Over the years I’ve blogged about how the media almost always calls backcountry skiing accident victims “expert” or “experienced.” In a newspaper article I read some time ago, a California fire chief talks about this same issue. He asks, just when are we actually experts? When are we really experienced?
Self assessment is difficult so I won’t go there — but I agree with the fire chief when he says there are really not that many experts out there, nor is everyone really all that “experienced.” The guy’s salient point is that all of us should realistically assess our “expertise,” because we may not have that much of it. Applied to ourselves, what backcountry ski touring expertise we do have may not be increasing even if we’re getting out year after year.
More, (despite the media’s too liberal use of adjectives such as “expert”) it bears repeating that perhaps the biggest problem in backcountry skiing avalanche safety these days is that truly expert folks with experience and education tend to be caught in avalanches more frequently. Perhaps those of us who fall into that category (e.g., having knowledge and getting slid anyway) need to work hard on our judgment skills. I humbly include myself in this.
With above in mind, perhaps avalanche safety educators need to include safe travel assessment tests in their programs. It would actually be quite easy to develop tests that would help us get a realistic view of our own backcountry expertise. Questions could be as simple as “do you always carry items that you could start a fire with?” all the way to questions such as “In Colorado, what alpha angle would you use as a rule of thumb to figure out how far an avalanche slope might run-out once it reaches the valley floor?”
Such a test would be a cool way to finish up a community backcountry skiing avalanche safety course.
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.