Avalanches and Heuristic Traps

night skiing, fullmoon, Stevens Pass, Washington, Cascades

Stevens Pass on a fullmoon night.

The New York Times has published an engrossing article, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, by John Branch documenting last year’s tragic avalanche accident at Stevens Pass in Washington state.

The article hits home for me, not just because I’m an avid backcountry splitboarder concerned about avalanches, but also because I spent the entire 2001-02 winter season working/bumming at Stevens Pass and have ridden the Tunnel Creek terrain many times. This article delves into the story in a much deeper fashion than the usual avalanche accident reports, providing background of the circumstances, the conditions, and most importantly of the people involved. The website also provides thorough multimedia integration to tell the whole story as clearly as possible. It was a truly tragic day, and the article is well worth a read for anyone who ventures into the winter backcountry.

One aspect of backcountry travel that the article hits on is the concept of group dynamics and how that can affect backcountry safety. A while back I read a very interesting and surprising report about this: Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents, by Ian McCammon. “Heuristic traps” basically means poor decision making due to unconscious social reasons. The study is based on statistics compiled by the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) from 622 avalanche accidents over 30 years. Here are the key points from the study to consider every time you head out into the backcountry snow:

• The safest group sizes tend to be 2-5 people, with 4 being the safest. Groups of 6-10 are just as hazardous as 1.

• For all levels of training, everyone tends to be slightly safer in unfamiliar terrain. Groups with advanced avy knowledge stand out as being the clearly the safest in unfamiliar terrain, and actually the least safe in familiar terrain!

• The mere presence of people outside the victims’ group correlated with a significant increase in exposure to avalanche hazard. Again, especially so with advanced-trained groups.

The group involved in the Tunnel Creek accident hit all three checkboxes: a large group of experienced skiers in familiar terrain with presence of outsiders (the place is a very short hike from the ski resort). The power of these heuristic traps is evidenced in the NYT article by some of of those involved who said that they had doubts and misgivings at the top, but didn’t say anything (because of the social influences of being in a big group).

“Traditional avalanche education places a heavy emphasis on terrain, snowpack and weather factors. While there’s no doubt that this knowledge can lead to better decisions, it is disturbing that the victims in this study that were most influenced by heuristic traps were those with the most avalanche training.” ~ McCammon

Tragedies like the Tunnel Creek accident underscore the importance of keeping a conscious attention to not only the snowpack behavior, but our group and personal behavior as well in order to maintain objective and rational decision making in potentially dangerous circumstances.

Two More

Jake and I got out for two more skiing/splitboarding days. For me that’s been 6 out of the last 7 days on the snow! I guess Jake’s been out something like 12 days in a row… what an animal.

We’d pretty much tracked out the entire mountain we’ve been riding on previous days, so we moved to a slightly lesser known spot with north facing preserved powder.

Time for a few days off to get some work done!

February Fun

I’ve been happy to be out riding powder the last four days here in the San Juans – with a full-on powder day at Telluride ski resort on Sunday, followed by three superb days of splitboarding up on the pass.

The skier above is Dan, a local Ouray ice farmer. All the rest of the photos below are Jake, who timed his trip from Vermont perfectly!

Below are a bunch of pictures from the last three days in the backcountry.

Snow at Last

McMillan Cabins, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Last week a series of storms dumped a much-needed 2-4 feet of snow in the San Juans! On Monday we enjoyed a day of knee-to-waist-deep snow at Durango Mountain ski area. On Thursday the storm broke and Claudia and I went up to the pass for a couple laps under the gorgeous bluebird sky.

Skinning in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Unfortunately the avy danger is still so bad that we can’t really do much with all that fresh powder… We’re still sticking to the low angle safer stuff for now.

Happy New Year!

New Years in Mayrhofen, Austria

I’m a couple days late, but HAPPY NEW YEAR! The photo above is actually from New Years in Mayrhofen, Austria a couple years ago. This year we had a rockin’ time with friends out on the town here in Ouray. Nice fireworks here too, but I was in no shape to be handling a camera at the time!

