Backcountry Skiing - Understanding Safety
Ski team athlete Jason Dorais says knowing what you don't know is half the battle in the backcountry...
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La Sportiva ski team athlete Jason Dorais is an ER doctor based in Salt Lake City. When he’s away from the hospital he spends most of his free time skiing, climbing, and running around the Wasatch.
After too many years of formal education I’ve learned it’s quite hard to know what you don’t know. I specifically remember my first test as a new medical student at Indiana University. I prepared heavily and was confident I knew every single testable detail. Several questions in, I realized my false sense of confidence was because I only knew every single detail that I knew. The material I didn’t know wasn’t even on my radar. Over the next several years figuring out what gaps were present in my knowledge base became just as important as memorizing the obvious details. Once the gaps were recognized it became a lot easier to fill them in.
The more I learn about avalanches and how to travel safely in the mountains, the more I realize I have knowledge gaps. Sometimes these are gaps are in fundamental principles, othertimes these are gaps in real time data. Filling these knowledge gaps has proved difficult and my avalanche education certainly isn’t complete. Here are several key concepts that have helped me continue to improve my avalanche education.
•Know the Basics of Snow Science. I try to read Bruce Temper’s book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain at least once a year. This gives a broad understanding of the fundamentals. A consistent reminder of these basics helps me avoid talking myself into making decisions I know I shouldn’t.
•Find Mentors. Learning to backcountry ski in Salt Lake City provided me with access to a plethora of mentors. I was lucky enough to learn from Jared Inoyue, a local legend who allowed my brother and I to tag along. He knew we were prideful and that we’d kill ourselves to keep up. I think he liked beating us into the ground, which is why he tolerated our lack of skills. As we got dragged around the Wasatch we were able to discuss why we skied a slope, or why we didn’t. I was able to take the knowledge from Bruce’s book and see how an experienced skier applied it to the real world. Without Jared there I’m sure the learning process would have taken much longer and I would have made potentially dangerous mistakes to gain the same understanding.
•Formal Education. I took a level two avy class from Zahan Bilimoria a few years ago and can’t express how useful it is to have a professional give their take on snow science. Zahan took us deep into the Tetons and gave us insight into how he makes decisions in the mountains. The more exposure one can gain to proper mountain travel protocols and to expert level decision making, the better. All of us left that class with a renewed desire to hone our skills. All of us have since returned to Zahan and repeated the course.
•Learn From Mistakes. Unfortunately, I’ve made my fair share. Ideally, the above points would be enough to keep me out of trouble but I think I’m too dumb for that. It comes back to thinking I understand something but realizing after the fact that I am overlooking a key point. All of my close calls could have been avoided—but weren’t—because of a miscalculation. Looking back on these mistakes has been an excellent exercise on figuring out what I don’t know or fully understand.
•Respect. It’s hard to understand how powerful a little bit of fluffy snow can be. I don’t think I fully respected avalanches until I found myself churning through snow and rock en route to a 45-degree rock lined chute. Luckily I stopped with a few hundred feet to spare, and came away with only a broken coccyx and lot more respect. Knowing that avalanches are actually real and carry severe consequences has made rationalizing bad decision a little harder to do.
•Identify the Human Factors. There are a number of heuristics that we all fall prey to. We're imperfect humans but having a better understanding of some common behavioral mistakes will hopefully prevent us from making the same.
There is magic in backcountry skiing. I believe we can have long careers in the backcountry and can do so safely. I am hopeful that continually identifying and filling in my knowledge gaps will to keep me safe, and provide me with many years of the greatest sport in the world!
Photos : ©Jason and Andy Dorais
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Dorais is a member of the La Sportiva Skiing Team.
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