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What I Learned in Avalanche School

Social Facilitation
The American Avalanche Association
Timeless United States Avalanche Mistakes
Consistency Trap
Avalanche Canada
Familiarity Trap
Acceptance Trap
Nostalgia Trap
the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial

Yann GrossSupported
Heidi JulavitsThe
Hatcher Pass
Edgar Allan Poe
David Page
Ian McCammon
Sally Chambers
Snowy Torrents
Skier 2
Skier 5
George Washington
John G. Krichbaum
Albert Fearnaught
Alfred Nobel

North American

the Eastern Sierra
the West Coast
Cape Horn
The Snowy Torrents
Mount St. Helens
Red Mountain

Buried Persons

Microdot Peak
the United States
Los Angeles

Cherry Bowl

Positivity     47.00%   
   Negativity   53.00%
The New York Times
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(Poe most likely suffered from taphophobia — technically the fear of being mistaken for dead and then sealed in a coffin and buried in a grave — but I imagine he’d be equally inspired by the live-burial potential of avalanches.) After listing a number of horrors, including plagues, earthquakes and massacres, Poe’s narrator asserts: “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”Learning how not to be buried alive, however, turned out to be a little bit boring. Ryan opened a snowpack PowerPoint while we took notes about storm slabs and wind slabs and persistent slabs, all of which sounded like subcategorical psychiatric disorders from the D.S.M.When Ryan shifted the conversation to “avalanche problems,” we perked up, maybe because the term would seem provocatively redundant, the avalanche itself being the primary problem. Ninety percent of human-avalanche encounters, Ryan said, are triggered by humans, making humans the primary avalanche problem. Add to this doomed slurry a little avalanche training (or what used to qualify as avalanche training, and its focus on analyzing snowpack), and people make terrible decisions with greater frequency and confidence.I already knew about the human problem, because I did some of the recommended reading before class, including “Human Factor 2.0,” a seminal 2016 article about avalanche education published in Powder magazine and written by David Page (who also happens to be an ex-boyfriend from long ago). (Per McCammon: “Most of the time, the consistency heuristic is reliable, but it becomes a trap when our desire to be consistent overrules critical new information about an impending hazard.”) The traps that interested me most, because they were traps against which I was typically guarded — and so was happy to have them validated as specieswide frailties rather than personal quirks — were Familiarity (failing to remain vigilant when faced with the known), Social Facilitation (everybody’s doing it, so it must be O.K.) and Expert Halo (the experts must know what they’re doing, and so it’s safe to unquestioningly follow them).The others are Consistency (or “commitment” — every moment you don’t turn around for home, it becomes harder to do so), Scarcity (powder fever) and Acceptance (peer pressure). Seventy percent of our student body fell into the demographic that, according to Ryan, was most likely to die in an avalanche: male, late 20s, intermediate-to-expert experience level, some formal avalanche training.A man at the end of the table asked the class if anyone had seen the 2014 movie “Force Majeure.” I was the only person who had. I didn’t say, “Much like this course so far, it’s a referendum on masculinity.” All-female groups, Ryan told us before lunch, make better decisions in risky situations than all-male groups or mixed-gender groups. When asked why women became less smart in the company of men, Ryan speculated that “women, around men, feel uncomfortable speaking up.” I did not say, and not because I was uncomfortable speaking up, that in my experience as a midlevel skier who had more than once been taken up slopes I could not descend — for example, a deep-powdered backcountry slope under which lurked many cliffs, that two male friends, insanely enough (in retrospect), insisted I could ski — I do and did speak up, often repeatedly. The analysis breaks into five sections: weather conditions, accident summary, rescue, avalanche data, comments.Ryan might have used a synopsis of “Force Majeure” as an in-class case study, because shame and denial inhibit the reporting of human-triggered avalanches, which subsequently reinforces a culture of silence and impedes the sharing and disseminating of instructive stories in which the main characters do not choose wisely. The incident was notable less for the body count (zero) and more for how, even though several members of the eight-person party had previously triggered avalanches and even, in one case, witnessed a fatality, they had ignored the