Update: We’ve posted a follow-up to this story based on your response here. A very warm thank you for your comments.
Yesterday, a rider named Tom Oye shared this video on Facebook:
It’s gone viral, for good reason. The POV footage is as good as any for making the experience of being in an avalanche relatable. I’m sure Tom will tell you that the footage does no justice in expressing how he felt– how his heart skipped, how panic turned to acceptance and how relief began to poke through shock. I assume that’s how he felt– that’s how I felt any time something like this happened to me. And I’m sure Tom is pretty shaken today. I also think he’s open to learning how he could have avoided the situation. And the fact is that this one was easily avoidable.
I don’t mean to put any blame on Tom– he was aware of avalanche hazards and he’d taken steps to protect himself. Wearing an airbag made this go better for him than it might have. That’s good– Tom, if you’re reading, good move. There might have been a lot of other things that Tom did right. He might have checked the Avalanche Canada bulletin and seen mod-low-low. He might have done a good beacon practice with his partner the night before. He might have taken an AST 1, and learned some good red flags for likely avalanche activity. But, as is obvious, he still ended up in an avalanche. Here’s why he didn’t have to:
With zero understanding of the snowpack, Tom could have identified the slope he rode as hazardous. Watch the video again– see how the mountain rolls away from him? That terrain feature is called a convexity, and convexities are prime start points for avalanches. That’s because the shape of the mountain puts stress on the snowpack– stress that was released, in this case, in the form of a slab avalanche. To safely ride in the backcountry, you need to be able to identify features like convexities (or anchor points, or historical start zones) as the places where avalanches are likely to occur, and avoid them unless you have a great reason not to. Knowing when you have a great reason not to avoid a trigger point comes with experience and education, which Tom took a step toward accumulating yesterday. But, had he identified this particular convexity as a trigger point, and admitted to himself that he had no reason to think of it as safe, he wouldn’t have been in a slide.
There’s more, but let me quickly make a related point. Fast and light. If you’re stuck riding across a likely trigger point, or you decide that you feel safe doing so, be fast and light. Even if all signs point to no slide, don’t turn or put unneccesary pressure on a slope when you’re in a spot you’ve identified as a potential start zone. Did you see how Tom made a turn, checked speed, right in the middle of his convexity? That’s what broke the tension on the slope. If you’re going to be there, be fast, be light.
Now, I wasn’t in the backcountry yesterday and I don’t know what information Tom collected before he decided to ride where he did. He may have had a great reason for thinking the slope was safe. But, a post in Facebook’s South Coast Backcountry Touring Group from David Cote makes me think that Tom didn’t know what was going on in the snowpack. Yesterday, Mr. Cote published the following about Tom’s slide:
The language David used in his post is technical– don’t worry if you don’t understand the acronyms or terminology (don’t worry, but if you plan on being in the backcountry do start taking steps to learn). Essentially, what David is saying is that he collected plenty of information that pointed to probable avalanche activity. First, one of Jeremy Jones’ red flags: recent, natural avalanche activity. “Observed 3 other size 2 naturals”. Just by looking around, David had a great indication that yesterday was spooky. Past that, David made snowpack observations that gave him more reason to tip-toe. He saw a 35 centimetre slab (the slab that became Tom’s avalanche) of very dense snow sitting directly on top of very loose snow– AST 1 is enough to tell you that’s bad news. He continued his observations with a mechanical test of snowpack stability and found results that told him clearly that he faced a slab avalanche problem. With that knowledge, David had enough information to tell him to avoid features such as convexities. In fact, he had enough information to avoid avalanche terrain, period.
It probably took David 25 minutes to collect the information he reported yesterday. He probably knew there was a slab problem within 15.
The point is not to shit on Tom. Tom’s probably rad. Like I said, he took steps to protect himself and they worked– he walked away. The point is that you need to know before you go. If you read this and didn’t learn anything new, good for you. If you think my analysis makes any mistakes, please e-mail me and I’ll post a correction.
If all of this is a foreign language to you, you’re not ready for the backcountry. That includes ducking ropes off the resort. And that’s OK. It takes time to develop the skills that David used to rule out riding a slope like Tom’s, and everyone starts as a beginner. Get some education. Those of you out west, Whistler Blackcomb offers free avalanche awareness tours daily on Blackcomb, they’re a great way to dip your toes. They start at 12:30 at the avalanche hut at the top of Solar. Outfits like Extremely Canadian offer snowboard specific Avalanche Skills Training Courses, and the instructors are rad. It’s fun to learn this stuff.
Stay safe out there,
David MacKinnon, editor