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Being safe and having fun on the Snow Lake trail
posted by John : January 22, 2015


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But... but...


My adventure motto goes something like this:

Be safe. Have fun. <Insert Goal Here>

The order isn't accidental. Being safe is the most important part. I think that comes from a couple of different sources.

My father was an attorney before he retired. He worked in product liability for many years. He saw what happened when a coffee maker caught fire in the middle of the night, what happened when a tire exploded at 70 mph, and what happened when safety doodad X malfunctioned. He instilled in me a deep understanding of the impact of adverse events.

In high school I had an English teacher who would send us out to the weekend with the same words of wisdom each week. "Have fun and be safe! But if you can only do one, be safe." This taught me that we have a choice what hazards we expose ourselves to. This is how we reduce the likelihood of an adverse event occurring.

If you've read my posts on risk you might remember that impact and likelihood come together to form risk.

So what does this have to do with our TNAB trip to Snow Lake? EVERYTHING!

Based on the weather and avalanche forecasts we knew it wasn't going to be a magnificent trip. The weather promised overcast and heavy mist if not outright rain. Scott and I both carried all our avy gear including beacons, probes, and shovels. The avalanche danger was moderate, but only on certain aspects and not the ones we expected to be on.

The trail was well packed in the lower sections. Trailrunners would have been sufficient, but both of us had serious boots on our feet and snowshoes on our packs. Our disappointing winter was on full display with only a foot or two of snow and some bare spots under the trees. There should have been much more snow and it should have been well below freezing, not in the upper 30s.

All was good until we got near the first switchback above the Source Lake split in the trail. The hard packed trail disappeared under a field of avalanche debris. In the darkness and mist we couldn't see more than 20 feet in any direction. GPS showed we were at a switchback and only a few hundred vertical feet short of the ridge, but neither of us felt comfortable.

We make decisions about risk every day. We intuitively weigh the risks of daily life against the reward for taking those risks. It's hardwired into our brains so we don't even have to think about it.

Unfortunately, our ability to make good decisions about risk gets muddled when we adventure with a group. There is a ton of great research on this topic. The work that resonates most with me is by Ian McCammon of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). If you're the scholarly type, read, "Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents." If you're more like me, read this far more approachable version simply titled, "Human Factors."

What McCammon points out is that there are common human factors we can spot that cloud our judgment. These factors, Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity, and Social Facilitation are not unique to adventure, but can have a very real impact on us in the backcountry. (Together they are FACETS.)

Even though they affect us, there are steps we can take to minimize the impact of human factors on us.

First, adventure with partners you can talk to. This means choosing partners that share your values and aren't in competition with one another. This TNAB trip wound up being just me, Scott, and Treen. Scott is a long time adventure partner. He was with me on each of the five Washington volcanos and on Mt. Hood when we turned back at the Hogsback. We're both serious about safety and have spent time learning how to stay safe while having fun.

Second, try to figure out when the risk level is rising. McCammon suggests using quantitative tools to measure the amount of risk you're taking. Less formally, think about what your friends would say afterward. This is something that always prompts me to put on my helmet when there's even the slightest chance of rock fall. How stupid would I be if I got brained with the helmet in my pack?

Third, question your objectivity. Since human factors tend to lead us astray use those same human factors to your advantage. Go through the FACETS list and count how many are present. The more there are, the less objective you're likely to be.

Below the ridge, in the dark, with limited visibility Scott and I were both feeling uncomfortable on the sketchy slope. Because we have adventured together so much and trust each other neither of us had a problem stating how we felt. We turned back into the trees and down the trail the way we had come. (Thinking of the FACETS test, we were very familiar with this route, but none of the other psychological cues were present.)

As my kids get older and start taking more risks one of the most important things I hope to teach them is to speak up for themselves and the value of having trustworthy partners. I have been incredibly lucky to have found partners that will go on crazy adventures with me and at the same time be willing to pull the plug when any one of us feels the risk is too much to accept.

The only thing I wish I could change is the amount of snow we're getting lately. These last two winters have been absolutely pathetic.

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