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Avalanche

A close friend recounted a horrible event to me recently.

He once was alpine touring with a group of five. The longest skiing connection amongst the group was 30 years and the shortest was 2.

Everyone was an experienced skier. Each knew how to dig a snow pit and analyze the conditions. All knew how to use an avalanche beacon. All knew their inherent strengths and weaknesses on the snow, including their varying tolerances for risk.

High Risk of Avalanche

This particular day, the avalanche risk was high. After careful deliberation, the group made a decision to ski an area with tight trees and low angle skiing.

The first two runs were great. The snow was soft, the powder ample, and the smiles big.

The group naturally divided into pairs as they climbed a third time. With growing concern, four watched as a pair (I’ll call them Bill and Bob) climbed up a line they had previously agreed should be off limits. The four deliberated whether they should follow but decided it was safer to stay their course. They watched with foreboding as Bill and Bob skied down a steep chute. Luckily, nothing happened. The four sighed in collective relief.

Everyone gathered at the bottom to discuss their next ascent. Bill and Bob decided to ski up one side of the valley while the other four skied up the other. Again, the foursome questioned to themselves the wisdom of Bill and Bob choosing the line they wanted to ski, but felt they were adults making their own decisions.

They watched Bill and Bob dig a snow pit and felt a bit more at ease. They knew Bill and Bob wouldn’t ski a line that was really unsafe, even though both tolerated more risk than the others.

The Avalanche

The four ascended their side of the valley. When they reached the top, they looked over to where Bill and Bob should have been. Only Bob could be seen standing on the side of a fresh avalanche. Searching. Heart pounding, my friend (I’ll call him Phil) called to Bob, “Are you ok?” Bob indicated he was fine. Phil yelled again, “Where’s Bill? Do you need help?” Bob told the group he could hear Bill, had found him, and would be fine on his own.

Visibly relieved, Phil and the other three took off their skins and talked about the safest line to take. Phil was about to ski down when he looked over at Bob. There was still no sign of Bill. Bob had climbed higher up the avalanche searching with his avalanche beacon.

The four quickly switched into rescue mode and skied across the valley. One left to their camp to call search and rescue. The others reached the avalanche 20 minutes later and began to search. Within minutes they found Bill at the bottom of the avalanche buried and unconscious. Repeated attempts failed to revive him. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Risk Tolerance

A tragic story like this makes me think about a few things.  First, I think about risk tolerance. Each of us possesses varying degrees of it. Some choose the safe road while others choose the excitement of risk.

This group had all skied in bad conditions before. They had successfully skied when the risk was high by choosing conservative lines. Bill and Bob had successfully skied a steep shoot earlier in the day despite the risk of a slide being high there. Their ill fated run was away from the larger, more risk adverse group, but was on a lower angled slope.  Bill and Bob had dug a snow pit and seemed satisfied. Was it a riskier decision?

Stress

The story also gets me thinking about stress.  In a high stress situation like an avalanche, we get into a “fight or flight” mode called diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). Our heart pounds faster, our heart rate goes up, and our blood shoots into our muscles where it’s needed most and out of our heads. Our ability to think clearly can be severely compromised.

I feel for Bob. He later said that he had a strong conviction that Bill was stuck in a tree well above him in the avalanche. Was that DPA rearing its ugly head, or was it a distinct possibility?

Accountability

Did the larger group have a responsibility to force the other two to stay with them, or was it up to each person to be accountable for the choices he made? Should they have gone to help as soon as they got their skins off, or should they have taken Bob’s word that he and Bill were okay?

At this point, none of the group members have skied together again. Bob has not ventured into the backcountry and will not talk about the incident.

Sometimes, despite everyone’s best intentions, someone dies in an avalanche. It’s a real tragedy. If I worked with any of the group members, I would help him make meaning of the event in order to move forward successfully. We might talk about stress, risk, and accountability. We might talk about grief, anger, guilt, and any other feelings he was experiencing. Our conversations would evolve depending on what would help him move forward.

Have you experienced a loss or trauma similar to this? I work with people who have experienced trauma of varying degrees. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event and want to make things better, let’s talk.

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