We often talk about the assumed or inherent risk of an activity. This is a relatively simple process of judging that can be done from the armchair or the bleachers without ever engaging in the activity. You will often hear folks share their opinions of what is risky without ever having tried the activity.
In reality risk is a continuum that is based on our personal experiences and how we feel about ourselves. It is a dynamic range from extremely conservative to highly dangerous that varies from day to day. Again, this is based on how one feels about themselves. For instance, when feelings of inadequacy arise you will likely risk nothing and not get off the couch or accept more risk to prove a point. That may seem irrational, but we all deal with stress differently. Not to mention, that’s what our feelings can do to us (make us irrational) when we don’t make time for them and acknowledge them….but that is a blog post or more likely a novel to itself.
Observing one’s self and how they interact with terrain is arguable the key to managing risk. Breaking down the process of managing risks is long, arduous and often considered life’s work by anyone who has been at it for a long period of time. Here are a few observations I have made about myself and the environment I have learned so much from. This is not my complete risk management plan. Rather, this is a segment of a complex rubric that is constantly evolving based on my experiences and the changes I observe in myself. Specifically, this is a breakdown of my assessment and questioning process of terrain, current conditions and partner selection.
I trust you will be applying this for decades to come!
Jacob Urban – Owner / Founder – Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute
When choosing an objective consider the following:
- Distance and Time to complete chosen objective.
- Have you traveled this distance on other objectives?
- Have you spent this many hours under stress?
Recommendations: Travel in familiar and less consequential terrain while building the stamina and strength necessary to complete longer routes.
- Elevation gain / loss associated with chosen objective.
- Have you climbed this much vert on other objectives?
- Have you ever skied this much vertical loss continuously?
Recommendations: Get out and make some laps on familiar routes, at similar or higher elevations regularly, if not daily, to build up your strength. The gym is not a substitute for the natural environment. Altitude training only works at altitude and the natural environment stresses our bodies differently than the gym. Spending time outside in the environmental conditions you expect to be working in. It acclimates you to the conditions, weather, environment…etc.
- Intensity of chosen objective
- Have you skied anything this difficult before?
- Can you ski this difficulty in less than favorable condition?
Recommendations: Spend time making laps at the resort in the worst conditions. If you want to ski the backcountry you need to be able to ski all conditions relatively well. From boiler plate to coral reef, zipper crusts to unsupportable crusts, crud to mashed potatoes, to powder to blower…you will find it all in the backcountry. Remember, you have to ski it all to be a skier.
- Remoteness of chosen objective
- Have you traveled into more remote areas?
- Are you prepared for an unplanned bivi?
Recommendations: Spend time in remote locations during periods of more favorable weather. The summer time is a great time to gain the experience of working in remote or wilderness areas. The lack of resources and communications necessitates stronger travel, navigation and rescue skills. Learning these in a comfortable environment before testing them in a harsh environment is the progression for success. Not to mention that engaging with the mountains in all of the seasons gives you a greater “mountain sense”. The subconscious “knowing” of when to push it, when to back off and when to run away. This cannot be learned without experiencing the mountains in all of their glory and wrath. Take baby steps and start in the summer and work your way into the more harsh and unforgiving winter environment.
- Exposure of chosen objective
- Have you skied anything this steep before?
- Have you skied a no fall zone before?
- Have you skied anything this high in elevation before?
- Is there significant exposure to wind or sun?
Recommendations: Again, the resort is your friend here. Taking on more difficult terrain in a less consequential environment is the progression for success. Get your technique dialed in at the resort while taking advantage of the benefits for acclimatization at higher elevation resorts. Strength, fitness and good technique help limit your risk while exposed. Also, while we expose ourselves to terrain, the terrain itself can be sheltered of exposed. Generally, the higher the elevation the more exposure the terrain feature has to the effects of wind and therefore windslabs. Additionally, it should be obvious that southerly aspects get more solar effect than northerly. Although the concept of “angle of influence” gets by a lot of people. In regardless to angle of influence, the general rule of thumb is the steeper the feature on a southerly aspect, the more sun affect, while less steep slopes get less sun affect.
- Consider appropriate partner for this objective
- Do they complement your skills set?
- Can they perform a rescue?
- Have they completed chosen route?
Recommendations: Seek out relationships that support your strengths and foster improvement of your weaknesses. Train with your partners regularly. Most importantly foster a social relationship outside of recreating together. Share meals, your worries, your dreams together. Creating meaningful relationships helps us understand what we need and how to support others. Meaningful relationships develop deeper levels of compassion. Something that is necessary in the wicked, unforgiving environment of winter and avalanche terrain.
7. Skied something similar, nearby and recently?
- Similar aspect, elevation and steepness?
- Nearby zone?
- In the last 24 – 48 hours?
Recommendations: The observation and engagement of nearby terrain gives us better understandings of what we can expect to find in our objective of choice. I refer to this process as developing a relationship with the terrain. When we understand the surrounding “neighborhood” we have a more holistic understanding of how to behave and engage with the desired terrain feature. Having a “neighborly” visit within 24-48 hours of the main event helps us forecast real time conditions in the objective. This is the process of interpolating. Interpolating is when we take observations from a nearby feature, and project or interpolate those conditions on to other features with similar aspects and elevations.
- Are conditions on the chosen day manageable?
- Is the terrain susceptible to a Persistent Slab or Wet Avalanche Problem?
- Is the Danger Rating Considerable or Higher?
Recommendations: This recommendation is simply based in probability. There is a higher probability of dire consequences resulting in avalanches that have wet or persistent types of problems. Additionally, the rating of considerable is literally the probability of a “coin toss”. When there is a Considerable Danger rating there is a 40-60% chance of human triggering a steep avalanche prone slope. Anyone up for a game of chance?
These factors help us understand the risks we are assuming. Therefore, we can plan appropriately to help reduce the consequences of an incident while engaging with chosen terrain objective. While this process has and is fundamental to my risk management it has evolved and continues to change as I gain more experience. The most telling thing I have noticed about risk is that it is a continuum based of of how I am feeling. Some days I am willing to accept more risk than others and vise a versa. We are not static. We are ever changing beings. Therefore our perspective of what is risky changes too.
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