Just Another Day in the Backcountry: Decision Making in Life or Death Scenarios

This past weekend, a few friends and I took an Avalanche Safety Course to educate and prepare us for skiing and boarding in Lake Tahoe’s backcountry peaks. Not only did we learn how avalanches form and what conditions make them start, but we learned about team dynamics, smart decision-making, and taking calculated risks. Many life lessons were rolled into this 3-day course at Kirkwood.

It was a perfect way to spend a holiday weekend with no fresh snow – in a classroom, cutting lines, and hiking up the mountain to take our fresh knowledge directly to the field. It was a great combination of content and discussion, leading to real-world application where we dug a snow pit and found the “facets” and weak layers that can cause avalanches. Finishing with a hard workout skinning up the mountain with no one else around us was the best reward. Even greater than the ride down knowing every turn was earned.

While backcountry skiing sounds really scary and unattainable, the real revelation for me was that it is all about smart decision-making. Yes, the technology has come a long way as well including beacons to find one another and backpacks with airbags. But the most important factor is collecting all of the available information and making a calculated decision that the whole group agrees on. Interestingly enough (but not surprising) the stats show that groups that include women are less likely to cause an avalanche. This is due to their strong communication skills and usual lower risk tolerance. Most avalanches are preventable, and people ignore the warning signs often knowing they are making bad decisions. It is critical for the team to consistently review their plan, have backup plans, and keep each other in check. You’re trusting these people with your life, and they are doing the same.

There’s a lot to be learned going riding in the backcountry, and it extends far beyond skinning up a mountain and riding back down. It’s absorbing nature’s tranquility, celebrating our moving bodies, and building bonds with others that have the same respect and love for the world that surrounds us.

And more from my friend Christian who joined us from Southern California (although he already had more Tahoe backcountry experience than us!)

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