Writer/Photographer/Stoke Ambassador

The Inertia

The other day a young man was caught in a slide in the Whistler Backcountry, capturing the POV footage to prove it. He was partially buried to his waist, likely having avoided a full burial due to successfully deploying an airbag.

As I get older I avoid playing the critic role and look to the facts. I don’t know Tom Oye and I wasn’t there with the group so I can’t hypothesize on their train of thought before the run. But in the initial seconds of the video you can see evidence of a solid wind slab over a convex feature heading into a clear avalanche path. Add in the fact that there was heavy snowfall only a few days before and you have prime conditions for an avalanche.

A nearby party posted a report on Avalanche Canada with results from a test pit they dug:
“We observed a 35cm, one-finger windslab on top of fist. CTE 1; CTE 2 (SP) down 35cm on density change (faceting DF’s).”

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This may sound technical, and that’s because it is. You probably wouldn’t know what he was saying unless you took a professional avalanche course or were a voracious self-taught student of snow science. As someone who has taken a professional course and spent more than 15 years studying weather patterns and the snowpack, the above statement waves several red flags. Add in the observation that followed:
“Also observed 3 size 1.5-2 Na on South aspects in steep start zones. All within the past 24-36 hours from the ongoing reverse loading.”

These two statements should be enough information to realize this would be a day to focus on low angle terrain, away from wind loaded slopes and features such as a convex roll.

I only emphasize this analysis to show that had the party in this video known even the most rudimentary snow science the rider would have likely not been in a situation where he played Russian roulette with nature.

While the outcome was in his favor this time, it very well could have gone the wrong way. Even a shallow burial can be disastrous if you wind up face down. What if he separated his shoulder and couldn’t turn himself over? What if he hit one of the many trees that were close to the runout path? Just because the airbag deployed did not mean survival was guaranteed.

An Advertisement for Airbags?

This video went viral overnight with over 3.5 million views and coverage on major TV stations. I have no doubts that airbags around the world flew off the shelves. While this is undoubtedly a safe measure, those who buy an airbag before taking an avalanche course are wasting their money, and perhaps risking their life.

I’ve had many situations where I backed off of a slope because it simply didn’t feel right. Although I’ve spent a good amount of time and money educating myself, this is a prime example of instinct over knowledge. The more time you spend in the backcountry the more your intuition will alert you with a simple case of the heeby-jeebies.

Unfortunately, no POV videos of me making a good call and turning around have gone viral, and I don’t expect them to. I get it, certain things make for good video, disasters being one of them. There is as much to learn from those times where I backed off as the video in question, but you won’t see any of my rationalizations making the morning talk show rounds.

Testing testing 1-2-3 #avalanchepack #work

A photo posted by Oliver (@olie11) on

The point is that the media and ski/snowboard industry focuses far too much energy on responding to avalanches and not enough on avoiding the danger altogether. I should rephrase: you can never avoid all the risks but you can substantially reduce them. It’s the classic proactive vs. reactive approach. An airbag, avalung, and any other survival tools are great, but only as a last resort. Seeing videos like this will hopefully encourage people to become more educated, but the pessimist in me fears the opposite.

As backcountry recreation gains in popularity, it also becomes more consumerized. People want to enjoy the big mountain lines and untouched powder they see in the movies, and feel that the right gear is the answer. But there is no shortcut to safety, awareness, and instinct. That only comes from paying your dues out in the field, seeking out mentors, taking courses, and practicing what you learn.

The good news is that there are plenty of educators and guides out there willing to show you the ropes (and probes). The snow science community is tight-knit and shares information quite openly, knowing the fact that everybody wins through better information. Realize that avalanche education is a lifelong pursuit that never ends. There is always something new to learn and always someone to pass that knowledge to. The more you get involved, the more you will discover like-minded people dedicated to having an amazing time in the backcountry. These people will help you come home safely at the end of the day to do it all over again tomorrow.



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