Blog – “Are you ready to enter the dragon’s lair?: Risk in the backcountry” – 2/19/2014

I’ve asked Ted Steiner, BNSF Avalanche Safety specialist and American Avalanche Association Certified Instructor, to write a guest blog on Risk, and he obliged. Thanks, Ted! This post is particularly relevant given our current elevated avalanche hazard. There has been a lot of recent natural and human triggered avalanche activity in the area. In Canyon Creek in the Whitefish Range (a very popular backcountry area for both motorized and non-motorized users), alone, there was a close call on Sunday and three natural avalanches reported this morning (2/19/2014). Thus, this topic is very poignant. On to the show….

 

Are you armed with enough solid information to enter the belly of the beast?

Are you armed with enough solid information to enter the belly of the beast? What is your risk assessment?

My name is Ted Steiner; I’m an avalanche safety specialist working with the BNSF Railway and have been working with the Railway for the past eight winter seasons.  As part of my job I spend a lot of time evaluating avalanche risk in regards to railway elements.  However in this article I want to shift the focus a bit and talk about avalanche risk and winter backcountry recreation.  But first, before we start, we need to make certain we are all familiar with risk.

Risk is a product of three variables; probability, exposure, and consequences and represents a certain degree of harm occurring to us and/or others given a particular action (My own definition)

So, yes, everything we do, whether it’s hammering a nail, shoveling the sidewalk, or dicing potatoes involves a degree of risk. But, we’re not talking about dicing potatoes today… We’re talking about avalanche risk and when it comes to determining avalanche risk, the degree of risk involved is inclusive of our livelihood and the lives of our winter recreational partners. As such, it is a critical, life bearing necessity to realize that avalanche risk revolves around probability and that the sub-components, exposure and consequences, determine the degree of risk being undertaken. Hence, when we decide to take a risk, managing that risk (Risk Management) involves adjusting the degree of exposure and potential consequences associated with the risk.

Probability:  Probability or likelihood that an avalanche may occur, either naturally or artificially triggered, on a particular slope or given area where we intend to recreate is the KEY to assessing the ACTUAL RISK in avalanche prone terrain.

Although we can always be surprised, establishing this probability is vitally important so a critical decision can be made as to whether or not where we WANT to recreate is even a place we OUGHT to be.

What will help us in determining this probability is gathering (collecting) as much objective information (data) as possible to assist us with making this determination. What is objective data anwyay? Objective data relates to things you see (observe), touch, and can measure. Easy enough, right?  But now what objective data are we looking for?

 In order:

  • The number one ( #1) indicator of potential avalanche activity is AVALANCHE ACTIVITY observed on similar slopes at similar elevations and on similar aspects of slopes that we are considering recreating on.This may be natural activity that has been observed or read about in the avalanche advisory or it may be artificially triggered activity that was triggered intentionally or unintentionally.  Either way, this data is HUGELY important. Record it and either STAY AWAY from those slopes or get the heck out of there!
  • The second most important data (#2) to obtain and utilize is data related to SNOWPACK stability and structure. Snowpack data is obtained by conducting objective observations related to snowpack surface conditions, snowpack layering, and conducting snowpack stability tests. Being able to confidently collect this data is critical, particularly when data related to avalanche activity is not observed.
  • Weather that can affect avalanche activity and/or snowpack stability is the third important component. We need to observe, record, and distinguish the kind of effects it is having on the potential for avalanche occurrence and/or snowpack structure.

Collecting this information to establish probability, whether it is related to avalanche, snowpack or weather, must be collected in an organized and repetitive fashion. This allows for a high degree of confidence for determining a well qualified risk assessment, and typically results in credible data.

Exposure and ConsequencesOnce probability has been determined, the other components of avalanche risk, exposure and consequences, MUST be considered and adjusted through risk management. So, given a particular degree of probability (likelihood) of avalanche activity there is a very important question to ask: what kind of terrain are we going to allow ourselves to be exposed to and if we are surprised, what are the REAL consequences of avalanche involvement? Perhaps we just go home – nothing wrong with that!

