The Normalization of Deviance Applied To Traveling In The Mountains

Sunny day cross county skiing in Lake Tahoe near Powder House Photo by: Local Freshies®

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Originally Posted As Part Of Our 2016 California Avalanche Workshop – Recap

Winter is fast approaching. Out of all the years, this might be the most questionable ski season ever. Will we be able to ski at a resort or not? No matter how much ski resorts reassure us the answer is yes, last spring is a stark reminder that it’s possible to shut down. And if this happens again, the surge of people heading into the backcountry, both experienced and novice, will be even more. While we’re not saying that you shouldn’t go touring, we hope this presentation by Cody Townsend from the 2016 California Avalanche Workshop will open up your eyes to the signs.


What Is Normalization Of Deviance

Traveling and meeting new people exposes you to different viewpoints and frames of mind. This is where Cody Townsend came up with the idea of applying “normalization of deviance” to backcountry skiing over coffee with a venture capitalist named Paul Kedrosky. The basic premise behind it is that you gradually expand your acceptance of risk until the point that it fails. The danger is still there, but your tolerance to put yourself in harm’s way increases.


Where Cody Learned This Philosophy

Cody Townsend learned this lesson first hand when on the Le Duc wall while filming for Conquering the Useless. The team and crew spent all their efforts to climb to the top, but there were five glaring red flags that couldn’t be ignored.

  • New snow
  • High winds
  • Rapid rise in temperature
  • Signs of avalanche activity
  • Whoompfing under their feet

We’d probably be fine but I don’t like that “probably”

Cody Townsend at the California Avalanche Workshop talking about his concept
Image taken by Matt Bombino

If they would’ve accepted the risk and gotten away with it, it’s a slow march towards a bad decision and failure happening in the future. So, what should you do? Here are some basics to follow:

Ace Of Base Rule

When in the wild, remember that old school song by Ace of Base… I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes. Be aware of the minor details around you of what’s going on.


Be An Example Leader

If someone does something that you don’t like, raise the issue! For example, someone forgets their beacon in the car… then don’t go out into the backcountry.

Don’t Break Rules

Rules are not made to be broken in the backcountry. They are designed to keep you safe and make sure you get home.

To close things out – if you’re just starting out, consider exploring our backcountry guide. It highlights everything from how to get started, education & training, tips on staying safe, gear reviews, news, and more:

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