Trip to NYC

| February 11, 2009

If there is such a thing as a silver lining to surviving multiple avalanches, it is that I am now considered an “Avalanche Expert” and as such will be talking on Good Morning America Now on Wednesday with Marit Fischer from  I wonder if hunters who consistently shoot themselves in the foot are considered “Hunting Accident Experts?”  In any case, I’ll try to keep my fingers away from my nose, avoid saying “Uhmmm, like, you know…” too often and be back tomorrow.

The link from the show…

Category: Random

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (25)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. mark says:

    It’s a pity you’re gone, because the snow is really nice this week.

    If the finger does accidentally make it to nose, just make sure it stays away from the mouth.

  2. Sam Reese says:

    Not exactly the kind of trip where you need a quick wax job, but I was wondering, when you are on extended trips, how do you care for your skis?

    I went on a trip out to Jackson recently, and struggled my way through a Q&P in the bathroom of the hotel (mostly because like a Californian Idiot, I had red wax on a rather cold day), and it got me thinking about how I’d manage on a longer tour. Hot wax beforehand, and keep a rub-on wax brick in your pocket, or do you have some super-secret lunar powered ultralight wax iron?

    For travel with a hotel, I picked up one of these irons ( because they are small, cheap, and work. That, a variety of broken wax chunks, base cleaner in a little travel container, metal scraper, edge file, and base file, and a thin plexi rectangle for scraping. It all fits inside a small bathroom bag.

    Overkill? rediculious? What’s your travel ski-preening kit?

  3. Chuck says:

    East Couloir and West Couloir of Kessler on dawn patrol…mmmmm. Best day of the season? Get back here quick! Wait, or take your time, I hear it’s great in CO…more turns for me :-)

  4. HB says:

    Oprah, Judge Judy, Jerry Springer, what’s next?

  5. Bart says:

    my last hut trip i was caught on a tour without enough wax and a buddy turned me on to the toko express waxes. i think this is what he had…worked great.


    also highly interested in Andrew’s comments. and for all of us who missed GMA can you embed a youtube link?

  6. Darrell says:

    I thought you were against carrying a probe due to the extra weight?

  7. Andrew says:

    I don’t usually carry a probe, although I play with one on TV. :)

  8. Randonnee says:

    Andrew, please memorize this simple phrase to use on your guest appearances: “Avalanche avoidance is the only true safety.”

    Fear and marketing on the ABC/ GMA piece that is basically an infomercial for Too bad, ABC and are providing the same dangerous drivel that the gear is “absolutely” (!) lifesaving. The cheerleaders for probes, shovels, and transceivers and the gear-sellers must be ecstatic! There was no discussion of avoiding an avalanche. There was no mention of an ABS, or other avalanche airbag. No mention of an avalanche dog, which when well trained makes all of that fancy gear moot. There was no mention of avalanche education that matters, only a comment about learning to use the gear. ABC basically provided an infomercial for It is unfortunate that when an opportunity such as this occurred to add a few simple words such as “avalanche avoidance is the only real safety” commercial interest trumped concern for human safety.

  9. Darrell says:

    You raise some interesting points, Randonee. When I first started patrolling, an old salt told me that “the most important tool any patroller has is between his ears.” I agree that education and judgement should come first and that gizmos don’t make a skier safe. In fact simply buying your way to safety may actually lead to riskier behavior as the naive may take greater chances believing that gear will get them out of trouble. This is why I am mostly against a cell phone in the backcountry. I believe that safety is an illusion. You cannot make the world more safe, only control the amount of risk you expose your self too. But, did you really expect anything more from a short clip on day time mainstream television? Take the media with a grain of salt. Commercial interest has created
    a competitive market that has resulted in better tools for the serious backcountry skier to use. While I have mostly avoided avalanches and other crisis in the backcountry, I am glad to have the tools advertised in my pack, just in case. It’s like wearing your seat belt when you drive. Risk evaluation is a complex issue that takes years of in-the-field experience to get a handle on. I would have liked the knowledge and avoidance point to have been made also, but I personally don’t expect much from mainstream TV in terms of in depth issue analysis.

