It was exactly a year ago that I stood ski guiding on a 45 degree virgin slope on the Antarctic Peninsula in a decision making quandary. Doug Stoup of Ice Axe Expeditions had put together another one of his outrageous cruise ship assisted Antarctic ski mountaineering expeditions together and invited me to bring guests along. There were 20 of us guides, including some of the most accomplished, most experienced, and most well known ski guides in the country and internationally, hailing from California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Argentina, Sweden, France, Russia, and more. We were tasked with facilitating the safety and enjoyment of close to 80 skiers in completely uncharted terrain.
The cruise ship is the lap of floating luxury. Imagine a hut-to-hut ski tour where the hut is a floating 4-star hotel with 70 service staff members and instead of skiing to the next hut each day to sleep, the hut carries you to the next ski destination while you sleep and you just wake up and go skiing. Every morning we would wake up, grab some coffee and head out to the deck for a brand new view of ski mountains, most of which had never been tracked by humans. We would have a guide meeting to discuss and anticipate the risk management challenges of the day and make a plan. Where we could go depended heavily on the weather, conditions, and access to good ski terrain. Access is a unique key player there because so much of the coastline is protected by large ice cliffs left behind by calving glaciers. In addition, there was an unusual amount of brash ice floating around which would make it hard for our small boats, called Zodiacs, to navigate us in to viable landings. We always managed to figure out a way though, thanks largely to our ship’s adept crew and Doug’s vast experience in the area. Sometimes this proved the crux of the guiding day. On the 4th day of skiing, all with overall good snow stability and enjoyable ski conditions, we arrived at a zone that had some short, beautiful, and moderate objectives juxtaposed next to some bigger, steeper, and more complex terrain. It was a nice mostly sunny day with calm wind and moderate temperatures. There was only one realistic landing zone though, which meant all guiding groups would have to start and finish the tour in the same location. Plenty of terrain out there, so it seemed reasonable to have 100 skiers in the same zone on this particular day. Each day there was a choreographed order set for how the Zodiacs would be loaded and launched. We had been one of the first boats on the day prior so we were one of the last boats out on this tour.
Our group was very fit and skilled. One of the most highly capable groups on the boat for sure. We had tested our mettle on some steep lines up to 45 degrees a couple of days prior. We arrived on shore, put our skins on, and began to travel quickly up the glacier toward the ski peaks. We passed a couple slower groups that had arrived before us and we noticed that all the other guides ahead of us were taking their groups toward the smaller and more gentle ski terrain off left. There were a couple nice looking options to the right that were a little farther to get to. We veered off the main track and headed off toward a very beautiful but more ambitious ski peak. Definitely the most beautiful peak in our view, and one of the most beautiful we had seen on the trip. It was hard to see how viable the ski would be since the face looked very steep and there were cornices on either side of it. A bergschrund protected the bottom of it, and the group had experienced some bergschrund difficulties earlier in the trip. It looked somewhat unlikely to be safe enough to reasonably guide, but my thought was to head out and be in the midst of a very cool place, grab some great pictures, and possibly get lucky enough to ski something. If not, there were some other good Plan B options further right that we could access. Just being on skis in Antarctica is a thrill in itself so it seems malapropos to get overly fixated on any specific skiing objectives or logging vertical in such a stunning and pristine environment. That said, proud virgin ski lines in good snow conditions in a place like that are a heck of a bonus, and we had had a pretty good run of descents so far on the previous days.
Several minutes after we shifted our course toward the most radical line we looked back and noticed that 3 other guided groups that arrived onshore ahead of us had altered their course and followed in our track. We talked on radios and I told them that I was just going to have a look at the peak ahead. It was obvious that if the terrain was going to be skied, there wasn’t going to be enough space to accommodate 4 groups. As we approached the slope we could see it better. We saw that although the cornices were enormous and menacing, the exposure to the danger was actually quite minimal. An ascent line could be followed close to the righthand ridgeline up and left before committing to the slope and the cornice was never directly overhead. I approached the bergschrund, taking a belay with the rope, and it was easy and safe enough to cross. I radioed to my colleagues below that information and indicated that I was proceeding up the slope to have a look. There were no signs of potential snow instability and the snow felt good on the slope above the bergschrund. The group I was with was competent, comfortable, and eager to proceed. surface conditions were soft and forgiving.
