't think you should consider yourself a skillful backcountry skier if you don't know the basics or can't be bothered to apply them. If you skimp on the basics, then everything else is just luck or damage control.

We all know that luck runs out, and damage control ... is for amateurs.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Finally, Snow

Here in Seattle we're getting rain and cold, but up in the mountains, it's snowing like crazy.

It can't have escaped most backcountry skiing enthusiasts that dangerous avalanche conditions have been widespread throughout most of Western North America this winter, culminating in 9 deaths in the past 10 days. I don't think this is a matter of education. For starters, if you like free education, there are numerous pages on this blog devoted to terrain, weather, and snowpack, along with musings about the psychology of backcountry safety. There are even free exams.

Anyway, I have been thinking about the recent tragedies, and reading threads on TGR, and wondering what I can add, if anything. I think my contribution will be the following quote, which is attributed to Ian Percy:
  • We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.
I'm sure that none of the persons injured or killed in avalanches this year meant to go out and be killed. I'm sure their ski partners were not planning on participating in a backcountry outing that was going to end with a serious injury or fatality.

But this isn't enough. It's so easy to head out into the backcountry and judge ourselves by our intentions, but our intentions are not always as important as our actions. We all have mental pictures of ourselves, sometimes moment-by-moment, and it's incredibly important to make sure that our mental picture ( our intentions ) aligns with our actions when we're making decisions that involve risk.

So, if you're skiing in Western North America, now is probably a very good time to start judging yourself by your actions.

I know I am.