Mistakes I’ve Made in Avalanche Terrain
I’ve made some serious mistakes in avalanche terrain, and I knew damn well they were bad ideas at the time I made them. Thankfully, nobody was hurt—but they could have been.
But before we get into that, let’s get something straight: I am not a professional rider. Yes, I have logos on my sled. And yes, I tag companies who support my riding on social media. But I am not an “athlete”. Nor am I a professional when it comes to avalanche safety. I have taken avalanche skills training courses and am progressing in knowledge each year.
Overall, I like to think that I make conservative terrain choices with respect to myself and those around me. I make observations throughout the day based on weather, the Avalanche Canada bulletin and signs of instability I observe as I transition through different zones.
But the mistakes that I’ve made in avalanche terrain weigh heavily on my mind, and I’ve been wondering: do I keep them to myself, or do I make them public so that others can learn? It’s a tough decision, I can tell you that. If I admit to my errors in judgement, will I be shamed? Will people refuse to ride with me? Will I be labelled the fun police? Given that I’ve built a career as a snowmobile writer, will this hurt my job opportunities?
In an effort to help foster an environment of open, honest communication, I am sharing the following mistakes that I have made in avalanche terrain on one particular day last winter.
Mistakes in Avalanche Terrain
Mistake Number One
I didn’t ask if everyone I was riding with had transceivers or perform a proper trailhead transceiver check. This was an especially poor decision on this day, because there were a few people in the group with whom I’ve never ridden before. There was also one person in the group who was new to sledding and it was only after I was up in the alpine that I asked another member of our group if that person had a transceiver. Their response was, “I think so. They were going to buy gear yesterday.” Enough said.
Mistake Number Two
Later that day, that same new rider got stuck on a south-facing slope that, to me, was showing signs of instability. Seeing as nobody else was around, I went in and helped this rider get unstuck. So there I was, exposing myself to a risk I wasn’t comfortable with to help someone who I wasn’t even sure had avalanche gear. Or if they did, even knew how to use it! I know better than that. It’s basic AST 1 training! To drive home the point, later in the day, we observed several small (I’m guessing Size 2—enough to bury a person) loose, wet avalanches on that very slope.
Mistake Number Three
Several times throughout the day, our group parked underneath what looked to me like unstable south-facing slopes. Now, these are slopes that rarely—if ever—slide, so I can see why we were complacent about it. But what about that one time?
Under one slope, I wasn’t feeling comfortable being there, but instead of speaking up or getting the hell out, I, like the rest of our group, shut off my sled. In my head, I told myself that I could get out of there quickly, because I hadn’t let anyone park in front of me and I was pointed downhill, toward safety. Wrong! When I went to restart my sled, it died three times. The fourth time, it started and I went on my merry way. However, this was a hard lesson—even though you think you are parking to make a clean getaway should the worst happen, your sled may not always start. Better yet, don’t park there at all!
Mistake Number Four
Several times throughout the day, our group clustered behind one another while parking. Again, this is very basic avalanche training and I knew damn well that is was poor practice. But instead of speaking up, I let the desire to be accepted keep my mouth shut.
Transparency and Changing Our Culture
I have no doubt made mistakes in avalanche terrain at other points in time, but this day stands out in particular. At the end of it, we all returned home safe and sound. But my poor decision-making serves as a harsh reminder that the human factor does indeed come into play more often than we might think. What was going on in my head that day just didn’t jive, and ignoring that could’ve cost me my life. Peer pressure. Poor group management. The desire to be accepted. That shit is real. And it directly affects the safety of ourselves and our riding companions.
This season, let’s make a commitment to being transparent and honest about our mistakes. Rather than shaming one another, let’s use our own mistakes as an opportunity to open dialogue about the ways we can make all mountains riders more safe—and change our riding culture from within.