What it Means to Back Off: Caution in the Mountains
We’ve all been there. That place in the mountains where decisions need to be made. That place where we debate, in our minds, whether to keep going. That place where ego, embarrassment, fear, shame, anticipation and even anger all meet to try and confuse us into making the wrong decision. Maybe it’s on a ridge top before dropping into some line you’ve been dying to shred for years. Maybe it’s before committing up some gnarly couloir or maybe, it’s just sitting at that spot you’ve been to a hundred times and debating whether today is the today to keep skiing or retire back to the car. Saying no can be difficult. Especially in light of the various human factors that can play havoc on any decision making process in the mountains.
Last season, a friend of mine went for a fairly serious ride and sustained some life changing injuries. He wasn’t buried, either. Just dragged through some really terrible terrain. This is someone who has about as much experience looking at snow as possible and will admit that pressure, both from his friends and himself, got the better of him and he skied onto a slope he shouldn’t have skied onto. All the signs that day pointed to a very specific hazard that he knew was going to be difficult to manage. He admits his spider senses were tingling and he ignored them anyway and paid a fairly stiff price.
Pressure can affect us in different ways. There’s peer pressure, organizational pressure (this is something every ski patroller or ski guide can relate to) and even just pressure from yourself to be, what? Better? No. More Macho? Probably. Not a wimp? Certainly. That pressure has gotten me buried…twice. Neither time was fun. Pressure is a weird thing and it can be very difficult, in the moment, to deal with the clash between wanting or thinking you should go with knowing, deep inside, that to continue is folly. One mantra I use both on avalanche control and touring in the backcountry is this: if it feels weird, it is weird and treat it as such. So more and more, I have become increasingly cautious in my decision making.
Has that had an effect on my skiing? Absolutely. I have backed off more in the last few years than I every thought I would. For the most part, in each of those instances, I probably would have been fine, but at the time, it felt wrong and there was clear evidence that the snow was not in a friendly mood, the hazard was too great, and it just wasn’t worth continuing. So as a result, I have skied a little less, a few local objectives have remained elusive to me and I’ve given up some seriously deep turns in the backcountry.
But who cares? I am alive. More than that, I realize that pushing the risk envelope without careful calculation and intentional decision making has enforced what I call my mountain stupidity. In the past, the more I got away with taking stupid risks, the more I got away with taking stupid risks; that behaviour gets reinforced and encouraged to the point of thinking you’re either a wise snow jedi who is beyond reproach or you are just plain invincible. Neither can be true for anyone, and yet there is no shortage of either type in any ski town. When I did get bitten, the first couple of times I was surprised, but slowly, as my bad decisions came to be put into a fairly harsh, but realistic light, I saw that I was incredibly lucky I hadn’t died or gotten someone killed. Once I started to learn more and more about the snow and the mountain environment, my decisions became much more calculated. I am still not averse to taking risks, but I will not take a stupid risk.
Knowing when to back off is still difficult. The human factors involved in making decisions in the mountains sometimes get the better of us; it can be difficult to ignore the emotional and stick to the rational. As I mentioned above, if it feels weird, it is weird, and treat it as such. If that means that I am sometimes too cautious, so be it. I don’t care. After having been bitten for taking stupid risks, my life is too short to be a cowboy in the mountains. Learn when to say no and when to say yes. Look at the snow, read the bulletins and never stop learning. We love to ski, all of us. Deep pow is pretty much one of the sole reasons I do what I do, but don’t let the powder hunger cloud your mind. There will always be another powder day and it only takes being caught once to change your life or worse, end it.
Be safe, ski hard.