That’s how avalanche survivors remember the sheer might of snow tumbling down on them.
Backcountry enthusiasts — skiers, splitborders, snowmobilers — joined Saturday for a daylong refresher course on avalanche prevention and mountain safety. The Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop, known as WYSAW, was sponsored by Teton County Search and Rescue.
In honor of Search and Rescue’s 25th anniversary this year, tickets were $25. More than 300 people registered.
The timing couldn’t have been better. With snow accumulating on the valley floor Monday night for the first time this fall, the shift from a summer to a winter mindset has officially begun.
“It’s time to tune up your avalanche brain,” said Lynne Wolf, the event emcee and editor of the Avalanche Review.
Travel in the mountains
Is the snowpack stable or unstable?
For keynote speaker Dale Atkins, who trains avalanche professionals and mountain rescuers, the answer is probably somewhere between. But while an airplane pilot saying he took off in sketchy conditions would be met with skepticism and concern, he said, that same kind of risk-taking happens all the time in the backcountry.
“When it comes to mountain adventures, we have this twisted ethic,” he said. “We think, ‘Cool.’ We idealize and idolize people who make dumb choices.”
Lori Zacaruk, an avalanche-safety teacher for snowmobilers in Canada, drove the point home with a game she had audience members play. Draw a hand of cards — instead of spades and hearts, it’s avalanche conditions. You have 60 seconds to dump the worst cards before she rolls a dice to see if you make it home.
“Technically, we’re really all gamblers,” Zacaruk said.
When we explain away near misses with our own skills or knowledge, Atkins said, that sets up an illusion of control and a positive feedback loop.
“Most of the time, we get away with it,” he said. “But sometimes, it catches up to us.”
It’s time to flip the narrative, he said, by being humble, playing devil’s advocate sooner rather than later in an expedition, and not being afraid to interrupt forward momentum when it’s dysfunctional. Identify your vulnerabilities and know that the danger levels — low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme — are exponential, not linear, in their consequences. Most avalanche deaths are seen in the moderate and considerable danger levels, and three-quarters of those who die in an avalanche had some sort of training.
One thing people can do, Atkins said, is approach avalanche reports and stories differently. Instead of just pointing out missed cues or red flags, he encouraged the audience to put themselves in the party’s shoes. Why did it make sense for them to do what they did?
Focusing on the outcome, he said, is a hindsight bias that negatively impacts learning. So stop thinking, “I’d never do that” — of course you wouldn’t, you know how it ends — and focus on the process.
Terry O’Connor, an emergency physician, EMS director, medical advisor for ski guiding and patrol operations and an assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine for the University of Colorado, built on those ideas and advocated including emotion in the decision-making process.
A better way to refine the “What were they thinking” question, he said, is “What were they feeling?” It’s a misconception that separating emotion is the best way to make choices.
“Our feelings are the very thing of our decision-making,” O’Connor said.
Avalanche survivors speak
A common theme of the event was destigmatizing the shame of being caught in an avalanche. Connor Nolan and Jim Ryan, who can be heard on Search and Rescue’s “The Fine Line” podcast episode “Gothic Couloir: Blinded By Desire,” told the audience their story.
Ryan acknowledged his dangerous attitude at the time — that “skiing could save us from anything.”
After being severely injured in an an avalanche on the traverse out from the Gothic Couloir, Nolan was saved by Search and Rescue. He told the crowd that he now understands how his risky behavior affected other people, like the rescuers who have lives and families of their own.
He described an emotional run-in with one of his rescuers, Cody Lockhart, at Hoback Sports, where he was working as a bootfitter. The men shook hands and burst into tears.
“It was pretty amazing to have Cody come in and have both of us break down on the sales floor,” Nolan said.
A panel of avalanche survivors — Greg Epstein, Reed Finlay, Larry Hartenstein and Jessica Ginter — closed the day with their own stories. The goal of the panel was to create a respectful environment without the fear of being judged — something that happens all too frequently in the armchair-quarterbacking world of social media.
As Powder Magazine editor Matt Hansen said, “the option of not skiing is kind of not an option.” So what did they learn and how did they get back on the horse?
All gathered a variety of information that day — from the avalanche report, ski cuts, hasty pits — and determined the conditions and terrain were safe given their ability.
Epstein recalled a day in March 2014 when he skied where he’s gone “hundreds of times” — Granite Canyon. During his second turn in Double Dogleg Couloir, the slope spider-webbed. He deployed his airbag and was swept over a cliff, breaking his tibia, fibula and pelvis.
“I had enough time to think my life was over,” Epstein told the crowd.
He’s still working on regaining the physical strength and confidence needed to ski like he used to.
“I’m really happy to be here talking to you guys,” he said.
Hartenstein’s avalanche last winter also happened in Granite Canyon. He tried many times, unsuccessfully, to pull his airbag, and remembered coughing out snow and letting out a “primal scream” when he stopped, 1,000 feet later, buried from the waist down.
“I had ample time to think about the end of my life,” he said.
Hartenstein, the manager of JH Sports in Teton Village, said he’s had to call employees’ parents when they die in the backcountry and doesn’t want to put anyone in the position of making that call for him.
Part of Hartenstein’s healing process was going back to the same couloir and skiing it a few days later.
“I needed to do it,” he said.
Finlay described a time in Webb Canyon when an avalanche caught him and his two ski partners. He described a scene in which the burned trees around them looked like they were growing as the snow sank and slid away from them.
He said he now does what he did before but “with more awareness.”
Ginter was also in Granite Canyon when she was caught in an avalanche in 2007. A group skiing above her let off a sluff that picked up speed in the couloir where she was.
“I was just hit with this incredible force,” she said.
Ginter said she’s now more wary of “sidecountry” and the number of people in it and mostly sticks to low-angle slopes. As a mother with children, she said, she’s “always thinking about coming home.”