Mountain Safety
November 16th, 2018

Do Be That Guy – Voice Your Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

It finally happened. I had to be “That Guy”. I had to voice my concerns in avalanche terrain, and just say no.

To set the stage, let me say that in every group of sledders there is one rider—the group leader—who everyone trusts to take charge. Often this rider will be the one who is most experienced with an area. Sometimes it’s the strongest rider. Occasionally it’s the one with the best equipment. And in some cases, it’s all three.

In my particular experience on this day, our group leader had been a trusted friend and riding partner of mine for decades. We have ridden together without serious incident over hundreds of trips and thousands of miles. Usually our thoughts match exactly when it comes to decisions on route or terrain choice—but this day it did not.


Do Be That Guy – Voice Your Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

On the day in question, we found ourselves in my buddy’s backyard—literally. He knows this area like the back of his hand. From high on the ridge we could see some amazing, untouched areas in the valley far below.

“That’s where we are going, we will drop down here,” he proclaimed. He then proceeded to assure us that getting back out looked worse than it was, and because of our experience together I took him at his word on that. If he knew we could get back out, then I trusted his judgement. The problem I had was the slope above the entire area—the slope that we had to drop to the bottom of to access this spot; it had everything wrong with it to my only slightly trained eye.


Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

The very appealing looking zone below the slope in question.


I ran through my mental check list: leeward side, convex, wind-loaded slope. Roughly 40º slope angle angle (in my estimation only, but I am pretty good at guessing slope). Terrain trap: the entire mountainside drained into a deep gulley. Recent change in weather: it had warmed up by about 15ºC this week alone.

The Avalanche hazard rating for the area was “Considerable”, according to that morning’s bulletin from Avalanche Canada. There was a persistent weak layer that had been plaguing us all spring so far. Even the time of day wasn’t in our favour; it was about 2pm, and the sun had just moved around to this side of the valley. If you are familiar with the “Avaluator” hazard assessment tool, the total points on this zone were literally off the chart. I had to speak up.


Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

The Avaluator provides a structured approach for assessing avalanche slopes by incorporating easily collected critical information.


It Can Be Hard to Say No

“I don’t like it,” I said bluntly. I pointed out a few of my reasons, expecting an argument. But none came. My buddies just nodded in agreement.

“If you don’t like it, we won’t go.” These words from our group leader actually surprised me. Was he thinking the same thing, but didn’t want to be “That Guy”? He’s a smart fellow, so I am sure he had picked up on some of the hazards.

In talking with him after, he reiterated that he didn’t mind at all; there are plenty of other areas to ride. But it got me thinking: Why did I have such reluctance to speak up in the first place? For fear of being called a chicken? Fear of not wanting to spoil the fun?

Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

Yes, this areas sure looks fun to ride when the conditions are right. But on this day, there were signs that indicated it was not a good idea.


There’s No Harm Done by Voicing Your Concerns in Avalanche Terrain

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on that moment, and it has bothered me that my reluctance to speak up was there at all. Since then, I’ve come to a couple of realizations.

First, if a situation makes you uncomfortable, SAY SO! Speaking out did not ruin the ride. It didn’t cost me any grief. It didn’t cause any arguments. Voicing your concerns during a ride should not bother your friends at all; and if it does, perhaps you need new riding partners. I have since talked to the other member of our party about this situation—another trusted, lifelong riding partner—and he was relieved as well that we had not ventured down the slope on that day.

The other thought that kept cropping up in my mind was the question: had my hazard recognition and decision-making been correct when I spoke up? After all, we did look down the valley later and it hadn’t slid. Maybe we should have just went and had a good time? I struggled with that question until I realized that it had absolutely been the right decision. How can I tell? Because I am alive today. Every time you make it home alive you have either made the right decisions or you have been lucky—and by saying no, I had taken luck out of the equation.


– Marty