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An Ode to Solo Backcountry Travel and a Theory on How to Make It Safer

Going it alone can be good for you. Photo: Joshua Sukoff//Unsplash


The Inertia

I’ve come pretty close to death a number of times.

It’s helped shape the person I am today. In most of those situations, there was something I did to get me in trouble. But with each experience, I’ve gained a better understanding of life’s fragility and how one day it could all be gone.

These situations haven’t always happened while engaging in what others may consider risky behavior.  Many of these situations have been with my feet on solid ground, minding my business, where most anyone else wouldn’t have considered it an instance of life-or-death. I guess what I’m saying is… you never know when your time has come and it very well could be something you never saw coming.

That’s why I find it interesting how these days it’s considered foolish and irresponsible to venture into the mountains alone on the argument that doing so is “dangerous.”

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Before I get lambasted for not knowing what I’m doing, let me preface by saying that this season marks number 30 of exploring uncontrolled terrain in the mountains. At 38 years old, that means I’ve spent a majority of my life chasing wild snow. I know that this level of experience goes far in instilling the confidence to qualify this opinion. There is much to be said for learning things young, and for this I’m thankful.

However, I still believe everyone should spend time alone in the mountains.

I’m not saying this applies to every situation out there.  There are many instances where going with a partner or group is required. But the point of this article is to say that sometimes going alone is the best option, and to never do a solo trip means missing out on one of the reasons why time in the mountains is both necessary and special.

Time to reflect. Photo: Steve Andrews

Mountains are a place to remove distractions. The cold air, the silence, and the scale of the terrain help us to recalibrate our psyche. These days there’s a lot out there to send the neural networks into chaos. Daily stresses of paying the bills aside, we have a global pandemic killing our neighbors and loved ones and a polarized set of opinions on how to respond to it. The daily distractions that keep us glued to an endless scroll on our phones never lets up. But out in the mountains, those distractions fade away. We need time out there more than ever.

In some situations, going with a group doesn’t always guarantee a safer experience, anyhow. Factors based on human-based concepts such as sociology, psychology, and neuroscience can lead to poor decision making when assessing risks. In 2004, Ian McCammon identified six heuristic traps that result in avalanche deaths. These include:

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  • Familiarity: The “Local Zone” may seem the same every day, until it isn’t. People often find themselves in danger in places they would tell you they knew like the back of their hand. This happened to a friend last winter when the winds reverse loaded a slope, causing heavy wind loading on an aspect that normally does not see many avalanche problems.
  • Consistency: Making the same decision about a situation based on previous experience and not evaluating each moment as if it’s brand new (which it is).
  • Acceptance: This occurs when someone is trying to gain the approval of a group of peers, a love interest, or their teacher. It happens often but in life and death situations such as those that come in the mountains, it’s not appropriate.
  • The Expert Halo: People often don’t speak up to challenge a wrong decision if it comes from somebody with presumably more experience. In these situations, the designated expert might have missed something in the decision-making process yet others don’t wish to challenge their authority, and instead stay silent. In other situations, they might have been less apt to take certain risks. This situation ended in tragedy in Canada when a guide led his group into a fatal avalanche after not including the group in the decision-making process.
  • Social Facilitation: This is a fancy way of saying the “Showboat” effect. Essentially, when people see other people (even if they don’t know the other group) they will tend to take higher risks. What was interesting about McCammon’s findings in this category was that the more advanced a person said they were in the study, the higher their risk level went when other people were around.
  • Scarcity: Most common with weekenders who have two days to decide when, where, and how they will score pow.

Source: McCammon, Ian, 2004. “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications”

I’ve devised several stages in the journey of knowledge in the mountains. Each person progresses at different rates. It goes from blissful ignorance (dangerous stupidity), to fearful ignorance (cautious uncertainty), to rising confidence (the ego phase), to fearful confidence (the mastery phase), and finally to the acceptance that Mother Nature has the power to crush you without even a smidgen of notice that you were even there (acceptance phase). Depending on what stage of the journey someone is at, the risk level should reflect it. And when alone, that risk level should stay as low as you can handle.

When I do make solo trips into the mountains, you can be sure that I’m turning the dial down to a one or two on the ol’ 1-10 scale. But that doesn’t stop me from getting out there. I have enough confidence that I can spend a day or two out on my own away from human contact, and if something serious did in fact happen I do have a lifeline in a satellite communicator. I never advocate for counting solely on a communicator because…technology. It’s always important to share a route plan with someone, and even more important to stick to it. Redundancy saves lives if and when one backup plans fail.

We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and that’s okay. But my plea is for you to not let your level for solo ventures in the mountains be at zero. There is too much reward from the time spent out there, just one person against Mother Nature’s magnificent power and beauty.  It’s not something I do all the time as I enjoy being with friends in the mountains. But at least once a year I make a point to spend some time out there alone. And I’m always glad that I did.

Or, as Helen Keller put it: “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends.”

The fear of adverse outcomes can keep one safe when the stakes are high. Indeed, it is one of the greatest survival tools our ancestors gave us during a few million years of evolution. But don’t mistake the fear for more than it is. Adjust and scale back your risk exposure to then find a way to make it work. In my view, to avoid doing anything altogether is the greatest tragedy in life.


Editor’s Note: Learn to make smart, safe decisions on your quest for untracked powder in the Essential Guide to Backcountry Basics and Avalanche Awareness with splitboard aficionado Nick Russell and avalanche instructor Sam Thackeray. The class is currently discounted for the Holiday season. 

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