So here we were, at a point where to continue upward would mean significantly increasing exposure and risk. The likelihood of even a small avalanche or a dangerous fall was low, but above this point the consequences of being wrong would no doubt be serious. Antarctica is a long way from civilization, and we were well aware of that. Still, this mountain was surprisingly and welcomingly inviting us upward and presenting an unlikely opportunity for something special, without an unreasonable level of risk. My group was capable and eager. I decided to stop the group near the ridgeline and dig a test profile (snowpit) to have a look and see if this mountain would tell me anything at all about whether we should consider turning around. I waited for another extremely competent and experienced guide, Doug Workman from Jackson, Wyoming, to come help me as a second set of eyes and analysis. We both saw the same thing. No red flags. No signs of persistent weakness. Good bonding. We decided to take our groups up together…
Shift the scene to right now, in North America. It is the peak of fall. Pre-winter storms are beginning to cover the mountain west with a white dust that will sow the seeds of the winter to come. Most backcountry skiers and riders here in the Eastern Sierra are biding their time with other outdoor activities like running, cycling, rock climbing, wilderness ice skating, and even skiing Mammoth Mountain’s “white ribbon of death.” Backcountry skiers and snowboarders have probably been thinking hard about what new gear to get and what trips to take this season. Training programs are underway.
But who has started thinking about the high gravity decisions to be made out there? The ones that could mean life or death. It’s always recommended to take an avalanche course or refresher, and to practice rescue skills, but don’t neglect to prepare yourself mentally, habitually, and culturally for the rhythm of backcountry decision making that can prevent us from having to use our rescue skills at all.
What makes a good decision? You might say that if you achieve your goals of the day and nobody has an accident or near miss then the decisions were good. Conversely, if people get hurt (or almost hurt) then the decisions were poor. This makes sense right? The flaw in this logic is that many decisions defined as good might actually be bad, but there was no accident to give you that feedback. This puts us at risk of a “negative event feedback loop” where over time we learn from no negative events that bad decisions are good, and eventually our habits get us caught. We need to change our definition of a good decision to one that goes through a well-established risk assessment and management process. If we ask the right questions, identify the elements of risk or uncertainty, and use effective group communication processes to arrive at decisions then we can give ourselves every opportunity to choose to avoid most backcountry avalanche accidents. If we can analyze and assess all of our actions, in context of our processes, then we can decrease the bias in our learning. This is the approach we teach on our AIARE avalanche courses in an effort to save lives every year. We teach how-to-learn-how-to-learn to make decisions in the backcountry.
A good debrief can be valuable in assessing decisions made and preparing for future decisions. A couple of years ago this time of season, I was rock climbing with one of our other guides, Jed Porter, in Owens River Gorge as we waited for winter to arrive. We both decided to climb a 2-pitch sport route there that neither of us had done. I led the first pitch and belayed Jed up. Jed took over the lead and went to the next anchor. He was just out of sight and the wind had picked up. I couldn’t hear him well, but the rope was slack and he shouted something that I determined was “off-belay.” We hadn’t discussed the plan and we were unable to easily communicate in the moment. I assumed he would rappel back down to me, but then I heard him yell “OK, take!” This would have signaled that I should have still had him on belay and he now wanted me to give him tension and prepare to lower him down. I quickly tied a knot in the rope and clipped it to the anchor so he could not fall and I put him back on belay. We returned to the ground safely and we stopped to debrief what had happened. He was never truly unsafe in this situation since while he was off belay he was always attached securely to the anchor. He is experienced to know to wait for the rope to actively come very tight before unattaching and trusting his weight solely on the rope. Still, the misunderstanding led to misalignment of expectations that could have led to a different sequence of events and a serious accident. We agreed that better prior communication and planning would have been a good idea. We became better and more reliable partners for each other, and for others for having taken the time to reflect on our actions and decisions.
