Zero Tol­er­ance

THE KEY TO AVOID­ING BACK­COUN­TRY FA­TAL­I­TIES MAY LIE IN HIR­ING A GUIDE. BUT NOT EV­ERY­ONE IS ON BOARD WITH THAT IDEA … YET.

SKI - - FRONT SIDE - By Jon Jay

Dur­ing the 2016-2017 win­ter sea­son, there were zero re­ported avalanche deaths in the Utah back­coun­try. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Con­sid­er­ing 900,000 skiers and 1.1 mil­lion snow­board­ers re­ported ski­ing or rid­ing in North Amer­i­can back­coun­try ar­eas last sea­son—ac­cord­ing to the Snows­ports In­dus­tries Amer­ica (SIA)—the fact that no one died in Utah as a re­sult of an avalanche is cer­tainly some­thing to cel­e­brate. But as more peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar Mil­len­ni­als, travel into un­con­trolled ter­rain each sea­son to find vir­gin snow and fuel their Instagram feeds, guides and avy fore­cast­ers are look­ing for ways to keep the fa­tal­ity num­ber at zero across more states.

Avalanche ed­u­ca­tion is a great place to start, and the next gen­er­a­tion of back­coun­try skiers knows this. “Mil­len­ni­als,” notes Ian Havlick, a guide for Eleven Ex­pe­ri­ence and a fore­caster at the Crested Butte Avalanche Cen­ter, “are the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pants in Amer­i­can In­sti­tute for Avalanche Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion (AIARE) Cer­ti­fied Level 1 cour­ses.” These classes are the first for­mal step to be­com­ing an ed­u­cated back­coun­try trav­eler, and par­tic­i­pants learn ba­sic pro­to­cols for avoid­ing avalanches. Con­trary to what some stu­dents be­lieve, how­ever, this in­tro­duc­tory course is a first step down a long path of learn­ing about back­coun­try haz­ards and avalanche avoid­ance, and is cer­tainly not meant to be the end-all, be-all of be­com­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced back­coun­try trav­eler.

“Many skiers, es­pe­cially Mil­len­ni­als, be­lieve they know ev­ery­thing after they take their AIARE Level 1 course,” says Michael Wachs, an as­pi­rant Amer­i­can Moun­tain Guide As­so­ci­a­tion (AMGA) Ski Guide who has worked for Jack­son Hole Moun­tain Guides for over four sea­sons. Wachs calls this sopho­moric men­tal­ity “com­pe­tently in­com­pe­tent.” “If I never see my stu­dents after that first course,” echoes Jayson Si­mons-Jones, di­rec­tor of ex­pe­di­tions at Colorado Moun­tain School in Boul­der, “I some­times won­der if I gave them a loaded gun with­out enough knowl­edge to safely use it.”

To fur­ther com­pli­cate the pic­ture, Mil­len­ni­als tend to be ad­dicted to tech­nol­ogy, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ben­e­fi­cial in the back­coun­try. “Mil­len­ni­als, with their re­liance on their phones, tend to be quite com­fort­able go­ing through life with their heads down look­ing at a screen while walk­ing down the street, driv­ing, or while do­ing any num­ber of mul­ti­tasks,” says Aaron Brill, Lead Guide and founder of Sil­ver­ton Moun­tain in Colorado and Sil­ver­ton Moun­tain Guides Alaska. This ad­dic­tion to screen-time “pre­dis­poses younger peo­ple to a sig­nif­i­cant dis­ad­van­tage in a back­coun­try en­vi­ron­ment where ob­ser­va­tional as­sess­ments are crit­i­cal to suc­cess.”

One way to keep the avalanche-death num­ber trend­ing to­ward zero—be­yond Level 1 cour­ses and phone apps—is to hire a guide with de­vel­oped back­coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence and pro­fes­sional cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. “The AIARE cour­ses are great for in­tro­duc­ing class par­tic­i­pants to the ba­sic knowl­edge, but they don’t pro­vide the in-depth ex­pe­ri­ence that cre­ates bet­ter judg­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Those can be de­vel­oped over time by work­ing with guides,” says Wachs.

Amer­i­can back­coun­try users have been some­what pre­dis­posed to what Brill calls a “preva­lent at­ti­tude that hir­ing a guide some­how makes them lesser skiers.” But Brill has no­ticed that Mil­len­ni­als are not as bash­ful about hir­ing a guide com­pared with pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. As Amer­i­can guides be­come more pro­fes­sional and re­liant upon guid­ing to make a liv­ing, it’s be­com­ing more ap­par­ent to the younger gen­er­a­tion that ski guides want to ski good snow and come home safely at the end of the day, just like their clients. “The best way for this neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­ward guides to change is for more peo­ple to hire one to ex­pe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ence,” says Havlick.

The stigma of hir­ing a guide has dwin­dled, but the high cost is still keep­ing some skiers from seek­ing out the ex­pe­ri­ence them­selves, ac­cord­ing to Wachs. “It’s hard to see the ben­e­fit of hir­ing a guide un­til you try it,” he says. “You don’t need to do it ev­ery time, but if you have an im­por­tant trip, or con­di­tions cre­ate a level of un­cer­tainty, the least you can do is call a guide for a con­sul­ta­tion.” Some guid­ing ser­vices are al­ready start­ing to of­fer in­for­mal con­sul­ta­tion, in­clud­ing the Crested Butte Avalanche Cen­ter and Jack­son Hole Moun­tain Guides.

Si­mons-Jones hopes that con­nec­tions with guides built dur­ing avalanche-ed­u­ca­tion cour­ses will lead to stronger long-term re­la­tion­ships. “By giv­ing a client some­thing to ap­ply out­side of a guided en­vi­ron­ment, it gives faith that they’ll come back when they’re ready for the next big ob­jec­tive,” he says. And as long as ev­ery­one keeps com­ing back from their ob­jec­tives like they did in Utah last sea­son, that can be con­sid­ered a job well done.

What will it take to get more skiers to hire guides in the back­coun­try? Ed­u­ca­tion, ad­vo­cacy, and good ol' try­ing it out for them­selves.

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