  10. Randonnee says:

    Good points, Darrell. I am not saying to not use the stuff- I have transceivers, probe, probe poles, ABS, helmet,cell phone, avy dog. In the mainstream discussion the focus is skewed. Even with all of that stuff and with it used well, one caught in an avalanche has a significant probability of beng seriously injured or killed. That stuff is not safety gear, it is failure gear- failure in avalanche risk evaluation and safe behavior. The go-no-go decision and an understanding of terrain and avalanching is so much more important. Tragically, follow the money, the marketing, see the important focus diverted. The gear sellers want to sell gear- do not forget. Your personal safety is not the marketing purpose, gear sales is the purpose of marketing.

  11. Andrew says:

    Hi Sam – sorry about the delayed response. The topic of mobile ski tuning is a good one and worthy of a future posting. For the most part, when I go on an expedition (no power), I just wax’em up ahead of time, then rub on if needed, but usually it is not – you just deal with slow skis.

  12. Andrew says:

    Hi Randonnee – As an experienced backcountry skier and semi-educated avalanche person, I hear your point and agree with it. Avoidance is by far and away the best policy. But, the audience for this little segment equates avalanches with tornadoes and earthquakes, so hopefully they got some basic info with their ‘mercial.

    I also think that for sure, companies are out to sell avalanche safety products, but those same companies also give back quite a bit in terms of avalanche education so it is not like selling machine guns to preschoolers.

  13. Darrell says:

    I think we should sell machine guns to preschoolers and then sell jackets with bulls eye’s to snowmobilers.

  14. Randonnee says:

    Thanks Andrew. But-

    What is your problem with guns? : )} Although since I am a family guy we do keep only semi-auto weapons in the house.

    Good one, Darrel, except it should be lawful to shoot snowmobilers who are in the Wilderness or other closed areas, especially if in my stashes.

    But seriously, in regard to this over-hyped marketing of “absolutely” life-saving products I have thoughts of comparatively looking into the degree of liability being created by gear-sellers’ claims. I sense that an expectation is being established that is clearly at odds with statistical reality. And I unsubscribed to emails from a gear-seller- but they may be happy about that…

  15. Andrew says:

    But couldn’t the same thing be said about any safety gear? Chainsaw chaps, safety glasses, steel toed boots, safety guards on power tools and even seat belts are theoretically irrelevant if people operate tools and cars safely in the first place, which is really the root of it all. That said, accidents happen.

  16. Randonnee says:

    Hmm. I did have a Stihl 0.64 saw running wide open kick back while I was bucking a log in SE AK long ago. The Kevlar saw chap was absolute protection to my leg as the chain hit while running at full speed. I don’t know how that relates, but I like to tell the story… : )} But I do not think that correlates to unproven or poorly justified expensive avalanche gadgets. Also, I would not put my leg in the way of that screaming chainsaw just because I was wearing a safety chap. Same for avy safety gear- the decision should be the same whether or not having a transceiver, avalung, ABS, etc., solo or with a partner.

    At this point I ponder whether the gear is being marketed in good faith or in bad faith. When I have time I want to look around the web in regard to this topic, perhaps talk to the CPSC or other relevant entity. Currently I feel that there are some questionable approaches to marketing avalanche rescue gear.

    In my view, a few phrases would make the marketing legitimate. For example, avalanche avoidance is the only true safety. Avalanche activity is predictable to a high degree, in fact most of the time. Proper decisions are of utmost importance when entering avalanche terrain.

    Aside from marketing, one wonders how much avalanche education has gone over to excessive gadget-emphasis as well.

    Thanks Andrew.

  17. Darrell says:

    I know that in recent years the avalanche education people have been putting more and greater emphasis on the decision making process. Ian Mckammon has done some interesting research and written about this in the industry publications. Basically the stats show that people who have taken avalanche classes may actually make poorer decisions when evaluating hazards. The traditional avi 1 and avi 2 track emphasized a lot of snow science and terrain awareness/travel techniques and of course rescue procedures, but didn’t address basic human psychology and it’s effect on how people actually decide what to do. The more recent shift is to focus on the concept of hueristic decision making and how that effects real humans making real decisions.
    In short, an avy course completion certificate can be just another gizmo if it is not used in the proper way and the reason people with certifications get buried is that they generally don’t understand that humans have an innate tendency to make decisions based on emotions and illogical associations. If one is armed with a basic understanding of this they might avoid following through on a poor decision.

