(Dusting off an old but still relevant subject for a bit of summer thought.)
For years, much of print media has appeared obsessed with using the terms “experienced”or “expert” for nearly anyone caught in a backcountry avalanche. Google “experienced skier” or “expert skier” avalanche and you’ll get massive results, as opposed to a tiny number of results for “inexperienced skier” avalanche.
Perhaps the media’s “experienced skier” verbiage panders to the booty clenching fear we should ostensibly feel when encountering the world outside a newsroom office (especially in places with trees instead of asphalt).
Seriously, does anyone know the psychology behind this phenomenon? I mean, in many cases these news writers most certainly don’t know if the person in question was really an “expert” or not, and how do they define “experienced?” Do they just throw those terms in to increase their word count? Is it something they teach in journalism school, that you’re supposed to include the word “expert” in these sorts of reports?
Beyond all that, a sad fact does remain. Yes, many avalanche victims ARE excellent “expert” backcountry skiers and riders, who frequently have many days of backcountry experience. NO DOUBT much of the reason “experienced” folk are more likely to be avalanched is they’re spending more days out — simple odds.
Still, you look at the reports and you see mistakes were made.
In other words, we spend thousands of hours learning and practicing, and somehow this is not helping some of us.
My opinion: It boils down to how your mind operates and how much risk you choose. I go out all the time with experienced “expert” backcountry skiers, and frequently observe them taking easily avoidable risks (gang skiing, sloppy route finding), along with ratcheting up their overall level of acceptable risk (hucking off a cornice into an unskied powder filled chute, and things like that).
Can we reverse this trend? Avalanche education has improved over the past few years, now they teach more about risk and judgment issues, along with “human factors.” Beyond that, perhaps our backcountry skiing culture needs a subtle shift from the rabid cliff-hucking see-me-on-Vimeo powder lust ethos that’s developed over the past two decades.
And lest we take this too lightly, Google keywords “skier avalanche” and see more than a million results.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.