many obvious dangers, suggesting that these skiers had become dazzled by their own expertise, falsely brightened by luck.The case study didn’t include — as the case studies in The Snowy Torrents don’t include — the psychological factors that led these skiers to continue when the signs against it were so compelling. If you’ve never seen snow like this — and I hadn’t, not until I moved to California in my 20s — you might realize, upon first experiencing it, that you never understood why the Donner party couldn’t just walk out of the mountains when winter hit.As always, before starting the course, I enthusiastically prepared for the worst. (Though my hotel would receive no more than a dusting over the next day, in the mountains — a distance of only 42 miles — it would snow five feet.) I was desperate to conserve my analytical resources for the mountain, but I didn’t want to commit the confirmation-bias error we learned about the day before. “Bottom line: considerable avalanche danger will exist throughout the day.”At 8 a.m. we met Ryan and a second instructor, Mike, at a trailhead and performed a gear check. Most accidents happen when the avalanche danger is “considerable.” (There are five danger ratings: low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme.) Oddly, when the avalanche danger is “high,” fewer people are killed, because people on high-danger days are certain about their uncertainty. Instead we huddled in a low-wattage sun patch near the parking lot and resisted the wind that noisily whipped the snow around, making it impossible to hear Ryan and Mike’s lecture about avalanche beacons. Every second of skin exposure registered to the brain as a stupid and optional risk, and so we learned firsthand how skiers commonly commit the puzzling oversight of wearing an avalanche beacon yet failing to turn it on.Then we practiced finding fake buried people on a low-angle slope. Before digging, we tried to locate the “body” with our probe, but poking down through the snow — soft, hard, soft, hard — it was impossible to tell plywood from depth hoar, a layer of crunchy, large-grained snow.“In a real situation,” Mike reassured us, “you’ll feel a squish.”We paused to talk about what was happening, somewhere beneath our feet, to our pretend friend or pretend partner or pretend child. Most people, on a daily basis, engage in what Mike called “kind learning.” Kind learning allows a person to make mistakes. Snow pits are no longer the primary focus of avalanche-training courses, in part because human beings are the more erratic variable but also because of a phenomenon called “spatial variability,” meaning that a snow pit provides information only about itself and says nothing about the stability a person might find in a different snow pit, dug two feet away in any direction. Neither of them, however, was interested in the game I proposed over tacos: Which of our two instructors, Ryan or Mike, was more likely to die someday in an avalanche?The 20-somethings found death speculation macabre. We sat on a pair of abandoned couches around an abandoned coffee table and read the online daily avalanche advisory, which predicted “avalanche problems” that would produce slides both “very large” and “likely.”“Bottom line: high avalanche danger exists this morning where 1-2ft of new snow fell overnight accompanied by the most extreme sw winds of the season.”We unfolded our maps to plan our day, but the danger was so prevalent that there was practically nowhere safe to go. One day of survival, and he had either learned what he had come here to learn — how to safely, and without being pointlessly terrified, travel through avalanche terrain — or he’d experienced the first of many instances of another human frailty we’d learned about, called “normalization of deviance.”I felt a snag of dread but talked myself out of it. (I was traveling with Mike, who I had decided was less likely to die in an avalanche than Ryan.) I was being neurotic, not highly situationally aware. Because of the Acceptance Trap — the desire not to be seen as a fool by others — neither Ryan nor Mike would want to kill his students on an avalanche survival course.We divided into two groups. Mike warned, as we paused at the top of the slope, “these are gnarly conditions.” The snow, after hours of absorbing solar radiation, had thickened to what one student referred to as “elephant snot.” A two-foot layer of sticky, dense snow lay atop a few more feet of loose, grainy hoar. He said, contemplatively, “I might have better taken into account people’s skill levels.” Then we dispersed.I returned my skis at the rental store and met a local friend at her house, an A-frame with a giant triangular window, beyond which 6 feet of wind-sculpted snow obscured what, in spring, became a porch.

As said here by Heidi Julavits