  18. Darrell says:

    As far as unproven avalanche gadgets, I think there is plenty of evidence that shows avalanche beacons and the avalung have saved lives. The point being that the people got buried in the first place because they misread the hazard or decided to take on too much risk.
    Also interesting would be some way of measuring how many people are out there testing their decision making skills and don’t get buried. I.E. what has the trend been over the last ten years for user days in the backcountry and the ratio of burials to successful tours where no one gets hurt.

  19. Randonnee says:

    Darrel you bring in some valuable discussion. My current avy CV is that I keep myself, wife, and friends out of avalanches, last year for around 53 backcountry powder days. Any personal avy-related title, avocation and formal education was a while ago, so now I just write what I think and the words must speak for themselves. In other words, I am nobody important, only my arguments validate my ideas. There are some great instructors and practitioners out there, many folks actually.

    I have had the privilege of pretty extensive avy experience, and as a result I am disappointed to see sometimes poor level of practice in avy-related topics and avy knowledge applied in the field currently in the US. There is training all over the place these days (I sound like a geezer, for sure), and transceivers are so easy these days (more geezer-speak). I am referring to seeing classes in the field led by some who are obviously deficient in understanding avalanching, but love to talk transceivers and shovels- and endless pit bla bla. I read and am told about some Guides just totally screwing up and being given a pass, excused for their failure. I read (some certain ones, not all) Guides postings (US) about avy evaluation that are weak gibberish. What of all of this education, associations, vendor-sponsored education- has it had a positive effect, what of all of the accidents and deaths?

    Here is an interesting document produced by European rescue and medical authorities:

    Within the text are statements that are affirmative for the use of the ABS and avalanche transceivers. It also states that Avalungs are not statistically proven and that a study showed similar poor results for a buried victim whether wearing Avalung or having an air pocket. You may read it yourself, the above is my interpretation.

    Similarly, there is an excellent article about shovels in the current Issue of “The Avalanche Review.” Most of the well- known shovels had problems. If our automobiles failed similarly while being used for the designed purpose, there would be huge recalls and endless lawsuits.

    As far as the decision, I think it is simple if one thinks clearly. Our Avalanche Hazard Forecast, in my evaluation, is absolutely accurate in supporting decison-making. As far as that goes, other Avalanche Hazard Forecasts in areas of famous accidents had warned of such a possibility. The information is there, what is lacking is disciplined thought, study, and disciplined behavior.

  20. Darrell says:

    The Avalung was developed based on data from research such as that highlighted in your last post, Randonee. Basically if you can find a person in a short amount of time their survival rate goes way up. Because the average recovery times for professionals (Patrollers and Guides) is about 15 minutes and the average recovery times for recreational skiers is more like 30+ minutes, one solution to increase survivability is to extend the amount of time a buried person has useable air to breath. Quickly pinpointing a buried person with a beacon is one thing, digging them up from under 4 or 5 feet of snow is quite another. (I highly suggest anyone out there following along to bury a pack under an honest to goodness 5 feet of snow, stomp on the snow surface, let it sit overnight to simulate actual avalanche debris, and then time your self digging it up It’ll take one very fit person about an hour to totally uncover the pack)

    The well documented tests conducted during the development of the Avalung show good oxygen sturation at 1 Hour of burial.

    This is the study that a local physician, Colin Grissom, published in the Journal of American Medicine.

    The document referred to in your last post states results of the control subjects who breathed into an air pocket during the test but did not reference the results of the subjects who used an avalung to breath during the tests. In terms of real life stats, we’ll just have to wait and see as only a few documented cases of an Avalung being utilized in an actual burial exist. Of course the Avalung won’t protect you from the rocks and trees you may hit or the cliff you may get pushed off of or the hypothermia you will develop after being buried for even a few minutes. I think the point the authors of the study you referenced are trying to make is that time is of the essence and that the Avalung is not universally used so should not be the basis of rescue protocol development.

    Black Diamond was presented with an idea and took time and money to develop it, I believe, not simply to delude the purchaser into a false sense of security, but because the owners of that company are core backcountry users who saw a possible way to increase survivability. It is just a tool for when you screw up, so if you never screw up you will never need to use it, but I use one for the same reason I never drive without wearing my seat belt. I wonder if BD’s marketing department ever considered calling it the “I-royally-screwed-up-and-am-now-hoping-my-partner-knows-how-to-find-me-lung”?

