An interview with mountain guide Martin Volken about smart decision-making in the backcountry.
A few years ago, Martin Volken, a Swiss-trained mountain guide and sponsored athlete, was in Japan on a ski trip with his sponsor, K2. Their group was in the backcountry filming and due to a series of poor decisions, they released an avalanche. Thankfully, nobody was caught or hurt, but afterward, Volken was struck by the severity of the situation. “A guy had a big camera in my face and I ended up doing some things that were against my own better judgment,” Volken says. “Afterward, I thought, ‘How could I have let that happen?’”
Keep in mind that Volken is a UIAGM-certified mountain guide who owns Washington’s Pro Guiding Service, which guides backcountry ski and climbing trips all over the Cascade Range and internationally. He’s been a guide for nearly 20 years and even he’s capable of making dumb decisions. We spoke to him from a hotel in Austria between guided trips about how to stay smart in the backcountry and why turning around should be the cool thing to do.
As you go through the guiding schools, the beginning part is all about, ‘I’ve got to climb this hard and be this fit.’ But over time, that becomes base line stuff. It’s the decision-making and hopefully not getting derailed in your decision-making that becomes your central focus and your never-ending challenge.
In the beginning it seems like most everybody goes to the mountains for all the right reasons. We try to get away from the bustling crowds and trade our civilized world for a simpler reality. But then sneakily our motivation changes to conquering a peak and establishing a line. We have this inherent drive to control things, make a mark for ourselves and maybe even derive some form of material benefit from what we do in the mountains.
We get to post that we were the first to do something and it lets us profile ourselves on the web. Suddenly egos get involved and fame is to be had. Our safety decisions should be based on the rhythm of the landscape and the people we are with. Everything else will decrease our safety in the mountains.
Skiing conservatively or God forbid, turning around—it’s not a very sexy sell. And that’s something that’s certainly a fact of the industry. If you look at the ski movies or the pictures in the magazines, it’s about getting it done and going big.
In reality, the long term recipe for survival in the mountains is that you head into that terrain with a neutral stance, meaning at any given moment you should be perfectly happy to turn around or come up with an alternative plan to ski more conservatively.
Education is certainly helpful. But even with education, everyone has an emotional driver, something that comes in sideways and ends up swaying you from what might have been your good judgment.
Here’s a really cool thing that I learned in my Swiss guides course. Imagine a chart. Across the top, you have three categories. One column is snowpack/weather. The next is terrain. And the third is the human factor. On the left side, you have regional evaluation (the tour planning you do before you leave the house), local evaluation (what you see when you’re looking around, cruising through the terrain), and zonal evaluation (that particular terrain). Go through the categories across the top—snowpack/weather, terrain, and human factor in each zone. You’re always supposed to get at least two green lights before you proceed.
How do you judge the human factor? That’s the motivation of the group, the group’s skill, fitness and education level, the equipment. Depending on what the make up of the group is, it can turn that category red.
One emotional driver is you saying, ‘I’m so familiar with this terrain and I’ve skied it so many times that I should be able to manage this hazard.’ That’s where discipline comes in.
I think the trick of all of this stuff is to remain level headed in these particular situations. Once you’re out there with certain people and certain conditions, it’s just so easy to get derailed.
If you are a mountain professional or avid skier or mountaineer you ought to ask yourself this question on a very regular basis: Are you going to the mountains for all the right reasons?
If we can achieve and retain a simple state of just being in the mountains, I believe that we will make safer decisions, because our mind will be operating more clearly.