Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain

tremperpic2 copy“I was a cocky, ex-national-circuit ski racer, 24 years old, fresh out of college, building ski lifts at Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Montana. In the ignorance of vigor and youth, I naturally considered my self to be an avalanche expert. I had grown up in the mountains of western Montana, and had skied in the backcountry the past several years and had so far avoided any serious mishaps. In other words, I was a typical avalanche victim.”

So begins author and Utah Avalanche Center director Bruce Tremper’s tale of the first time he was caught in an avalanche, and also begins the second version of his book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. From this beginning Tremper continues to detail his first ride in an avalanche, and how he has hunted, and been haunted by them ever since. Skiing alone? First mistake. No beacon? Second. Terrain trap, ski cutting alone? 3rd and 4th, and then he’s off for the ride that leaves him buried from the chest down, and the realization that this was the real beginning of his avalanche education.

Avalanches, as Tremper points out, are indiscriminate killers. Or in his using a stronger term– people are getting slaughtered. With advances in equipment, surges in participation numbers and the overestimation of skills on all participants part- be it skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, climbers, snowshoers–and a lack of resources for education and information, there are an increasing number of incidents with bad endings.

Snowmobilers lead the way as victims with 40% of the fatalities in the latest available numbers (1997-2007). Almost all victims regardless of sport are male, fit, educated, middle class and between the ages of 18 and 40. Tremper also points out that 93%(!) of all victims are male, and only 7% female–similar to the prison population of the U.S. Tremper attributes this data as perhaps a sort of machismo–where we would rather die than admit ineptitude. Most likely he is right.

Tremper also notes the concept of “positive reinforcement”, and that any avalanche slope is stable 95% of the time. You can go out and have a 19 out of 20 success rate, but on that 20th time…

The introduction, and indeed the entire book, is loaded with fact, figures, diagrams, drawings, and pictures of every type of terrain, slides, and magnitude. Getting through the introduction is a sobering reality that we who recreate in the backcountry are facing a real killer who is not random- and that we are the enemy-93% of all avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.

After getting through the harsh reality of the numbers, Tremper covers every aspect imaginable, beginning with avalanche basics, and how they work. He details forces at work, how slabs fracture, trigger points, flow, friction, deformation and settlement. Terrain management is an entire chapter, discussing avalanche runouts, slope angles, slope anchors, aspects, wind and terrain traps.

Snowpack is a fascinating subject and is given a thorough examination in the book. In the beginning of this chapter, Tremper delivers a rap on the metamorphosis of snow- admitting (sheepishly) “We really don’t need to know about all the subtleties of crystal identification and metamorphosis…why even take the hard trip into the nerdy realm of snow science?” But then admits it is indeed a powerful tool in the battle against avalanches. From this point he encourages, and assigns a homework project, to the reader to get out and dig! Get the right tools, shovel (essential equipment anyway), snow saw, hand lens, and start digging pits- know what you are looking at before reading this chapter- it will certainly alleviate the boredom.

From snowpack Tremper leads to the chapter on stability- with instructions on how to dig snowpits, what to look for, and a variety of stability tests. Throughout the book, he also offers a number of ‘Hot Tips’- in this chapter, it’s to dig one pit, and your partner another. This provides more information- more data points- and 2 people working in the same pit just get in each others way.

Hazard evaluation, and route finding and safe travel rituals are allotted a chapter each, included in the latter are the 10 commandments of safe travel. As Tremper notes here “Knowledge and experience take us only part of the way. The rest comes from good habits and good techniques.” As noted on the 3rd commandment, Thou Shalt Never Go First, 90 percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the first person down. “You should never test the stability of a slope with your most valuable possession” Tremper states, “your life.” First tracks are overrated.

Finally, even if you do everything ‘right’ you will eventually make some mistakes as Tremper notes-“its how we learn. This is the nub of the dilemma- we will make mistakes in avalanche terrain, yet we can’t afford to make mistakes.” This leads to the next chapter- Rescue. Tremper notes that “rescues usually don’t work very well, wild emotions, time constraints, lack of resources…the best avalanche rescue is to never need one.” From here proper techniques are described for both victim and survivors. Beacon searches, probing, and digging technique are also addressed.

Hellgate avi 300dpi copyTremper, as noted in the previous interview, is also a fan of the technological advances in avalanche rescue gear. He is a fan of the Avalung- stating ‘there is no excuse not to wear one, and hails avalanche air bags as the “most promising technology to come along in the past 60 years.” Although heavy and expensive-the airbags will certainly decrease in cost and weight as the technology evolves. Tremper foresees airbags as becoming standard equipment in the future. However he also notes in the final chapter that avalanche smarts beats gizmo madness every time.

Tremper finishes the book with a well thought out chapter on The Human Factor. Here he recounts the deaths of several close friends and fellow avalanche professionals. “People with a lot of education tend to perform at the same level as novices when 1- they don’t get regular feedback, 2-their judgment is clouded by human factors, 3-when they encounter unusual conditions.” The mental shortcuts include familiarity, acceptance, the ‘expert halo’, competition (powder in our case), and the herding instinct, and Tremper offers solutions on how to avoid these and “risk homeostasis” or our penchant for risk.

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain is well detailed, and Tremper provides a lively, spirited, and interesting read. He is certainly one of the most recognized and accomplished avalanche experts in the world, and his zeal for passing on his wisdom, insight, and inside knowledge is readily apparent. Anyone who recreates in the backcountry will find it a hard book to put down, and will most certainly learn more than they expected- of course- this is one of the main points throughout the book. As he quotes in the final chapter of the book a saying from Will Rogers, “It ain’t what we know that gets us into trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.

–Paul Oelerich

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