Helping vs. being in harm’s way: Know the difference
As snowmachiners, we spend a lot of time getting stuck and getting unstuck. Riding fresh powder, which is one of the best things that I can think of doing on this planet, usually goes hand in hand with getting stuck a lot. The first thing that usually happens is that we jump in and help each other get unstuck. It is hard to reprogram, to stop and ask yourself, “Is it safe to go help if my buddy is stuck in an avalanche path?” or “Am I going to put myself in harm’s way or risk the life of my friend?” A recent avalanche fatality in British Columbia illustrated this dilemma once again.
We’re reprinting this blog post, with permission from Avalanche Canada, in response to a snowmachiner avalanche fatality in Clemina Creek, B.C., on Dec. 30, 2016. Avalanche Canada’s Public Avalanche Warning Service Field Programs Manager Ilya Storm wrote this post.
Reflections on the fatal avalanche in Clemina: When to help and when to wait?
(Written Dec. 31, 2016)
I work with avalanches, and usually that means exhilarating powder, amazing mountainous landscapes, wonderful people, and contributing to public safety in the mountains I love. But it also comes with sadness and tragedy, like yesterday’s fatal accident in Clemina Creek. As an avalanche forecaster, my questions quickly focus on how the outcome could have been different and what lessons can we learn to help prevent the next accident.
Minimizing the number of people exposed to a hazard is a basic tenet of good risk management, but it’s often easier said than done. A skier falls, loses their ski, and three people spend 10 minutes looking for it in the deep powder. Or a sledder gets stuck on a slope and two people come in to help, resulting in three people on the slope at once. People trigger avalanches, and are injured or killed by the avalanches they start.
Depending on how you count, 90 percent to 95 percent of avalanches that kill people are triggered by the person themselves, or someone in their group. What happened yesterday in Clemina Creek’s Morning Glory Bowl is consistent with this picture. Our preliminary analysis is that one person was dealing with their stuck sled, two people were riding above, quite possibly coming to assist their buddy, and one of those three people triggered the fatal avalanche. All three were caught, one was on the surface, one partially buried, and the person who lost their life was fully buried.
I don’t want to point fingers or cast blame. My motivation is to identify a recurring pattern and try to break the chain of events. Yesterday it was a group of sledders, tomorrow it could be those skiers looking for a lost ski.
My question is how do we break the chain? As I suggested earlier, minimizing exposure to a hazard isn’t necessarily easy to achieve, but here are a few ideas for how to manage this common sledding situation:
If you’re in avalanche terrain and stuck, expect to dig and get yourself out, by yourself. Recognize there are better or worse times, and places, to get stuck. Personally, I like it when I anticipate and avoid a dangerous situation before it actually happens.
Watch from a safe spot off to the side and well back, out of harm’s way. Give the rider time to sort it out by themselves: 10 minutes? 15 minutes? Longer?
Plan how to help the rider if required: Send in only one person and keep spotters watching – they’re the potential future rescuers; consider how to approach (from below or the side, not from above, avoid steepest terrain, avoid likely trigger points, manage terrain traps, etc.)
Sledding is a social sport with big groups, many groups riding the same areas, and the ability to cover a huge amount of terrain in a short time. People shouldn’t ride the same or closely connected slopes when someone’s stuck, regardless of whether they’re part of your group or not.
The past is behind us and there’s no undoing yesterday’s accident and today’s sadness; only time will help with that. But how do we build situational awareness and develop practices that can help prevent something similar from happening tomorrow? It’s a sincere question and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
— Ilya Storm, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reading the Canadian forecaster post made me think about the Mountain Riders Responsibility Code DRAFT that Graham Predeger presented in the November SnowRider issue and re-emphasized the importance of ride one at a time in avalanche terrain and don’t expect help if stuck in avalanche terrain.
What do you as mountain riders think about this? How do we stop and not just jump in to dig out our friend on the slope? How do we pause in the midst of a powder day to make a plan to help someone that is stuck? How do we get this to be the norm so that hopefully we all go back to the truck at the end of the day and home to our families?
Aleph Johnston-Bloom is an avalanche forecaster for the CNFAIC and the former executive director of the Alaska Avalanche School.