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.