Know Boundaries #5

Avalanche guru Dale Atkins: 'People need to realize that they could be the next accident'

(Ed’s note: This is the fifth and final post in a series featuring The North Face’s ‘Know Boundaries’ avalanche safety webisodes produced by Teton Gravity Research. See earlier posts: No. 4 with related interview with Ian McIntosh "; No. 3 with Sage Cattabriga-Alosa "; No. 2 with Ingrid Backstrom "; and No. 1 with Griffin Post ".)

By John Clary Davies

In junior high, Dale Atkins joined a mountain rescue team. He went on his first avalanche search when he was 13. In 1987, at 22, he joined the Loveland ski patrol, where he worked for 16 years while also acting as a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Atkins is now the president of the American Avalanche Association, and the education and training manager for RECCO AB. He is also a veteran voice of wisdom in The North Face's Know Boundaries webisode series. Here, in a recent interview with, he talks about the misconceptions of airbags, what's new in avalanche research and respecting the mountains.

When Sage and Ian are talking, people listen. I'm just a stuffy old researcher guy.

Dale Atkins. Photo: The North Face

Dale Atkins. Photo: The North Face

In the last couple of years we've seen new tests of instability and it's starting to give us some insight in how snow fractures.

You're dealing with spatial variability and trying to address the question and find that answer of why is it sometimes the 10th person, or 20th person, or 50th person that triggers that slope, and what we are learning is that in avalanche classes we talk about an ideal, uniform snow cover, but it doesn't exist, and that is fairly new for a lot of people to recognize.

For years we've said never trust your life to one snowpit. Always dig a couple of pits. There's the question of how close should these things be together, and for the vast majority of us, we do them right next to each other, but that produces a sampling error. Your second test should be 10 meters away.

I think the take home message is the snow pit is only one piece of information. You can't use a snowpit to confirm stability, you can only use a snowpit to confirm instability. As an educator, we see and hear a lot of people that use pits to confirm their decisions that it's OK to ski something.

We know a lot, but there's still a lot more we don't know about, therefore, when conditions are suspect or there's some uncertainty, we need to be willing to back off and not be as aggressive in what we want to ride.

The mountain always wins. I don't mean to sound too cliché, but the mountain always wins. We have to ride the lines we want on her terms, and not our terms. So that means we need to become better at managing risk, which also means reducing safety margins by carrying a beacon, shovel, probe, Recco and Avalungs. But those devices only put us in a place to be lucky, and it's OK to believe in luck and that they are going to work, but you don't want to have to put your trust in that they'll work.

For years, we've always said your best chance of being found alive are in your friends and companions, and 80 percent of people found alive are found by buddies. However, statistics also tell us that their buddy dies about half of the time. And that should be a pretty sobering reminder that the mountain always wins.

I posed the following question at the National Avalanche School: Say we had a group of 100 people killed in avalanches. If we were able to go back in time and equip each one with an airbag, how many of those lives would airbags save? The majority of people thought 30 to 50-plus lives would have been saved with airbags. This is a dangerous perception because airbags only give a slight edge to survive, but that is good enough for me. In fact, I have owned and used airbags since the mid 1990s.

When you're able to deploy an airbag it's really quite remarkable how well they do in preventing burials and reducing mortality, but there's still a significant number of people that get killed with airbags. The fact is that airbags are really only going to save three additional people out of 100. That's not really exciting new unless you're one of those three people.

They look at this list of avalanche records of airbag use for 20 some years, and really it's quite remarkable for people that were able to deploy the airbag and it worked very well. The mortality rate was only three percent, but what they do is take that number from those that successfully deployed airbags. From 1990 to 2010, there were 262 that successfully deployed airbags and of those, seven people were killed. However, there are another 33 people that had airbags that did not, or could not, deploy, either because things happened too fast and they were tumbling around, or because of a technical malfunction. When you look at those people, quite a few of them died. Of 24 human failures, eight died, and of nine malfunctions, two died.

These numbers don't tell of the five or six people that were killed last winter that had airbags. I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer, I just want people to have a more realistic awareness of what they can do.

All forms of technology, people overrate, and that's very true when it comes to airbags.

The best thing to do, and it's been the message for decades, is don't get caught in the first place, which is also way easier said than done.

I think the biggest mistake is that people stop thinking about avalanches, stop thinking about the danger, and it gets them in trouble. People think that by training, and their knowledge and equipment, that they can stay out of trouble. And, if they do get into trouble that their knowledge, skills and equipment will get them out of trouble. And the statistics just don't show that. People perceive their ability to be much greater than their capabilities.

People need to realize that they could be the next accident.