Photo: Ian Coble
Photo: Ian Coble

Getting Beyond the Emotional Game of Reporting an Avalanche

Withholding information about avalanches is crazy…and dangerous

Earlier this week, I posted an avalanche observation for the first time to an online forecasting site. I had been skiing a steep line out of bounds at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when the slough generated by my turns suddenly grew into a surprisingly large avalanche that ran several hundred yards. Neither my partner nor I were caught or carried, but I felt it was my responsibility to report it, especially since the avalanche danger that day was rated 'low' at all elevations.

It had snowed six to 12 inches the night before, depending on the aspect, on top of a very hard rain crust that had formed during Jackson Hole's 'snowpocalypse' the week prior. The avalanche report that morning warned of shallow sloughs, but nothing too serious. I figured it'd be a good day to leave the resort boundary in search of fresh tracks. Turns out, it was also good day to help illustrate what forecasters so often preach: 'Low' danger does not mean 'no' danger.

When I got home that evening, I clicked onto the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center's website. It only took a few minutes to fill out the various boxes, and I appreciated how the process allowed me to think back on how our decision-making unfolded.

But I also had the strange sense of making myself vulnerable to the judgments of others. I had that all too familiar twist in my gut when I second-guess my posts on social media. Avalanches have a way of trolling our emotions, and the way people perceive misconduct in the backcountry can lead to a hushed atmosphere.

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Which is crazy and dangerous, because it prevents the rest of us from improving our own knowledge and understanding of sliding snow.

I wondered if I would be ridiculed for not knowing exact specifics, or for getting my terminology wrong. Maybe my line wasn't rad enough. Maybe I was exposing a secret by including names of access and route lines. Maybe I was simply overreacting altogether, the same way Elyse Saugstad had thought twice about pulling her airbag at Tunnel Creek on February 19, 2012, for fear of being teased at being frightened by what she at first considered a small slough (she did pull it and credits the device for saving her life when three others died).

Curious about whether this is a common refrain in the backcountry community, I checked in with a couple of avalanche forecasters.

"We receive reports of incidents and observations from random people all the time," Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center wrote in an email. "Sometimes they’re anonymous, sometimes they have a name attached. We sometimes field calls from people a day later. We have promoted over and over that this information saves lives. Over and over and over. And we are open about our own experiences."

He added that the UAC is careful to protect names from the media, unless the observer consents to initiating a dialogue with news outlets. But on most days, Hardesty said the center receives about 15 reports from people in the backcountry, which is certainly a product of the sheer number of people skiing in the Wasatch. But it can also be seen as a positive shift in the culture surrounding how we report avalanches.

Bob Comey, the director of the Bridger Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, said my experience was very common. "There's a lot people that have that same feeling," he told me. "They hesitate to submit an observation because, for lack of a better word, they're afraid they might sound stupid."

But Comey said the BTNF considers all feedback useful. Observations written by a professional or guide might have more fine-tuned information, but forecasters are able to adjust or edit specific reports if something's factually inaccurate (the difference between a category 2 and 4 avalanche, for example). Forecasters also read every post before it goes up, as a way of oversight, and posters can choose to be anonymous.

“The Human Factor,” Powder’s award-winning project on avalanche safety

Still, he said the number of people observing the reports online far outnumber those who "are bold enough" to submit observations. "I think after you do it a few times, and look at other people's style and content, you can figure it out, and people do," says Comey.

The BTNF is also encouraging skiers to submit field observations. Essentially, it allows backcountry users to submit observations about weather, warning signs (such as cracks or whumphing in the snowpack), snow layers, and hazard assessment. It's similar to Salt Lake City-based Mountainhub, which seeks to provide crowd-sourced data to the backcountry community. When I spoke with Comey, he had just finished skiing with the folks from Mountainhub, as the organizations try to figure out how to provide a shared platform.

My final concern, about whether or not I was stupidly exposing a secret stash, is also a common reason not to share an observation, said Comey. While the avalanche center prefers information about avalanches to be as specific as possible, field observations can be general, including only aspect, elevation, and region. "If you want to be nonspecific for whatever reason, we want that observation," he said. "We want to protect your stashes and then keep people from going somewhere they probably shouldn't."

In the end, it’s not about being concerned with how other people think. It’s that reporting about conditions in the backcountry can be useful to everyone.

 

PHOTO: Ian Coble