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Skiers Talk Risk And Uncertainty At Whitefish Avalanche Workshop

Skier, file photo.
Skiers Talk Risk And Uncertainty At Whitefish Avalanche Workshop

During the 2013-2014 avalanche year, six people died in avalanches across Montana. At least 108 have died in the state since record keeping started in the 1950s. For the past decade and a half, these kinds of deaths have been trending upward across the country.

More than a hundred people showed up for information and to listen to speakers about risk and communication in avalanches at the Flathead Avalanche Center workshop in Whitefish last weekend.

Grant Statham has made a career out of dodging and managing risk. He works for Parks Canada evaluating avalanche danger. He also climbs and skies some of the biggest mountains in the world.

Back when he was 21, before earning most of his more impressive credentials, he learned a lesson in understanding risk. Working as a helicopter skiing guide, he was leading a group of 12 down a mountain.

“And there was a run that I really wanted to ski. I had been wanting to ski it all winter. And so I just decided today was the day. I asked a few of the older more experienced guys what they thought; nobody really gave me a answer that deferred me off this run. So, I decided to ski it. I approached it. It rolled over steep. I got closer and closer and I was just not feeling right about it.”

Because he was nervous he spaced his group out, sending them down about one at a time.

“And then I skied to the bottom of the run and then the whole slope avalanched. A healthy size three, six foot fracture line, five people on the slab. I watched them. I was standing below them and I watched them go for a ride. Fortunately, because I had spaced them out and put them on the side of this thing, nobody was buried. Everybody kind of ended up standing there buried to their knees. And I’ve never counted to 12 so fast and so many times in my life. It was absolutely terrifying experience. And I hindsight, I knew it.”

Since then, Statham has helped design Canada’s information systems for letting people know about snow conditions and avalanche danger in the mountains. But that information doesn’t tell people what to do; it's advice, a decision-making tool.

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That feeling Statham had when he got out of the helicopter, right before setting off an avalanche with enough power to bury a car, plow through a small stand of trees and definitely kill a person - that feeling is just as important as a weather forecast, or avalanche report, Statham said.

He told to the crowd in Whitefish that everything done in the backcountry is based on levels of uncertainty.

“All of us in this room realize why we go out in the backcountry and why were are dealing with avalanche. We love to be out there. We get a lot of value ourselves or in being with our friends, getting to do deep powder skiing. There is a reason for being there. Risk is a balanced chance. That’s why people gamble, that’s why people buy lottery tickets, that’s why they invest their money. Because they are hoping to gain something, but they might lose something.”

A scale that Statham uses when understanding how much risk people are willing to take looks like this: At one end, doing nothing - absolute safety. One the other end, death, divorce, bankruptcy; whatever that thing is that is perceived as the greatest loss.

"Discussions about how much risk you are willing to tolerate are healthy discussions, but to be honest I don't think any of us really know where the edge is, so that means we need to add a good conservative bend to it."

Despite the advancement in gear, forecasting and snow science, Statham says there’s nothing certain when it comes to an avalanche. The tissue thin line between what a person wants to have happen and what will happen is invisible, but a decision still has to be made about what to do.

“I’ve spent years thinking to myself, God, am I any good at this or am I just lucky…I never knew. I mean how many times have we been that close, we’ll never really actually know. Discussions about how much risk you are willing to tolerate are healthy discussions, but to be honest I don’t think any of us really knows where the edge is, so that means we need to add a good conservative bend to it.”

Montana is second only to Colorado in avalanche deaths in the U.S. Over the past 10 years, 39 died according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Statham says the greatest risk-takers tend to be men, 18-30. He says if you get a group of 23-year-old guys together and they start high-fiving and slapping each other on the back, there is an obvious increase in the probability of more risk taking.

A spike in avalanche-related deaths in the nineties is often attributed to the increased number of snowmobiles, lighter skis and other gear that allowed easier access to the backcountry, says Director of the Flathead Avalanche Center Eric Peitzsch.

His organization provides basic education on avalanche safety and weather forecasts for the region.

“With that technology we saw people getting into the backcountry more, which means more people in the backcountry, higher probability that something is going to happen. We are still on the rise, in part because more people are venturing into the backcountry.”

90 percent of avalanche victims die in slides that they, or a member of their group triggered.

Over the past few years researchers at Montana State University have been trying to understand the decision process of the growing number of backcountry users when assessing the risks of their situation.

Because what a person thinks and does has a huge impact on the risk of an avalanche. A basic education tutorial on the Flathead Avalanche Center website says 90 percent of avalanche victims die in slides that they or a member of their group triggered.

The Montana State University study tracks backcountry users with a mobile app that records where they go and when. The user fills out a survey about their experience level with how many people they were with and how they felt about their situation.

The Director of Snow and Avalanche Lab at MSU Jordy Hendrikx spoke at the workshop in Whitefish about this study.

“If we look at where you move in the backcountry, if we can track you and we can look at the terrain you use, we can get an expression of your risk. The riskier the terrain, the steeper the terrain, a different expression of risk. And if we combine that with who you are and what your objectives are we can really get a good understanding around how your decisions were made and hopefully lead to better outcomes in terms of decision making and terrain usage and lowering that risk factor profile.”

The all-day avalanche workshop made some things clear – there is no one sure way to be safe in the backcountry. There isn’t a set amount of effort someone needs expend to avoid a dangerous situation. There is really good information and gear available, but they aren’t worth anything if they’re not used right. And even with all these tools and the advancements in avalanche forecasting, people are still dying in the snow.

Check out this video from MSU describing studies into the decisions people make in risky backcountry situations:


Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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