A slight breeze across the snow and a last-minute misgiving saved Matt Vial's life. He was skiing with a partner in the backcountry near Girdwood, Alaska, in February. The forecast was favorable. The avalanche danger rating was moderate, reporting that wind may have transported some recent snowfall. On the ascent, the pair didn't observe any signs of instability. They ripped skins and prepared to drop in.

"We both kind of paused at the same moment, and as we were looking at the slope, we could barely pick up there was a slight ripple on the surface of the snow, from the wind," Vial says. They agreed to make a ski cut, and the slope shattered before his partner.

“The avalanche ended going down to the grass,” Vial says. “It took the whole chute we were going to ski.”

Related: Do Your Part and Report Any Avalanche Activity

His partner survived without injury, and Vial shared this story, in far greater detail, on the Avalanche Hour, a podcast hosted by Caleb Merrill, an AIARE instructor and ski guide at Northeast Nevada's Ruby Mountain Helicopter Experience. With the podcast, which first aired in December 2016, Merrill hopes to build a "stronger community through the sharing of stories, knowledge, and news, among people who have a curious fascination with avalanches."

Backcountry users travel in what's known as a "wicked" learning environment, where we don't get immediate feedback on our decision-making process. If nothing bad happens on a day out, or even during longer periods of time, we may evaluate our decisions as the right ones—not necessarily because those decisions were good, but because we didn't receive any feedback that they were bad. As such, we may inadvertently form inaccurate snowpack/terrain assessments or develop potentially dangerous habits based on poor decision-making.

Nobody can make the backcountry a "kinder" learning environment, but backcountry skiers can share feedback they do get with people who weren't there, pooling lessons learned. Firsthand experience is irreplaceable, but recounted narratives can, of course, be instructive. And they stick. Merrill says he learns best by sharing and hearing stories.

Significant avalanche events produce major feedback, which feels pressing for skiers to analyze and relate, but near misses and close calls also present educational opportunities. A ‘near miss’ is described as an event that didn't go quite as planned, and though such incidents don't lead to injury or death, they could have. A near miss might involve an encounter with avalanche activity that differed in character from what the skier expected. It might involve some extremely well-timed luck. It might involve well-laid plans gone awry, or well-intentioned plans based on faulty assumptions. A near miss is also when you change course, or turn around earlier than you'd planned, due to concerning new information, and return home safely.

"The tough thing is that stories of 'getting away with it' are about minor feedback," Merrill says. "Those stories aren't as sexy as the big avalanche. However, those are the best free lessons… Hopefully, people will start to understand that this is OK, and that it's healthy to talk about them, not just from a cathartic debriefing process, but so other people can learn from mistakes."

With Avalanche Hour, Merrill created a platform for respectfully examining and widely disseminating listener stories of near misses, such as Vial's. And while skiers should always upload observations about observed avalanche activity to their local backcountry avalanche centers, Merrill also hopes that there may someday be a web-hosted database for recreational backcountry users to catalogue, store, and spread these stories.

A database like this already exists for avalanche professionals. In 2016, Scott Savage, Director of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center; Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center; and Bill Williamson, the now-retired Mountain Manager at Schweitzer, formed the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Avalanche Worker Safety. Their mission was to reduce fatal accidents and workplace injuries among ski patrollers, guides, forecasters, and other people who work in uncontrolled avalanche country.

"The tough thing is that stories of 'getting away with it' are about minor feedback," Merrill says. "Those stories aren't as sexy as the big avalanche. However, those are the best free lessons… Hopefully, people will start to understand that this is OK, and that it's healthy to talk about them, not just from a cathartic debriefing process, but so other people can learn from mistakes."

From 1950 to 2014, 59 North American avalanche workers were killed in avalanches. (By comparison, 27 died in non-avalanche incidents, such as explosive accidents or falls.) Avalanche workers represented nearly 4 percent of all avalanche deaths during this period. In a 2014 paper estimating these statistics, Greene, Bruce Jameson, and Spencer Logan determined that the fatal occupational injury rate in the United States’ "avalanche industry" makes it the second- or third-most dangerous sector for workers.

"The [fatality] trend is increasing, in the U.S., dramatically. That puts us firmly in the same realm as miners and offshore oil workers—occupations with really high fatality rates," Savage says. "Many, if not most, experienced avalanche workers have had a coworker seriously injured or killed sometime at work during their career."

Avalanche Worker Safety's flagship product is an online database called Avalanche Near Miss, which they rolled out just over a year ago. Inspired and informed by a similar effort that has been successful among firefighters, the database collects user-submitted reports that individuals and organizations can utilize like case studies.

“That storytelling part is critical,” Savage says. “Our brains are hardwired to remember stories better than hard facts.”

Avalanche workers are invited to submit to the website reports about any near miss event—regardless of the magnitude—with a description, any lessons learned, and some other basic details about the weather and snowpack. They’re also asked to select up to five contributing factors, such as pressure to perform, loss of situation awareness, and customer satisfaction. The reports go through a review procedure, and then, before being loaded to the Internet, they're scrubbed of all personal information.

Heli Ski US, an industry trade group for heli ski ops, is an eager partner, encouraging its members to submit reports, Savage says. Other groups are more cautious about compiling information publicly that might result in successful lawsuits.

The database currently has just over 20 reports, and Savage is confident that the initiative will continue to gain motivation, eventually reaching a critical mass and becoming the norm. Savage hopes that the anonymous nature of the database will lessen the barriers for submission, eliminating fears of criticism or retribution at the workplace. The potential benefit from sharing lessons learned is too great to shy away from this data.

One report, submitted by a mountain/ski guide, discusses a slide that released on a client group traveling up a ravine, luckily resulting in no injuries or lost gear.

"Time to be more conservative when conditions warrant," the 10-season guide reflected.

The Avalanche Near Miss questionnaire also asks submitters if they believe such an event could happen again.

"Sure," this guide wrote. "Bad decisions are always possible."