If you recreate in an uncontrolled environment, whether it’s snow, rock or water, are you doing everything to be the best teammate or partner possible? Uncontrolled in this case refers to anywhere that doesn’t have preexisting hazard mitigation, such as closures, patrols, signage, immediate exit options, and where the onus is fully on the user to identify and solve problems.
During the process of starting to explore backcountry ski areas with my son, many people expressed surprise that I would expose him to such risk. The paradox of this, and any team situation, is that it’s ME who is exposed to risk: if my son were to get hurt, or is otherwise impaired, I have the knowledge skills and abilities to manage the problem. If something leaves me with lowered capacity, or worse, non-ambulatory or needing rescue, he does not have the tools or experience to help me. Being an awesome teammate is having the skills, experience, and physical capacity to manage and solve the most complex problem reasonably possible at any point in the mission, from the highest hazard to which you’ll be exposed.
While this is aimed a skiers, examples are used from climbing and other activities in order to best illustrate certain hazards. The concepts apply to all, from self-assessment to hazard identification and strategy development.
Firstly, be honest with your self-assessment; overestimating capacity only places your team at risk.
No training- *there is nothing wrong with this*, IF your exposure to hazards is kept virtually non-existent, or if you are part of a group being led by a guide or instructor with this understanding made clear, and mostly it should be the trigger to start acquiring training.
Some training, little practice- this is potentially where many find themselves in trouble, and also aligns with the danger zone on a Dunning-Kruger curve (see image below). With low to moderate training, experience, and hence capacity, people develop a false sense of perceived capacity relative to actual capacity. It’s the skills to get ones’ self into complex situations, without the ability to escape them.
Trained, practiced, aware- this should be the goal state, where one has the formal training to safely manage issues, has practiced regularly to preserve perishable skills and to explore a broad range of situations, and has the assessment skills to identify hazards, and manage them with preparedness or avoidance.
Assess Your Goals and Train to Suit
The overarching theme of avalanche-safety training is hazard management, and it applies equally well to other hazards including the potential to be isolated from help by distance or complexity (rope access etc). We travel safely through avalanche terrain by minimizing probability, minimizing exposure, and minimizing consequences. To manage the danger of isolation, ask:
1. How much of this mission has us isolated? Most of the route, or a small section?
2. What have we done to decrease the likelihood of requiring outside assistance? Are there other considerable hazards while we are in the isolating area, or is it a benign environment?
3. How can we reduce isolation? Can we avoid or minimize it through route selection or timing?
4. Are we prepared to successfully manage any problem (or set of problems) that arise without any assistance or ability to immediately and easily evacuate? “Well if that happens, we’re really screwed” is not an acceptable outcome. Rethink the mission.
Assess the hazards that come with your desired level of exposure, determine if you could solve the worst case scenario, and if not, seek out the training or change the plan to eliminate or reduce the risk. No risk in the uncontrolled environment can be fully reduced, but they can be minimized with planning to limit exposure, or postponing exposure until the skills are gained to manage the risk. If a newly trained backcountry skier (or a seasoned skier who ceased learning after initial training) can’t manage zero-visibility navigation with a compass, partner extrication, or emergency shelter creation, the hazards can be managed by sticking to simple enough terrain that an emergency escape is essentially “ski down hill” until the parking lot or resort are met. If a climber can’t manage an unconscious or severely hurt partner down more than one lower/rappel to reach ground, it would be endangering their partner to exceed a single pitch.
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Enthusiasm, lack of awareness, non-event feedback, and no formal system to restrict access based on proficiency each contribute to people getting into high commitment situations without the skills to resolve problems. Without experience, it can be difficult to even realize the potential problems that arise as complexity or commitment increase, so seek out the training you need for the environment you are entering, and find a mentor if it is your first step into a higher level of commitment.
Think about what your goal is, or possibly what the highest commitment terrain you access now is, consider “what is the worst that could happen” and seek the training to manage it. Your partner will thank you.
Stay sharp, stay smart, stay safe.
Many if not most of these scenarios are low frequency, and are avoided with a foundation of communication, assessment, early-problem resolution, and preparedness. They are however high consequence: if they do occur, the potential for a catastrophic outcome is high. We don’t need to practice skills we perform often- if you’re doing a transceiver check every morning (you’re doing one, right? Please?), it’s not a skill that needs practice. Because we don’t regularly escape belays, transfer loads, haul, manage non-ambulatory partners, or navigate in a whiteout, practice is needed.
Practicing self- and companion rescue skills can feel like wasted time when it could be spent on actual adventures, but in addition to being critical for skill preservation, it lowers the amount of mental capacity required for the skills, leaving room for situational awareness, communications etc.. It is a great way to make your team feel prepared, discover nuances in the way your team deals with certain tasks, and to discover potential gaps in skill or capacity. Find out what works for you; for example, my preference when climbing is to carry a small set of carabiners, slings, and prussic cord that are reserved for rescue only, clipped together and carried on my rear gear loop. The minor weight is outweighed by having everything required ready to go and not otherwise tied up in a system.
Rescue skills can be complex, and involve transferring live loads; perform them with realism, in the clothes you’ll be wearing for example, or hanging in a harness, and without access to equipment you wouldn’t have in the field, but also perform them in a way that a failure does not cause injury. We practice at home, hanging a meter above a crash pad (high enough to hang and transfer loads, but a failure wouldn’t harm) or in the field WITH A BACKUP, such as a safety line and belayer. If you’re practicing an emergency ski stretcher, lift above something soft in case it fails, or use non-live weight.
Lastly, be a lifelong learner. Even with mastery level skills and education, there is tremendous value in ongoing training. Equipment, techniques, and best practices evolve, and while it can be a challenge for the skilled rescuer to willingly change what they’ve mastered and used effectively, there is no bigger red flag about a potential partner than stubborn adherence to antiquated ideas “because we’ve always done it this way”. Training exposes all students to new groups, which fosters cross pollination, a fresh set of eyes on existing skills, and builds one’s capacity to interoperate effectively with others. In virtually every facet of my professional and personal endeavors, the people who claim to know everything on a topic are without fail, the slowest to adapt, and have the largest skill deficits.
Group or Team?
Could you, and each member of your team manage or coordinate decision making or managing an emergency? If not, you’re part of a group, not a team. Teams have equally skilled members who can support when needed and improve overall performance. Being a group is perfectly fine, however as the difference in capacity widens, the need for a de facto or actual Guide increases. Groups should be willing to acknowledge this, and ensure the Guide or guide KNOWS WHAT IS EXPECTED OF THEM. With even a modest amount of experience, you’ve likely been part of a group, and at some point realized that you were being looked to for expertise, decisions and ultimately management of issues. It can be flattering, but it can also be frustrating to discover when the group is now overcommitted, or you are not comfortable with the new implied role. If you find yourself in what is obviously a group but that is unwilling to acknowledge this dynamic, it should be a danger sign that knocks you off your feet and into your car home.
The uncontrolled environment is exhilarating, amazing, and why we learn, train, and dedicate countless hours to its pursuit. With training, planning, communication, and the best preparation possible, it’s likely that most will never be in the situation where someone’s life depends on your rescue skills, but we play in an unforgiving environment, and although rare, problems happen. Your partner trusts you, and you trust them. Be the partner who shines when things go horribly wrong, who has the skills and proficiency manage the most complex problems, and return your friend to their loved ones.