Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Wicked Witch of Group Dynamics

The skier who triggered (and subsequently died in) the Stevens Pass avalanche is shown in a video wearing a jacket with a white cross, but apparently that is the Mountain Ambassador uniform, not the ski patrol uniform.  And as is typical of many western patrols, only a small paid subset of the patrol is involved in control work.

But more importantly, he comes across in the video as a genuinely fun, enthusiastic, and welcoming skier (not some sort of conceited or jaded "pro"), an ideal ambassador for a ski resort.
And an ideal ambassador for the sport too.

I can see why so many people mourn his loss.  I miss him even now, despite never having met him (or heard of him previously), just from watching the short video.

I suspect that most of his friends would deeply resent any analysis of the mistakes that occurred Sunday (and remember, you don't have to be stupid to make stupid mistakes, as the educations and careers of Mt Washington avalanche victims illustrate), but that stability assessment (and the group management) was obviously horribly mistaken, even a continent's width away - before, during, and after.  The avy danger rose was all orange with a little red, which translates into "black & white" (unless the terrain is all too shallow to slide, which I highly doubt skiers like this would seek, and in such snow conditions that are likely to make lower-angle terrain akin to tedious downhill trailbreaking).  But if we can learn from his mistakes, then that is a more lasting legacy that even his many contributions to the sport during his too-short life.

What we don't know from not being there that day is what is was like to be in that initial group of 15 ... but then again, we've probably all had an experience like that, even if it nothing to do with backcountry skiing.
The irony is that everyone else might actually be silently thinking the same thoughts you're silently thinking.

I read this email excerpt (from a certain former avy course student of mine) over and over again at the time, and have returned to it many times since, especially since the ending is kind of like the 1:00 mark in this classic scene:

“First off I noticed that there were a bunch of people at the trail head, 9 including myself.  [...] I eventually realize that [the original intended partners having dropped out] I am with 5 friendly strangers.  As we traverse the snow becomes heavily scoured and drifted.  We are near treeline and there are some upper mountain slide paths that have already run. [...] Keep in mind that we have felt several propagating collapses and the slabs are very hard. Nevertheless, the area we need to cross is short enough and low consequence enough and I'm thinking that it seems manageable if the terrain we are headed for is the type of safe, protected terrain that I have been skiing all week.”
“But here's the thing, they aren't really glades.  They are steep gullies with sparse trees on the edge and trees between the slide paths. Keep in mind that the CAIC rating is considerable on these aspects and elevations. Granted they are not above treeline super wind loaded start zones and we are not skiing down the gut of them; but the wind has hit the area so hard that the snow is a mix of sastrugi and windslab which makes for what everyone agrees is mediocre to terrible skiing. [...] I'm thinking ‘Ok that pretty much sucked and seemed more risky than I prefer. But the skin track back up should go through these dense trees we are now near and then we can ski back down the safer terrain and better snow that we started on.’"
“But no, they start skinning right up the terrain that we just started skiing down. A few minutes up I feel one more widely propagating collapse and all of my mental red flags start going bonkers. I think ‘Fuck this, we are fucking climbing up fucking steep, hard wind slabs in exposed terrain that could avalanche for shitty skiing. What the fuck is going on here???’ [...] thinking about all the accident reports where the less experienced people don't speak up I decide I'm done. I say I'm done skiing this terrain and need to go back to the safer side and that I think this is way too slabby and could avalanche. [...] Suddenly the whole group is pulled from continuing-to-ski-out-there stubbornness to taking the safest route back to the safer terrain.”

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