We’d Probably Be Fine… But I Don’t Like That “Probably”

California Avalanche Workshop

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Waking up to a clear sky just above South Lake Tahoe, the clouds loomed over the peaks to the west.  For the 3rd annual California Avalanche Workshop, the sense of eerie-calmness-before-the-storm was fitting.  It’s easy to build excitement for the winter season, but it’s more challenging to ensure your quest for powder doesn’t impair your judgement when in the backcountry.  This event really helped bring that into perspective.

Image taken by Matt Bombino

The event started with David Reichel, the founder of the California Avalanche Workshop, providing an overview of what this seminar was about.  The course was loosely based on the ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop) with its goal to merge theory into practice.  After he thanked the sponsors for the event, David kicked things off by introducing the first speaker.

Risk Assessment In A Big Mountain Competitive Environment

Hazel Birnbaum

hazel-birnbaumStepping up to the podium with her calm demeanor, Hazel showed that no matter what type of terrain was put in front of her – she was going to hit it full bore.  Originally from Alaska, she moved to Lake Tahoe in 2005 and began working at Kirkwood as a ski patroller.  Her ski-career then transitioned into becoming a competitive athlete on the Freeride World Tour for the last five seasons.  She likened her sport to “figure skating” since it’s a judged contest based on line chosen, difficulty of run, and a few other factors… which technically makes sense and IS similar to judging in figure skating.  The competitions are held on a steep ungroomed slope that has some avalanche work done on it.  Even in a controlled environment such as this tour, there were two situations she experienced where avalanches still happened.  One of the more memorable ones in her mind was the competition on the Wildseeloder near Tyrol, Austria.  The face is nearly 48° and the tour stop had been postponed for four days due to weather.  With major financial pressure, they had to hold the competition.  Hazel explained that she saw multiple major red flags such as:

  • No ski cutting was done on the slope
  • She had six months off due to injury and there was pressure mounting from her sponsors
  • Contest was postponed for four days due to weather followed by a major wind event

The initial forerunner dropped into the slope and triggered an avalanche.  Even though that should’ve been a red flag and disclosed to everyone, it wasn’t because the communication to the competitors was that the snow was “great.”  Hazel was the second competitor to drop into the terrain and when she did, a major avalanche was triggered that honestly could have killed her.  Fortunately, she was safe but it made her seriously consider… Is the risk worth the reward?  Understanding what heuristic traps you fall into will help make sure you get home safe.

The avalanche is captured at the 29:56 mark in the film below

Sierra Season Overview

Steve Reynaud

Looking back is a great way to learn from prior mistakes and [hopefully] do better the next time.  Steve Reynaud, a forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest and Sierra Avalanche Center, presented what happened in the Lake Tahoe winter last season.  His overview really highlighted some of the things that Sierra Nevada skiers/snowboarders may not have realized when they were happening.  Our season was about 95% of average for snowfall and most people were out skiing or snowboarding by December 1st.

Image taken by Matt Bombino

December – Best Skiing of the Season

From the end of December to New Years, the weather was cold and the continual train of small storms kept refreshing the snowpack leading to some of the best skiing of the season.


January – Three Surface Hoar Layers

By mid-January, the Sierra Nevadas had THREE surface hoar layers that were buried on the 5th, 9th, and 13thSurface hoar are feathery crystals that form on the snow surface during clear and calm conditions – essentially frozen dew. This can then form a persistent weak layer once buried and be extremely dangerous for backcountry travelers.  This type of problem isn’t something that exists normally in the Sierra Nevada due to how weather moves in.  Out of the 12+ years of forecasting, buried surface hoar events have only happened three times before and last season, it happened thrice all within a week!  Out of the 15 avalanche related incidents, seven occurred on January 14th due to this problem.  The main culprit was an atypical scenario where people just followed what they considered “normal safety precautions in typical Sierra avy conditions” yet this was anything but normal and sadly, avalanches were triggered all over the Lake Tahoe basin.

February – Warming Trend

In February, we went through a warming trend causing large loose wet avalanches.  One of the largest wet avalanches of the season happened on Slide Peak during this time and slid over 1,400’ feet, recording as a D3 category.  This really reminded everyone that loose wet avalanches can be as dangerous as a normal dry avalanche.


March/April – See-saw from Winter to Spring and back again

The storms finally returned back in March with a see-saw from winter to spring and back again with a few storms even into late April.