    This is a great post about decision making.

    Specifically, it’s about the decision making traps that exist as a result of natural human psycology, and stratagies to avoid these traps. Simply having the forecast in hand and applying it is not quite enough, in my opinion, because the forecast only relates to the objective observations of the forecasters and the probability of a hazard existing. Forecasting human emotion is beyond the scope of a forecast center’s responsibility. Not that you can’t engage in a little gallows prediction based on the forecast for a given day. What’s the likely hood of a burial on a bluebird weekend day after a 30″ storm with 20 to 30 mph winds when the region has not had any new snow in 12 days? I would agree that there is a wide range of quality in avalanche education. Further, it may be difficult to implement new concepts into classes based on the type of ongoing accredation required within the various organizations that offer education.

    I think Canada and Europe are years ahead of the US in this area due to widespread standardization and a more formal guide certification process. Switzerland is a mountainous country and national resources are directed towards research, forecasting and education. Meanwhile, in the US our regional forecast centers have to have bake sales to try to bridge budget shortfalls.

    Interestingly, the Munter Reduction Method of determining avalanche hazard (developed by the same Euro mountain guide who invented the belay hitch that bears his namesake) does not have an input category for snow pits dug on a tour but does have an input category for group size, highlighting the role human decision making and social forces have on hazard evaluation.

    I would say, ultimately, that education is only as good as the user’s ability to implement it and it pays to shop around for avalanche classes and look for instructors who have a good resume.

    I must disclose that I missed the AAI article on shovels as my membership lapsed. I think I used the money to buy my new fat skis!

  21. Randonnee says:

    Hey Darrel,

    It remains statistically proven regardless of any study that the greatest chance of survival lies in avoiding beign caught, not in any gadgets. The marketing and gear-whoring in the “community” dilutes the focus of avoiding being caught in an avalanche.

    You sound like you worked for BD, or are a BD groupie? BD is a business whose goal is to get your money, otherwise, BD would be out of business.

    It sounds like you think a lot of the Avalung. Yes, I read those other studies, it works under those conditions. I did buy Avalungs for my wife and I after I read about five burial survivals attributed to the Avalung. Lately my concern is how one would keep it in the mouth in the whirling white maelstrom in an avalanche. I have been buried many times for my avy dog to practice and found it much better whle using the Avalung. As with the ABS, it may be argued that the Avalung may have more value on a wide-open slope instead of tree- pinball avy paths. That latest account from the Rogers Pass avalanche survivor who was spitting out bloody snow balls really questions whether one can retain the Avalung mouthpiece in an avalanche.

    Yes, the lack of self-control and discipline of travel behavior cause even “educated,” “experienced,””experts” to be caught in avalanches. Sort of comparable to training an avy dog- if the dog lacks basic obedience skills it is useless in rescue at the start. A person who does not control their thoughts and emotion, who fails to think logically, cannot necessarily benefit from any training. I was amazed when my former employees did avy control with significant results in the AM one day, got off work and then went ski touring on avy terrain! They returned with stories of being caught in a big slide and narrowly escaping!

    The problem in the US appears to be lack of solid understanding of avalanching by so many who teach others. The Guides that I have hired in the Alps seemed to be very solid in avalanche science and decison making, as is one that I know here in the US. Unfortunately, I have read of a few total screwups by US Guides and have talked personally to two US Guides who had big failures, one fatal to clients. Both of those seem to be weak in understanding avalanching. Some alpine guides came to work for me back in the day to learn avalanching through Avy work- a great idea. That is my prejudice, I mainly trust the knowledge (not necessarily the discipline) of western bomb huckers with a few years of avy work.

    This widespread weak understanding here promotes illogic and mysterious attribution of the cause of an avalanche. I and many individuals with whom I am acquainted are able to forecast an avalanche most of the time, in fact I have had it correct for 2000+ days on snow on avy terrain, and many others for many more days. These individuals know when probability or uncertainty demand conservative behavior. Gadgets are not at all “absolutely” lifesaving, only avalanche avoidance is absolutely safe, and is feasible to attain.