Ironically, a few days later, I was guiding in the Gorge with a couple of guests. We were in a popular area called the Pub Wall climbing a 5.10a and taking video for movement analysis and coaching. There was a young crew from the Mammoth area to our right and we were able to record a near miss unfold before our eyes. They had set up a 5.9 with a crux traverse near the top and failed to clip a directional anchor left of the top anchor that is engineered to prevent a swing across a razor sharp rock edge. Fortunately, the rope did not cut during the fall but the falling climber swung and collided with the belayer side of the rope sending her into a spin. She slammed the wall and was fortunately only minorly traumatized. Had the geometry of the fall been slightly different to cut the rope, or had her head hit the wall, she could have been seriously injured or killed. The numerous other climbers in the area stared with wide eyes and dropped jaws. She appeared to be uncomfortably shaken, but uninjured. She was lowered to the ground and the belayer shrugged it off, “You’re ok. Cool.” I hope they did reflect more thoughtfully on the incident later and debrief it together. These folks may have missed out on one of those rare and valuable opportunities to process a near miss and learn to make better decisions over time.
The point is, we can prepare for our actions and decisions in our outdoor pursuits that demand attention to risk by being more conscious about them. Debreifing and recording helps track the learning curve, which we are all on no matter what level. What else can we do now in the preseason to prepare for backcountry decision making? Determine what your standards are for someone you will trust as a backcountry team member. Remember this is someone that could save your life countless times as they help you prevent bad decisions, or in the worst case, find you, dig you out, or get you to medical care when you need it. Compatible team members will be willing to accept the same levels of risk as you. They will be willing to go through the processes that consistently result in better decisions and better learning through experience. Line them up as potential team members in advance and open up the lines of communication now. Agree to make time to have good daily debriefs after tours. Sort out what your useful information resources will be and agree on them. Develop your emergency response plans and practice rescue in realistic mock scenarios. Then, start watching the early season weather and thinking about what those early season layers close to the ground might do when they are buried. Document each significant weather event and go walk around to see how the snow is responding out there. Get tuned in early if you can. Once the snow finally comes, it is too easy to be distracted by the lure of powder.
… Ok, back to our snowy story. There we were on the Antarctic Penninsula, no seasonal snowpack history, just a handful of days to observe conditions and guests. Fortunately, we had prepared well for our decision making. The guides had spent over a week together, many of us knew each other prior. We all had a high level of training and experience in ski mountaineering related skills. We had practiced and aligned our risk management approach in pre-trip training and in our guide meetings for two full days before the boat left port. We had strong communication skills and technology. We had at least 2 days skiing in Ushuiaia, Argentina before the boat left and 3 days prior skiing in Antarctica to fully dial our team in to the unique systems of this style of guided ski mountaineering. We looked at general weather patterns for the area and had 20 guides sharing snow obs every day as we skied. Here, after careful assessment, Doug W. and I continued up to the summit with our guests. The other groups below radioed that they would start to descend from the point of our snow pit, out of our fall line. I descended first from the top and the skiing was excellent. It was more than excellent. Very secure, soft, and skiable. It steepened to around 50 degrees in the choke, which is definitely the real deal. I modeled very careful turns and braced sideslipping. I stopped near one of the other groups at the snowpit and Doug sent two of our stronger skiers down. They skied with great conservative ski mountaineering style and enjoyed runs of their lives. One of the next skiers in Doug’s group became nervous at the steep section and Doug accommodated her with a rope. Everything slowed down. Though my group was able to ski and enjoy the descent safely, I quickly realized how many of the skiers from the other groups on the mountain were out of their comfort zone in this steep terrain.
