Are You an Expert or Getting Lucky?

The backbone behind making good decisions

Even the most experienced of backcountry skiers don't fully understand avalanches. So how do you stop relying on luck? PHOTO: Jordan Manley

Even the most experienced of backcountry skiers don’t fully understand avalanches. So how do you stop relying on luck? PHOTO: Jordan Manley

WORDS: Erin Smart

Erin Smart is an AMGA certified Ski Mountaineering Guide, and is working toward her IFMGA license. She has been working as a ski guide and an AIARE avalanche instructor for the last five years. She currently lives in Chamonix, France. Find more of her work at ErinSmart.com

I survived my first winter living in La Grave, France, because luck was on my side. I was 17, fresh out of high school, and thrilled on the life of ski bumming. My days were spent skiing an amazing collection of couloirs, glaciers, and steep high alpine runs in complex terrain. With each day and each new experience, my confidence grew and I thought I knew what I was doing in the mountains—until it became clear that I had been getting lucky.

On a perfect powder day I rushed down to the télépherique, partnered up on the fly with my friend Linda, and took off. Not wasting a minute when we exited the top of the lift, we skied straight to the Trifide couloir zone, a row of steep couloirs two minutes from the top of the lift that drains into the main valley. There were already tracks in the first couloir, so we continued to the next one over. The Trifide 1 couloir, situated between steep rocky sidewalls, was filled with untouched, cold powder. I told Linda that I would do a ski cut, something I had seen my older brother, a fully-certified mountain guide, do before. I traversed across the slope and pushed down with my skis to test the snow. “It’s good!” I shouted back to Linda. We skied with huge smiles and ate face shots the whole way down.

Later that day, I ran into my brother. “Miles!” I said as I ran up to him. “I opened Trifide 1 today!” He looked back at me stunned and disappointed and told me that someone else skied in that same couloir from a higher entrance and triggered an avalanche. They survived, but were seriously injured. They probably skied the couloir a mere 10 minutes after us.

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The old saying of “experience comes right after you need it” is not very comforting to those of us in avalanche terrain. “As a so-called ‘expert’ in the avalanche-forecasting industry, the only fact I know for certain is that even after 15 years into my career, I was barely good enough to do the job well,” wrote Colin Zacharias, technical director for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), in a 2008 research paper. Zacharias, an IFMGA licensed mountain guide, has been working in the field for decades. He taught my AIARE Level 3 course and I have yet to meet another person that understands and teaches about snow and avalanche terrain as well as he does. And yet, despite all of his experience, Zacharias claims to be “barely good enough.”

Even the true experts don’t fully understand the natural phenomenon of avalanches, and as backcountry skiers, whether it’s your first winter or you are several decades in, we shouldn’t pretend to completely understand it all either. So if we are all still learning, how does one stop relying on luck? By using checklists, paying attention to snow and weather conditions, skiing with mentors and/or solid partners, and reflecting daily, we can safely get the experience we need to make good decisions.

Gaining relevant experience is a lifelong journey that requires work and patience with yourself, your partners, and the mountains. It starts with an avalanche course and learning tools that will change your habits and allow you to make relevant, consistent decisions. Making safe decisions in avalanche terrain is no easy task.

Choose partners who are also willing to put in the time before and after a day out in the backcountry. Don’t rely on a decades worth of experience and a clean track record. Those things are not an indicator about how your potential ski partner makes decisions. Ask questions. Talk about other tours you’ve done this season and decisions you’ve made. Then you’ll get better idea about whether you’ve been getting lucky or making good decisions.

The mountains don’t care how long you have been skiing in the backcountry, or if you call yourself an “expert.” Competent backcountry skiers and professionals have been caught in avalanches, and some have died. On the other hand, there will always be reckless backcountry skiers who may spend the rest of their lives without an accident.

While we still don’t completely understand avalanches, we have learned a lot about the psychology of making good decisions. Be confident in your decisions, and if uncertainty exists, move to simpler terrain. Gaining relevant experience takes time. Be diligent and patient. Take an avalanche course, and actually use the tools that are taught. That’s how you can gain the relevant experience so you stop relying solely on luck. We are all still learning out there. You can be an expert, but it would be wise to stay humble in the mountains so that you never miss a lesson that can be learned.

  Another backcountry tip: The Human Factor, simplified.

Add a comment

  • Chris

    I like how real this article is. I’ve heard that in parts of Europe decisions are made by the resorts based on the Avi forecasts. Here in Canada we still leave it to so-called experienced backcountry skiers to conduct their own decision-making. I realize there’s a lot of untamed terrain out there but maybe North Americans need a harder line and less decision-making power, since I’ve seen many who should know better make very poor decisions.

  • Tabke

    Awesome Erin is contributing to Powder! Good read.

  • Dexter

    Good points. Can’t stop thinking about how good Trifide is on a pow day, though…but be careful.

  • Arc2Arc

    As skiers of the backcountry we need to gain experience in the process of making good decisions. Gaining experience in the backcountry is secondary to honing the mindset in the how of making a decision. Studying snow, digging pits, performing a ski cut are all just tools that feed into the making of a decision they are not the decision. Gain the mindset of the process and then it becomes second nature to look for the information that satisfies the questions.

  • Jamie

    When your coming from the more stable snow pack of the PNW you’ve got a lot to learn, where avalanches are more rare. When you come from mid continental snow pack like Colorado you have learn quickly and diligently. My friend who moved from skiing 10years in the Bachelor area where he never once saw an avalanche or evidence of an avalanche, was shocked now living and skiing in Colorado, with how many avalanches we have. They are everywhere.

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