On February 19, 2012, I sat on cement-like snow next to two dead bodies. A space blanket covering one of them flapped in the wind. A coat covered the other—my friend who I drank beers with less than 24 hours earlier. The avalanche debris, chunks the size of massive boulders, fanned out below my ski boots. I looked across the valley to the snow-covered trees veiled in rolling fog. The sweat on my back—from shoveling heavy snow to retrieve my friend, buried six feet deep, and trying to revive him with CPR for 30 minutes—was freezing up. I felt alive but dead. Angry, baffled, numb, scared, sad. "What just happened?" I asked myself. "How did I get here?" Over and over, I said I was never skiing again. "I'm done with this stupid sport." My identity, largely formed by skiing, vanished.
A few months later, calmer and more collected but still buried by grief, I elected to return to my post at POWDER magazine. I was spared from the Tunnel Creek avalanche at Stevens Pass that took three people—two of whom were friends. Looking for answers to my questions, I set out to educate myself and friends on what got us into trouble: despite years of knowledge and experience skiing in avalanche terrain, the decisions we made, or didn't, failed us. I realized, more than snow science, human factors caused the tragedy. Slowly, I started to regain my identity as a skier, realizing I could make choices to avoid future tragedy in the mountains.
In turn, we walked the walk at POWDER, launching The Safe Zone, a microsite on POWDER.com devoted to avalanche education and a clearinghouse of snow safety resources. Black Diamond took notice, and, soon enough, we partnered on a like-minded goal of emphasizing the human factors involved in decision-making in avalanche terrain. Although snow science is integral to understanding how avalanches occur, it's our shared contention that sound decision-making is just as vital, if not more so, to staying alive while skiing.
With this collaboration, the POWDER staff went to work, focusing on a narrative thread that would tell this overarching theme, looking at avalanches and the people involved to see if we could find answers to mitigate future heartbreak. We assigned author and skier David Page to connect the dots between several recent avalanche events that occurred during the 2013-14 winter. After traveling across the American West and talking to survivors, avalanche experts, and veteran skiers, he returned with a 10,000-word story written for skiers. Page analyzed what went wrong, listened to those involved, and worked to unveil tools to help us avoid more horror. The Human Factor is the outcome.
Over the next five weeks, we'll be releasing one chapter from the five-part feature each Tuesday, starting November 11. The multimedia story is told through words and photos and videos of the scenes and survivors.
We're forever grateful for the courageous people who opened their lives up to us so as to prevent future catastrophe in the mountains. We hope to honor those who have died from avalanches, and their loved ones, by becoming more cognizant of our decisions on a psychological level. The Human Factor is not a blueprint to avoid tragedy, but it serves to educate, inform, and ask tough questions. How do we operate in this environment? What is it about this sport that keeps us returning to these mountains that hold such joy and beauty, yet can also have a dark side? The Human Factor makes each of us face the reality and take responsibility of our decisions. How can we stay alive in avalanche terrain? It's a question we have to try to answer. Because skiing is our identity.
CHAPTER 1Call of the SirensCall of the Sirens
CHAPTER 2Nickel or Dime?Nickel or Dime?
CHAPTER 3One-Armed BanditOne-Armed Bandit
CHAPTER 4And Then it BitesAnd Then it Bites
CHAPTER 5Tied to the MastTied to the Mast