Finally, if you have decided that, based on objective data collected, that you are going to commit yourself and partner(s) to avalanche prone terrain, you must not make this decision without first having considered your vulnerability to possible avalanches.  In other words, what have you done and are you going to do to reduce the chances of you or your partner(s) being killed or seriously injured in an avalanche? 

Actions, skills, and proper tools associated with reducing one’s vulnerability to avalanche must be learned and incorporated preemptively (before being exposed to avalanche prone terrain) and during times when traveling in avalanche prone terrain.  Reducing vulnerability for you and your partner(s) includes proper avalanche safety training, proper gear, strict group management, and terrain management.

Illustration from Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper.

Illustration from Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. Shows the confidence in avalanche skills and the time spent in avalanche terrain.

You may think what I have written here is pretty heavy; that it is only applicable to “snow nerds”, and that your intuition is fine for making avalanche safety choices. After all, you just want to have fun in the backcountry.

You’re right, this article is a bit heavy but I don’t know how else to write this “stuff.” In regards to your intuition; please remember your intuition is baseless in regards to evidence and is strictly based on past experience or your “gut feeling.” Relying solely on your intuition can tragically lead you away from a good time and into a very risky avalanche situation. Because of this, I cannot advocate enough that you begin including objective data related to avalanche, snowpack, and weather into your decision-making process. Doing this will allow you to determine actual risk based on probability and improve your overall avalanche RISK ASSESSMENT for you, your friends, and your loved ones. 

 

Blog – “Is it a Moderate kind of day?” – 1/7/2014

This blog is an area where the Flathead Avalanche Center avalanche specialists (and other avalanche experts) discuss a certain topic in detail. This blog will allow us to expand upon certain concepts or topics related to avalanches such as backcountry travel, search and rescue, decision-making, and many others. You will find information here that we just can’t quite fit into the advisories, but is still very relevant and important. On to the music….

A friend of mine who previously lived in the Flathead Valley and transplanted to Missoula about four years ago came back for a visit.  During his visit he was treated to fresh, new snow and ventured into the backcountry in Canyon Creek in the southern Whitefish Range. Later that evening he commented to me that “there are a lot of people in the backcountry these days”. The increase in backcountry use is indeed noticeable from many vantage points especially with the viral (pun intended) use of mobile computing technology, social media, and, of course, head cams. 

Skiers took this image of an avalanche triggered by a snowmobiler in the southern Whitefish Range near Canyon Creek immediately after hit happened. Note the previous ski tracks that existed on the slope prior to avalanching. Photo: Michael Voison.

Skiers took this image of an avalanche triggered by a snowmobiler in the southern Whitefish Range near Canyon Creek immediately after it happened. Note the previous ski tracks that existed on the slope prior to avalanching. This is a good example of using tech to get the word out. Photo: Michael Voison.

Then, he mentioned that when he woke up the next morning he felt like it was a Moderate hazard sort of day. He was joking with this off the cuff assessment, of course. Yet, my friend’s comment and a few comments I’ve heard over the past year or so about the perception of avalanche hazard caused me to start pondering, again, avalanche hazard ratings and the public’s perception of these ratings. 

In the United States, avalanche centers that provide avalanche advisories for backcountry recreation use the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale. This is a five category estimation that is used to communicate backcountry travel advice, likelihood (probability) of avalanches, and the size and distribution of avalanches. Grant Statham (2010) summarizes the hard work and intricacies that went into developing the current public avalanche danger scale. He concludes, 
     “Well, in the end it’s just a scale; nothing more than a table of carefully crafted words, symbols and colors designed with the best of intent to help the public better understand and manage their risk. The scale is simply one more step in the larger process of understanding avalanche risk. Although fleshing out this process was time consuming, it has resulted in a more solid foundation upon which to base our knowledge of avalanche risk and public warnings.”

The scale certainly is a great tool that we can use to help our decision-making process when recreating in the backcountry, but it is just that, a tool. It is one tool among many in our entire toolbox that we can use to make sound decisions in the backcountry. It helps us understand risk and associated travel recommendations.

