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Introduction, General News
It's been over a year since I last put together a newsletter, and this one will be brief. I apologize for that and I would like to be able to return to putting something together more frequently, but for now the amount of projects I am involved with has gotten ahead of me and time is scarce.
The Guiding website has been cleaned up and rearranged a bit, but at this point I no longer remember exactly what was done beyond the newsletter archive. Newsletters are no longer archived in their entirety or their original format. Instead, the different sections with potential long-term interest are each archived separately with their own index.
In following one telemark discussion forum on avalanche safety recently I've noticed that there is always a lot of interest in technical topics. Such as "spatial variability", which seems to have become the current trendy buzzword. Aside from the fact that an internet forum isn't the best source of technically accurate information these topics are not the ones which will produce the greatest improvements in your safety margin.
(Note that I make this statement despite being a scientist by training and enjoying technical topics immensely for reasons other than personal safety.)
Most accidents come down to "human factors" such as poor group dynamics or decisions based on things like adrenaline and good weather instead of on a big picture of the snow stability. Don't let tech talk divert you from the importance of these things!
Technical discussions also tend to give people a false sense of security. It makes them feel like they have analytical powers which they do not (and which, in many cases, no one really does). One appeal of technical discussions is that they seem to be objective and factual and people have a tendency to feel comforted by that kind of material. This is also one reason some instructors and course programs cling to the old-school approach of spending all the time in a Level 1 class on crystal types and detailed testing which is really of rather limited practical value. It's easier to sound definitive and come across as an expert when you stick to technical topics. There should be a certain amount of such material included in a Level 1 course, but the emphasis should be on how it contributes to your big picture and your decision making.
So, don't loose sight of what is important. This is easier said than done - especially on a nice day with the distractions of a group but less than perfect stability.
I'm sure there have been a lot of accidents since my last newsletter over a year ago. But the ones that still stand out in my mind, and are still being widely discussed by skiers, guides and policy makers, are the two large multiple fatality avalanches in Canada last winter.
One of these, the first, was a professionally guided group at the Durrand Glacier chalet northeast of Revelstoke and west of Rogers Pass. The second was a school program which was caught on a high-use trail not far from the visitors center in Rogers Pass. These happened within a couple weeks of each other in late January or the first days of February. Both probably occurred on a weakness which had formed in November and was buried deeply in most places. The guided group triggered the fatal avalanche themselves while the school group was caught by a large natural release from a wind loaded path on the flanks of Cheops mountain. (This second one came from very high above the trail and I don't know offhand if it failed on the same November layer, or if that was established. The path is one of several adjacent ones which are subject to heavy wind loading and that may have been enough of a factor by itself.)
The high school group was part of an outdoor education program and had been studying avalanches among other things. They had all the proper equipment and were pretty knowledgeable. There were professional guides using the same area, and two guides were the first to respond with assistance. So it is probably unfair to say that nobody should have been in that area that day. However, they could have been in multiple groups and been spread out further.
The school immediately hired a professional risk manager as a consultant and posted his report on their website as soon as it was complete. This self-initiated critical review and the quick public disclosure of the results is to be admired. There were some program problems which contributed, most of which appear to have resulted from what I would call "program creep". This program had become popular and grown very rapidly and the school administration failed to take note of the resources needed to allow for this expansion. They did not have enough outdoor education instructors and had groups escorted by one teacher trained in that area along with one or more teachers from other subject areas as assistants. These other teachers lacked the training to lead a group independently, preventing the students from being split into multiple groups. So in terms of bottom line factors we all relate to there was a failure to spread out the group to reduce the exposure and there was insufficient leadership.
As far as the question of whether they should have been there at all, the consultant made a clear distinction between what is acceptable for commercial operations and professional guiding or for groups of adults and what is acceptable for programs involving children. While he didn't fault others for being on that trail that day he felt that the terrain was inherently more risky than was either appropriate or necessary for a school program. He actually identified two or three areas where the program carries out various activities as being inappropriate.
The other incident, which actually had occurred first, was a commercially guided operation. The lead guide and owner of the chalet is a controversial person to begin with - people seem to either think he's great or hate him. Unfortunately this leads to less than objective assessments of what may have happened. This has been complicated by the quick appearance of well known "sled chasers" who immediately painted a picture of gross negligence and incompetence.
The chalet was apparently not part of the extensive "info-ex" exchange of data throughout western Canada. This seems to me to be the most serious problem. The November weak layer was buried deeply, and this type of problem is difficult to assess accurately on a local basis. Many people anxious to be critical claim the guides should have dug more snowpits, even to the ground. They would certainly have found the layer that way, but stability tests are very likely to have indicated adequate strength above the layer (sometimes called "bridging"). The spot they triggered the slide from was a convex windward slope where the snowpack, and the weak layer, were shallow. Once triggered there the failure propagated easily. While localized snowpits may not be very definitive in this kind of situation the info-ex reports summarize snowpits, tests, and observations from throughout western Canada. These reports indicated that skiers were triggering avalanches on this layer and that the resulting slides were large. This information would have been far more significant to the guides at Durrand than a few isolated data points.
The slide that was triggered was actually on an adjacent steeper slope that the group was not on. That slide sympathetically released two more, one between it and their route and the last on their route. While it is easy for self-proclaimed experts to sit at home looking at slope parameters and say they should never have been there I don't feel an avalanche triggered sympathetically from an adjacent slope is something many people take into account in route selection. (Maybe slopes above, but rarely adjacent.)
There are also questions of group management in this case. One group, which triggered the slide, was above another group. Party members were not spread out very widely. The lead guide had 17 years of extensive experience in this particular area and had never seen this slope avalanche, so that may have played a role in some of his decisions.
There is still a lot of disagreement and debate over this second incident. Much of the criticism is based in ignorance or vengeance, unfortunately. Seven people died so there were clearly mistakes made. Those need to be analyzed and hopefully prevented from happening in the future. I have confidence that the ACMG (the guides association) will give a lot of consideration to this, and I understand that the aspiring guides in their training program have been discussing it at length. However, while mistakes were clearly made I have a hard time considering a guide incompetent when he has a 17 year track record of safety and this claim is just vengeful.
Two other topics related to guiding are brought out by the Durrand incident. The first is liability waivers. It's common after the fact to claim that the potential inherent dangers were not clear or that the waiver was not clearly understood. Waivers have held up in court, and when they are not upheld it is usually not for these reasons. Clients need to read and consider the waiver they sign. It typically includes negligence, or errors on the part of guides and employees who are human. The second topic is the nature and level of the inherent risks and whether they are clear. Any guide who tells you categorically that you will be safe is misleading you - there is always some risk. Smart clients will ask questions about it before making a commitment. In the case of the Durrand incident the target market is high-end accomplished skiers who expect to get a lot of vertical feet in and to be skiing the steepest terrain which is safe. That can be a hard call and involves trade offs. Some guides and locations offer less inherent risk but also don't have the reputation for higher end skiing that Durrand does. Risks often depend on goals, and while a guide should help find a balance the trade-off is there to some extent with or without them. Bottom Line? - Do some thinking and some research and ask questions. Be an informed consumer.