A skier from the group below descended the lower mountain and fell above the bergschrund. He punched in and stopped immediately as expected, but his ski released and tumbled down. This required his guide to go down and assist. I was left on the slope with the rest of his group, while waiting for skiers above to descend to us. We called the lowest guide to come back up for assistance. By the time the nervous skier on the rope above got down to me (which took around 20-30 minutes) the clouds began to move across the sun. We were on a north aspect, which is the sunny side down south of the equator. the surface started to not quite freeze but gel, which made the skiing slightly more challenging. One of my skiers did a great job skiing the slope. Then a skier from Doug’s group skied down through the choke and pre-released from his ski on the open slope. He stopped immediately and fortunately his ski stayed right with him. He was able to continue skiing down to us. Some of the skiers I was left with from the other group were nervous and apprehensive. One tried to head out onto the face and make a turn, but just froze. I went out and helped her take her skis off and return to the boot track. Conditions were deteriorating in quality with increasing cloud cover, so the remaining skiers booted down the slope with me toward the bergschund to increase comfort and decrease the risk from falling. The steep upper section was in the wind and and had become crusty. We were feeling time pressure to get everyone down the slope. As my last client and Doug belayed and skied down competently, another guide and I were able to quickly transition everyone assembly-line style back onto skis, lower them across the bergschrund, and ski to the boats. We were a half-hour late and just in time for dinner.
The analysis of this situation in the guide meeting that evening was one of the most interesting and enlightening I have had in my career. I learned a lot about working in large teams of guides. As good as our communication and support structure was, it could have been even better. We pushed the envelope and the margin of safety for the benefit of maximizing a unique and special experience. Had it just been my group up there, it would likely have been a very simple situation that worked out efficiently and well. Trying to provide that experience to so many people, especially ones that were not quite ready for it, narrowed the margin of safety to uncomfortable levels. I never consciously made the decision to have those other groups there, but I did allow it to happen. I made an assumption that the skiers in the other groups were prepared for the challenges of the terrain, and I should have clarified that through more communication. I did not want to assert myself as an authority over other top level guides, some of whom had spent a lot of time in Antarctica. It is a decision making trap to assume that your team members are thinking about risk and the situation the same way you are. It is important to keep communicating. If I had questioned them or they questioned me, the others may have said, “you know, I think maybe that terrain will be too much for my group. We have other options available.” Perhaps we could have mixed the groups to take only the very strongest skiers up. This would have made things go more smoothly and with less risk, and more enjoyment for at least some of the skiers. Having multiple guides close by to help if there is an issue does increase safety in some ways, but it also can be a trap that leads to a higher risk acceptance or a tendency for risks to just accumulate unintentionally. These are the kinds of lessons you can get from a good debrief. They are especially valuable when you have put effort into preparing for decisions. I think our preparations helped us to correct our errors very effectively as a team and prevent a cluster**k from becoming more of a crisis.
In the end, all 15 guests of ours up there were safe, and they were glowing. Several of them skied a line of their dreams, a steep first descent in one of the most spectacular ski venues on Earth. Others had an unforgettable and rewarding adventure where they had a chance to explore their limitations. I only heard endlessly positive responses of gratitude. As the operator in charge, Doug Stoup indicated to me privately that he was concerned watching us manage all those people in that terrain. Rightfully so, and I agreed that the situation had crossed into a realm we should have avoided. At the same time, he called it “definitely the line of the trip.” Our skiers got to be a part of that and they will never forget it, which I am grateful for. I am even more grateful, for the debriefing among our team of 20 veteran guides and the learning from that experience that makes me a better guide today. Ultimately, I think everyone involved in the descent of Narwhal Peak would agree: it was amazing!… let’s not ever do it again. I think we have made the right kinds of mistakes if we arrive there at the end of them.
Writing this blog and sharing these stories with you is a good way for me to prepare for my own upcoming season of guiding and decision making in the mountains. I hope that reading it will engage your brain and you will begin to start reflecting on your past experiences and thinking about how you will approach the mountains this season. A Canadian guide mentor of mine once told me: “In ski guiding you won’t always be right, you just want to be right enough.” Preparing for your decisions, and debriefing them as part of that, might be the best way to reduce the consequences of your inevitable mistakes. ~ Howie