  22. Darrell says:

    Randonee, I think we agree on a few key points: good decision making is essential in avoiding getting caught in an avalanche and avoidance is the goal. We use the gear because it’s available but not because we expect to need it.
    I know a lot of my experience in the avalanche realm has been subsidized through my employment in the ski industry as a “western bomb hucker”. The basic skill set and knowledge base is the same no matter where you ski, but I would have to say that the context creates different responses. If I can test a slope with explosives, that tells me a lot and I can do this in a very quick and controlled manner. In the backcountry, you don’t have the luxury of standing in a safe zone and shooting a gun or lobbing a hand charge. You have to utilize a variety of other techniques, and I have to make a conscious effort to change my mind set when I head out on a BC tour. All the cornice kicking and hasty pits and hand pits I’ve done in bounds, on the job, have definitely helped me to remain out of harm’s way in the backcountry, but I still need to think like a backcountry skier when I’m in the backcountry.
    I think my tally is something like 800 pure backcountry tour days and 300 or so resort avy control days and hundreds of work days where I may not be actually doing ski cuts or “hucking” bombs but am observing wind and snow fall and other stuff.
    For my part I think it’s a little hypocritical to come down so hard on the profit oriented gear manufacturers when I have benefitted so much personally from a very profit oriented industry, namely the ski resort I have worked for. I really feel that it’s up to any skier to make their own decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. Could the gear manufacturers be more pro active about the users’ responsibility to learn how to avoid avalanches? Sure. Is it their primary responsibility to make sure the people who buy their stuff make good decisions? No. All you can do is make info available and many of the teaching organizations out there are just as profit oriented as any gear company.
    I am glad that there is a good market for the gear because that promotes better designs and tools for avy professionals such as myself and serious backcountry skiers such as myself. Do you really want to go back to the days of avalanche cords?
    I wonder if we aren’t collectively beating a dead horse? What are your suggestions for promoting better decision making in the backcountry? Mandatory warning labels on Beacons? A license to posses an Avalung?
    For the record, I am not an employee of Black Diamond but do make my living in the ski industry.
    I hope others are following along in our give and take. I’d like to hear some other view points. On going discussions like this one are probably the best way to get people to think about how to avoid getting caught in an avalanche.

  23. Darrell says:

    I just had an idea for a new gizmo to market to the masses so I can retire and ski backcountry powder all the time. I’ll split the profits with you.

    Avalanche Bacon

    Basically a slab of bacon with a strap that you wear so that an avy dog will triage a scene and alert on you first. Doubles as survival rations if you are forced into a night out. We need to publish a study in one of the journals and then we’ll get Andrew to talk about it on TV and split the profits so we can argue to pass the time on the uptrack.

  24. Randonnee says:

    Good one Darrel. When I was training my dog in ’92 she learned to dig up a volunteer “victim” buried in a crouch with head in an open cavern in the snow. My dog would reach the back and try to pull the victim out by the back of the jacket. To teach my dog we started using beef jerky held in the hand of the buried victim in front of their face. That taught the dog to dig out the head first, then grab the beef jerky! That dog lived to 16 yeas old and every time she did a practice she jumped back in the hole after getting the person out and searched for more beef jerky! So, yeah, the joke on my crew was – “wear a beef jerky necklace!”

    As far as decision-making, it is discussed above. One needs to apply oneself seriously to observing and studying the avalanche problem and not just listen to what some cool dude says in a class, magazine, forum, etc.

    As far as ski industry goes, I had a position on top of a “pyramid” for a while and am glad to have left it before getting too old. Corruption reigns all over the ski business and even sometimes in “the avalanche community” to some degree, as does unrealistic nonsense and self-interest paraded as something else, something good. One of my friends called it a “denial job” where one collects a small paycheck but it has little to do with reality. One of our Marketing Directors taught me the phrase, applied to our General Manager, that “he does not care if you live or die,” which I found to be profound. That phrase applies to most of this marketing and most of the ski business. Have fun but try to stay in touch with reality.

  25. Darrell says:

    Hmmm…I am currently taking a ten day reality break from my ski industry job for just the reasons you describe. My comment on the gear manufacturers’ responsibility to the consumer is based on my belief that I am responsible for my own actions in the backcountry.
    You should patent the Beef Jerky necklace idea for sure! Maybe sew it on the opposite sleeve of jackets that have a Recco chip and call it the Beefo chip…

%d bloggers like this: