“Did you hear that?”
“I felt it”
“Wait what? I didn’t feel it!”
“What do we do?”
“We don’t go any higher. We turn back.”
Last Winter myself and Spring started getting into backcountry ski touring. Learning to ski follows naturally if you live near mountains and wish to continue to visit them through the Winter. There is of course snowshoeing, but it is laborious. Skiing makes the uphill climbing more energy efficient and the downhill is fast. You can’t beat skiing for the ground that can be covered during the short hours of daylight through the Winter months.
While the mountains in Winter are staggeringly beautiful they are also extremely dangerous. More so than in Summer when the temperatures are more hospitable and the hazards, though still present, are largely visible and known. As Humans we tend to anthropomorphize many things and I feel that when we see something beautiful that makes us feel happiness we imagine that the source of that beauty cares for us, otherwise why would it make us happy? We imbue these places with intent towards us. When the winds howl the mountain doesn’t want us there, but when the sun shines it welcomes us openly. I have felt this in the mountains while watching a sunrise or staring out at a grand panorama. It can be easy to let the joy felt blind us to the objective dangers that are always present.
The mountains do not care if we find happiness or not. The are eternally indifferent. To an outsider who has never explored deep into a remote mountain range this may seem laughably obvious. It is only those that answer the call to venture into these high places that understand the struggle to separate the objective reality with the subjective emotional experience that one undergoes while immersed in these environments. I know I will spend a lifetime trying to understand it and, like all those pulled back to the mountains, will continue to go there to experience it.
When I first started my Winter forays into the Hills it was easy to fool myself into believing that all I needed to get into the mountains was enough mettle to endure the cold and the skill to be able to ski, but I’ve since learned that this is merely the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge and experience that I actually require.
The Winter Storm that titles this post does not refer to the weather but rather the early experiences of most individuals who push into the mountains in Winter without an understanding of the risks they are taking.
These early experiences are known as “The Storm Years”, when an individual, fueled by more enthusiasm than sense, makes mistakes they don’t even know they are making that could ultimately cost them their life.
This problem occurs when a person doesn’t know what they don’t know. A tongue twister but think about it, with knowledge about a subject comes a perspective on the entire scope of that subject. Knowing how much one still has left to learn breeds humility.
We’ve all heard the expression “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. I feel the dangerous tipping point happens when an individual has learned enough to feel confident, but hasn’t learned enough yet to feel humble.
I went through my storm years in my first two Winters in Canada. Growing up in Ireland I knew nothing of Avalanches. I’d seen them in movies but I had no concept of how they actually worked.
During those early trips I traveled on a lot of slopes in bad avalanche conditions and got away with it. On one occasion I was in a white out and could hear avalanches releasing around me. Later, when I reversed my route, I could see that an avalanche had taken out my tracks from earlier in the day. By then I knew enough to stay off slopes of a certain angle but what I didn’t know was that the cloud cover had obscured slopes above me that were loaded with snow ready to release. Had I been on that slope at the wrong time I would have been buried.
I had enough sense to understand that the mountains were dangerous and during those trips I felt I was being safe, but I simply did not know what I did not yet know.
Nearing the end of that second Winter myself and Spring decided to take an AST-1 (Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training) course. We took the course initially only to learn how to use the equipment we had bought that we had learned we would need to have with us in Winter: An avalanche probe, shovel and beacon.
Before taking the course we felt we had always been safe, we just wanted the knowledge to know how to use these tools in a freak accident were one of us might be caught in an avalanche.
What the course did though was open our eyes to just how badly we had been reading terrain features. I began to look at mountain terrain in Winter through entirely different eyes, to see the loaded slopes, the convexities, the effects of layers in the snowpack on stability.
I passed my AST-1 course and came away from it, not only with knowledge about reading terrain in Winter, testing for snowpack stability and how to properly use my avalanche tools, but with a humbled understanding about how much more I still had left to learn about safe Winter travel in the mountains.
Through the Winter months now, in my web browser, I have a permanently pinned tab open to avalanche.ca checking for forecasts on the probability of avalanches in certain parts of the mountains near me and what problems to be on the look out for.
Last Winter, 2013/14, was our first season skiing for more than 10 days in total and when I feel I actually learned how to ski. We had initially planned to not spend any time learning to ski in resorts and wanted to do all of our learning in the backcountry. Quickly though we dropped that plan. While others might do this, I just couldn’t justify the risk. I knew if somebody I was with got caught in an avalanche and I couldn’t get to them because I didn’t have the ability to ski well enough that I would find that very hard to live with.
This year we’ve throttled back on wishing to push hard into the backcountry and bought ourselves passes at Whistler/Blackcomb for the season. We will be heading into the backcountry but with tempered objectives that match the level of skill we’ll have gained while practicing inbounds at the resort.
The opening quotes to this post are from an actual event we experienced last Winter in the mountains north of Pemberton, BC. A *whumpf* sound is caused when the snowpack settles suddenly underfoot and usually indicates an instability that might cause an avalanche. It is extremely unnerving to feel, like you’ve stepped on a landmine that will go off as soon as you try to move away.
We had a decision to make. The summit we wished to reach was tantalizingly close above us. The slope to it looked to have amazing skiing on it. The desire to press on, to feel invincible, to know “it can never happen to me” was there, but we turned around. We got some awesome turns in on lower slopes in the trees, and left without our summit reached, but safe and well. I’d like to believe I’ll always be that cautious in the future, but I can’t know that.
The mountains are a drug that I take willingly and many people refer to them like an addiction because when you are there you feel alive and when you’re not all you can do is think about them. They fill my heart with joy and my mind with a sense of accomplishment, they make my body strong and allow me to experience ephemeral, eternal moments in solitude or in the company of friends.
All of these positive experiences can breed overconfidence which can turn to arrogance. I would hope that, if faced with a similar situation like the one I mentioned above, that I would turn around again.
At least one thing will be constant, I will have started my adventure by first checking for avalanche forecasts on: avalanche.ca
What inspired me to write this post was that I was contacted by Pascal, an Avalanche Safety Researcher based out of Vancouver, about a fundraiser that the Canadian Avalanche Association is holding this Friday on the 28th of November, 2014.
I regularly use their forecasts and appreciate the work they are doing to better understand avalanches and to educate recreationalists in how to be safe in the mountains in Winter. They are helping to clear the fog for all the mountain goers out there going through their own storm years.
If you’d like to donate or inquire about the fundraiser you can get additional details from this link:
If you have had your own interesting experiences in the mountains in Winter I’d also love to hear about them. Let me know about them in the comments below.