Speaking of fireworks, one thing I noticed during my stay in Europe was the different nature of fireworks shows over there. Instead of the big “official” city fireworks shows that we have here in the US, in Europe I think it’s more common (or at least in the smaller cities) that everybody in town shoots off their own “medium” sized fireworks. So while the fireworks there weren’t individually as large, I’ve never seen SO MANY at once! Pretty cool.

Anyhow, I wish you all the best in 2013! I know I’m looking forward to an adventure-filled year!

Winter Twilight over Ouray

Ouray, Colorado, winter, twilight, snow, December, San Juan Mountains

Winter Twilight over Ouray : Prints Available

Skies clear at twilight after several days of snow storms in Ouray, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains – December.

This evening Claudia and I tromped through the fresh powder up to our favorite “wine” spot above Ouray – but being winter, this time we brought a thermos of glühwein instead! Yum… Oh, and on the way up we passed a family of bighorn sheep… pretty cool!

12 from ’12

As 2012 comes to a close, I thought I’d take a look back and post my personal favorite photos from the year. 2012 was a momentous year in my life since Claudia and I got married in August! But photographically speaking it’s been a relatively quiet year, unlike 2011 when I spent more time in foreign countries than I spent in the US. This year Claudia and I were happy to mostly just be “home” in Colorado, though we did manage several big road trips to Montana and the deserts of California, Arizona, and Utah. (None of the desert photos made the cut here… they just can’t compete with the mountains!)

It’s insanely difficult to whittle down a year’s worth of photos to only 12; a list of 16 or 20 would have been much easier! But “12 for ’12” was my theme here so I had to do it. Without further ado, here’s my 12 favorite photos from 2012.

Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, summit

Mt. Sneffels Summit Sunrise : Prints Available

Sunrise atop Mt. Sneffels (14,150 ft.) – May.

solar eclipse, Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Solar Eclipse over the Sneffels Range : Prints Available

The peak of the May 2012 annular solar eclipse above Yankee Boy Basin.  Potosi Peak is on the right, with Mt. Sneffels behind.  At the bottom you can see the solar eclipse as refracted in the lens flare.

Great Sand Dunes, sunset, Colorado, fiery, Sangre de Cristo

Fiery Dunes Sunset : Prints Available

A fiery sunset over the Great Sand Dunes with the Sangre de Cristo mountains behind – June.

Pyramid Peak, Glacier National Park, Montana, sunrise, reflection, Glenns Lake

Pyramid Peak Sunrise : Prints Available

Sunrise reflection of Pyramid Peak, in Glenns Lake – July.

mountain goat, Cracker Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

Cracker Lake Dawn : Prints Available

A lone mountain goat surveys the scene at Cracker Lake at dawn – July.

Needle Mountains, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise

Dark Sunrise in the Needles : Prints Available

A single beam of sunrise light illuminates the Needle Mountains on a stormy morning deep in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Grenadier Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunrise, reflection

Grenadier Sunrise Reflection #2 : Prints Available

Reflection of Vestal Peak and Arrow Peak of the Grenadier Range during a fiery sunrise.

Aspens, fog, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, september

Aspen in the Fog : Prints Available

Aspen forest in the fog – September.

Dolores Peak, Telluride, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, aspens, September, Fall Creek

Fall Creek Sunrise : Prints Available

A stormy sunrise above Dolores Peak and the vast aspen groves of the Fall Creek valley near Telluride, Colorado – September.

Chimney Rock, Courthouse Mountain, Cimarrons, Ridgway, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunset

Chimney Rock Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset light on Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Range near Ridgway, Colorado – September.

Cimarrons, Ridgway, Pleasant Valley, Sneffels Range, Chimney Rock, Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, sunset, panorama

Cimarron Sunset Panorama : Prints Available

The Cimarrons lit up by a spectacular sunset over Ridgway and Pleasant Valley, with the Sneffels Range in the background.  Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain are the prominent peaks near the center.  The West Fork Cimarron valley is at left. 

Ice Lakes, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, October, icy, ice, dawn

Ice Lakes Icy Dawn : Prints Available

Dawn light in Ice Lakes Basin on a chilly October morning after the second snowfall of the season.

I wish you all the best in 2013!