Mountain Mumbles

The columnist stops for a second to watch ski partner Julia Tellman carve a line.

Something about skiing breeds superstitions, some stronger than others.

We don’t ever call “last run.” It’s always “two more, skip the last.”

Many mountains have some variation of the “silent rock” on the way up, which, if you talk as you pass it in the car, you’re doomed to some sort of injury.

Don’t drop in with your skis on the wrong feet, you’re bound to blow a knee.

We offer our subconscious homage to the mountain gods who determine our fate. They don’t demand effusive worship after all, no virgins thrown into volcanoes, no high priests slitting goat necks. Instead the occasional old ski thrown into a bonfire or a toast offered to Ullr is enough to keep them smiling down benevolently upon us. Most skiing superstitions are harmless and amusing.

But I’ve realized that one superstition that’s snuck into my subconscious recently is anything but harmless and amusing; instead it’s dangerous and short-sighted. When I’m standing on top of a line, about to ski it, I don’t talk about what would happen and how we’d react if an avalanche occurred. I don’t think I’m alone in this either.

As responsible backcountry users we love to talk about what’s safe and what’s dangerous as we pore over maps the night before a trip. We love to discuss line options and safe zones on the way up, and make a plan of attack while we’re transitioning.

But in my experience at least, it’s much more rare to be standing on top of a line, staring down the barrel, and discuss exactly what you and your partner will do if this, right here, that we’re about to ski, slides. Once we’ve made the decision to ski something, it’s hard to have the humility to admit that it may have been a dangerous choice and to plan for our response if that danger does rear its head.

Maybe it’s a little bit of that “the tree you look at is the one you’re going to run into” mentality: We’re worried that talking about a slide will make it more likely to happen. But more likely it’s just simple foolishness.

It’s rare that we go out into the backcountry planning to be involved in an avalanche. And we often justify our choices as being made to put us in situations that “won’t slide.” But as soon as we believe we’re about to ski something that “won’t slide,” that pride, that overblown confidence in our decision making that led us to this point, stops us from discussing what we would do if it did slide.

It’s hard to admit that even with the best decision making, even with a string of choices we’re totally confident in, the slope we’re about to ski could still slide. But as soon as our superstition and hubris start to impede our ability to analyze our own potential reaction to a disaster, we set ourselves up for failure if that disaster does occur.

I’ve never skied a line that I believed would slide under me or my partner. And I never plan on doing so. But when I’m standing on top of a couloir, about to make that first turn, I want my partner and me to know 100 percent exactly what they’re going to do if it slides.

I don’t care if there’s absolutely no chance this thing is going anywhere, I want to minimize the number of decisions I have to make under duress once an avalanche has occurred. I don’t want to be deciding if I’m going to run up and holler at the group we saw on our way up to come help, or call 911, or head down right into the slide ASAP.

I want to eliminate as much indecision as is mentally possible. I want to be poised and ready if that disaster happens. I want to be able to fully visualize what a potential avalanche would look like in this terrain, and what my response would be, and it helps to vocalize both of those to my partner. Indecision and wasted time kill.

So as we’re standing above that tasty ribbon of snow, flanked with cliffs, I and anyone I’m skiing with should be able to fully explain what the plan is if the worst happens. It doesn’t need to be long or drawn out.

It can be as simple as, “If that pocket on the right pulls out it will probably take me for a ride down to the left, potentially over that band of bushes. If it goes, keep an eye on me until the slide stops, then note my point last seen, holler loudly for help, but don’t wait around before you check for hangfire, deploy your probe, set your beacon to ‘search’ and come pull me out.”

It’s just a couple of sentences, but if something does happen, your party will have a plan, and a checklist to work through. Panic and confusion run rampant when the catastrophe that you refused to imagine does occur.

So I’ll never call last run and I’ll keep wearing that pink sock on my right foot and make sure I have my skis on the correct feet so the topsheet lines up.

But I’ll also always make sure that every member of my group has a coherent plan if disaster does strike. It doesn’t cost me anything, just a couple of sentences before we tap poles and I drop in. But I’d rather take that time at the top of the line than when I’m buried at the bottom.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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