Along with understanding our own risk and associated hazard ratings, I’ve noticed recently that sometimes we become complacent with certain hazard ratings, particularly the ratings in the middle of the scale. When it’s HIGH or EXTREME, mostly everyone is paying attention and on their toes just waiting for an avalanche to occur.  Many folks see LOW as a green light, but avalanches can and do occur during LOW hazard.  

It appears that MODERATE and CONSIDERABLE avalanche hazard that seem to be a bit more nebulous for many folks recreating in the backcountry. However, most fatal avalanches occur when the hazard is CONSIDERABLE (Greene et. al. 2006). Patt and Schrag (2003) state that when it comes to changes in the middle of a probability scale (like the avalanche danger scale) most people are indifferent, and view the chances of an occurrence (like an avalanche) the same as flipping a coin (50/50). The way people view probability descriptors depends on their experience with the frequency of such occurrences.  For example, they state, “People interpret a ‘slight chance’ of rain in London as meaning a higher numeric probability than a ‘slight chance’ of rain in Madrid.”

Skiers traveling in complex avalanche terrain.

Skiers traveling in complex avalanche terrain. Red arrows point to skiers. Rhetorical qusestion: Is this appropriate terrain to travel in  during Moderate hazard?

While the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale uses language as opposed to numeric probability, it is important to know what each hazard means. I’ve seen many folks treat MODERATE hazard as a green light; meaning it’s good to go hop on any slope.  This type of behavior can be dangerous, especially when dealing with persistent slab problems which we have been for about a month now (video). MODERATE hazard means that human triggered avalanches are possible. So, if you’re standing at the top of a slope waiting to ski it or sitting at the bottom of the slope waiting to highmark, and someone says, “Yeah, it’s possible to trigger an avalanche on that slope.”, what would you do? If you are armed with enough objective information about the snowpack on that slope, then perhaps it is reasonable to ride or ski it, or perhaps not. When the hazard is MODERATE and a persistent slab exists it is possible to trigger an avalanche, but the consequences may be greater given the depth of the weak layer and the potential size of the avalanche. This can be viewed as a low or medium probability, but high consequence situation.

So, the point of this post is to get folks to think about the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale more critically, and to really look at the language for each category. It’s also helpful to examine the travel advice for each rating. We are able to base the hazard rating on either the probability, size and distribution, travel advice, or a combination thereof. Thus, it helps to know, for instance, that MODERATE hazard means heightened avalanche conditions, and that you should evaluate snow and terrain carefully. Hopefully, doing so will allow you to add another tool to your decision making toolbox when recreating in the backcountry, and help in making sound decisions. 

Danger Scale

References:

Greene, E., Wiesinger, T., Birkeland, K., Coleou, C., Jones, A., Stathan, G., 2006. Fatal avalanche accidents and forecasted danger levels: Patterns in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, and France. In: Proceedings of the 2006 International Snow Science Workshop. Octrober 1-6, 2006, Telluride, CO. pp. 640-649.

Patt A.G., Schrag D.P., 2003. Using specific language to describe risk and probability. Climatic Change 61 (1-2):17-30. doi: 10.1023/A:1026314523443

Statham, G., Haegeli, P., Birkeland, K.W., Greene, E., Israelson, C., Tremper, B., Stethem, C., McMahon, B., White, B., Kelly, J., 2010. The North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale. In: Proceedings of the 2010 International Snow Science Workshop. October 17-22, 2010, Squaw Valley, CA. pp. 117-123.

 

 

Flathead Avalanche Center Blog

This blog will be an area where the Flathead Avalanche Center avalanche specialists (and other avalanche experts) discuss a certain topic in detail. This blog will allow us to expand upon certain concepts or topics related to avalanches such as backcountry travel, search and rescue, decision-making, and many others. You will find information here that we just can’t quite fit into the advisories, but is still very relevant and important. There is no set schedule for blog posts, but we will try to have a new topic/post just enough to keep it interesting.  It depends on how much it snows!

So, continue to check back, and if you have any topics that you’d like to see discussed in this space, email us at fac.admin@flatheadavalanche.org.  

Thanks!