In summary, the Sierra Avalanche Center was very happy that their website traffic was up 151% and unique visitors up 127% showing more people were looking for information but there is still room for improvement from a backcountry traveler perspective.  Avalanche related incidents in the Sierra Nevadas typically are clustered in a very short period.  When these types of conditions exist, people need to make especially sure they carry an inclinometer, plan multiple routes, and practice terrain feature management.  These are always important any day you’re in the backcountry, but especially critical on extreme avy days.

Eastern Sierra Avalanche Update

Nate Greenburg

Image taken by Matt Bombino

Nate personifies the “tele-mark skier.”  He is confident, calm, collected, and has a lean muscular frame.  He has been tele-mark skiing for over 20+ years and is a big mountain/telemark competitor which he remarked is kind of an oxymoron.  He moved to Mammoth in 2000 and at that time there had not been an avalanche center in the area for nearly 20 years.  He saw this as a problem and his passion for the region translated to helping start the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) and co-writing the guidebook “Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra” which sold nearly 8,000 copies.  As the president of ESAC, he explained that they are considered a type IV center meaning they provide the snowpack summary but don’t give the daily observations like the Sierra Avalanche Center does.  For this coming season though, they will be bringing on another part-time forecaster which will now allow them to provide weekly avalanche problems along with their snowpack summary.


How to get out of the “doldrums” when weather is similar/stable?

Image taken by McKenzie Long of Cardinal Innovative
Image taken by McKenzie Long of Cardinal Innovative

Nate’s presentation continued into how the Sierra Nevadas can have long periods of high pressure where the snowpack doesn’t change much day to day, but danger still lurks.  His personal experience of this was terrifying but a great wakeup call.  On a typical sunny day, he went into the backcountry with a friend and a new partner.  They initially did Coke Chute to make sure they were all comfortable with the terrain.  The conditions in the chute were pretty nice and everyone felt good so they decided to head to Ripper Chute, which was the next one over.  The first person dropped in without issue and skied the chute.  As the second skier made their initial jump turn into the run, a ski popped off leading to him to slide the entire 2,000 vertical feet at terminal velocity over rocks causing him to dislocate his hip. Fortunately, Nate and his friend had contacts with Search and Rescue and got him safely out and his hip fixed before they even got home.  Thank goodness for fast medical work!  A major lesson was learned that day.  Even on the “safest” trips, there are always risks when you’re out in the mountains.  For the full story click here.

When something goes wrong and it isn’t avalanche related do you know what to do?

The reason the ski popped off was because his Dynafit toe pieces were not locked in and the amount of pressure exerted on a 48° slope was too much for the equipment to handle in that position. They were fortunate enough to have some basic search and rescue training along with outlining ahead-of-time who to contact for a heli-evac if needed.  Nate’s experience really highlighted how important it is to be prepared for not just an avalanche incident but for anything that could go wrong.

Mobile version of Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra

Nate had the opportunity to visit Colorado and while there he attempted to do some backcountry skiing in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  Scanning the avalanche forecast for the region, he realized how difficult it can be for a visitor to consume and effectively use the information.  From the types of issues described, to the graphics and how to find the avalanche prone areas, the different ways information was shared and then trying to overlay on a map – even as an experienced professional Nate realized it was troublesome.  This made him think that even though his own book was helpful to readers, he needed it to become mobile.  He wanted visitors coming to the Eastern Sierras to easily see where they were compared to certain places on the map.  This idea turned into a mobile app, and while still in Beta will be released soon and is truly at the forefront of keeping even visitors & beginners safe and not just the locals.

American Avalanche Association – the new 2017-18 Rec/Pro Avalanche Education Split Update

Matt Schonwald

The workshop then transitioned into updating us on what the American Avalanche Association is all about.  Matt described their organization similar to the American Medical Association.  They make sure the trainers have the same set of guidelines so that anyone who is a trainer is at the same level regardless of school or location.  He then went into how the courses and training for avalanche certification will be changing with a clearer split between Recreational and Professional.  To read more about the changes reach out to AAA by clicking here.

2016 International Snow Safety Workshop (ISSW) Greatest Hits

Brandon Schwartz & Andy Anderson

Every other year the ISSW is held in the United States and this year it took place in Breckenridge, Colorado.  Brandon Schwartz & Andy Anderson, forecasters for the Sierra Avalanche Center, shared some of their highlights from attending the event.

Advantages of Timelapse Cameras

With access to a timelapse camera, Bridger Bowl researchers noticed that they can use these cameras to learn more about people heading into the backcountry.  Some of the interesting points their research found were:

  • When there are a lot of people in the same terrain, your personal plan does not relate to other groups out there which could put you into danger
  • Wisdom of the crowd isn’t there in avalanche terrain
  • Providing another data point to determine if someone got caught in an avalanche

Common missteps of Avalanche Practitioners

Todd Guyn of Canadian Mountain Holidays sent out over 70 questionnaires to mountain guides with over 10+ years of experience and found the 10 common missteps they saw.  Here are just a few that stood out:

Misapplication of Terrain

Image taken by Matt Bombino
Image taken by Matt Bombino

From the 1990’s to the 2000’s, avalanche training consisted of rescue and nothing about avoiding dangerous terrain.  Avalanche Training continues to evolve with things like terrain management and it is still one of the major common missteps.  We should all remember the basics to stay safe while looking for terrain to ski/snowboard:

  • Size
  • Angle
  • Shape

Acting too much on emotion

The need for powder is like a drug for many and this is especially true on low snow years.  Understanding that your brain works in two ways will help you catch yourself if you fall into this heuristic trap.  The two parts are:

  • Rational – Take the information that is provided to you and make a logical decision
  • Emotional – We gotta ski this, cuz it looks sooooo good!!!!

If we understand that our minds work like this, we can step back and make sure we don’t get caught up in the emotion.

Information Overload

In today’s day and age it’s more about having too much information compared to not being informed of what’s going on.  From avalanche centers, friends, and social media, there is an opportunity for conflicting messages.  It’s up to us to dissect the information given and remove any that is invalid.  For example, the forecast states that it is dangerous out there while your neighbor is saying it is chest deep and it was stable.  Which information should you listen to?

Letting familiarity influence your Mindset

Our minds are designed to process familiar tasks efficiently by skipping certain steps since we’ve done it so many times.  For example, when you drive from your home to the grocery store you don’t have to consider every action on how to get there.  You don’t think I might die driving from home to the store.  You’ve done it so many times that your brain can skip that.  In the backcountry, this familiarity is dangerous and can lead to putting yourself at risk.

South American Beacon Project

Alex Taran

Image taken from South American Beacon Project
Image taken from South American Beacon Project

Have you ever considered going south to Chile or Argentina for the summer to get a few POW laps in?  The amount of lift-accessed sidecountry is insane but be aware that currently the culture down there is one that shames any discussion about avalanches.  In addition, they’re lacking equipment and training so if something does go awry, it could be many hours before anyone shows up to help.  The reason being that these standard backcountry tools and training are just plain unaffordable.  If you make $600/month and have to provide for a family, $400 for training just isn’t feasible.  Fortunately, this is changing with the help from the South American Beacon Project.  They are taking used beacons, shovels, and probes and providing them to road rescue, police and volunteer mountain rescue professionals.  Along with providing gear, they also conduct training on how to use this equipment and educating them on avalanche rescue.  If you wish to help this avalanche education movement they are looking for anyone’s lightly used avalanche kits along with people that would be willing to come down and help with training.  Click here to learn more about this endeavor.

The Normalization of Deviance Applied To Traveling In The Mountains

Cody Townsend

Traveling and meeting new people exposes you to different viewpoints and frames of mind.  This is where Cody 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.  Cody learned this very well 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”

Image taken by Matt Bombino
Image taken by Matt Bombino

If they would’ve accepted the risk and gotten away with it, then 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.

Image taken by Matt Bombino
Image taken by Matt Bombino

To close things out – if you get a chance to go to one of these workshops, they are a great opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals, learn from other people’s mistakes, and hear about what’s new in the world of avalanche safety.  This is our third year we’ve been to this event and we’re going to make sure that we make it a tradition.  Hope to see you there!

If you’re just beginning your journey into the mountains or a touring fanatic, consider exploring our backcountry guide. It highlights everything from how to get started, education & training, tips on staying safe, gear reviews, news, and more.

One thought on “We’d Probably Be Fine… But I Don’t Like That “Probably”

  1. In the video of the competition at Fieberbrunn Kitzbüheler Alpen, while there is an avalanche near the 29:56 mark (actually a bit before), the one that caught Hazel is at the 33:37 mark.

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