Talking with Utah Avalanche Center director Bruce Tremper about fostering avalanche victims and their voices.
When an avalanche occurs and a skier or snowboarder is caught, buried, or even killed, there’s often this phenomenon afterward in which a large-scale group tends to shame and criticize the victims or survivors of the slide. It happens in online forums, social media, and in person, and the consensus amongst those not involved in the avalanche is usually something like this: “How could they have been so stupid to let that happen?” As a result of that reaction, it actually hinders society’s ability to look openly at the underlying forces that led to the accident in the first place, and it can discourage those involved in the avalanche from speaking up and sharing their side of the story.
At the Utah Avalanche Center, the staff is working hard to shift that culture, to find a way to foster avalanche victims and their voices to help other people avoid the same situation. A recent slide in Utah’s Grizzly Gulch, in which pro skier Amie Engerbretson was buried but unharmed, has proven to be perfect example of this scenario. Amie shared her story and the mistakes her group made soon after the slide. Sportgevity spoke with Bruce Tremper, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center since 1986 and the author of the book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, about the Grizzly Gulch incident and how to change our current culture of shaming.
Sportgevity: What underlying factors did you see that may have played a role in the recent Grizzly Gulch avalanche?
Bruce Tremper: Grizzly Gulch is the epitome of an “attractive nuisance,” to use a legal term. In other words, it’s a spectacularly dangerous terrain trap—a narrow gully where even small avalanches can bury you very deeply—and it’s right next to a popular parking lot with houses built on the upper edges of the gully. So it seems far less dangerous than it is. It’s been the site of many close calls through the years and I’m surprised no one has died there yet. It’s hard for people to get their heads wrapped around the fact that everything is extremely safe inside the Alta boundaries, yet, when you step across that magic line into the backcountry, you instantly step back to the Stone Age where there are lions, tigers and bears—and avalanches. It’s like being at Disneyland and without knowing it, you wander across the street into a very rough neighborhood.
Amy Engerbretson, the victim of the Grizzly Gulch incident, wrote a column online called “Blind Spot,” in which she talked about the key pieces of information she missed when assessing the risk that day. What do you think is the most powerful thing that creates blind spots for skiers and snowboarders today with regard to avalanche risk assessment?
It’s so easy to be biased by one of dozens of human factors, as they have been called. The tricky thing about them is that they affect everyone, even avalanche professionals and I certainly fight a battle with them on a daily basis. On that day, there was euphoria of great powder and sunshine, familiarity, peer pressure, ineffective communication, confirmation bias, optimistic bias, social facilitation and many others. They are so powerful that the entire advertising industry is built around them. Just knowing about them helps but certainly does not prevent them from adversely affecting our decisions. In my book, Avalanche Essentials, I discuss four ways to combat them: using checklists, a Ulysses contract (a pre-agreement of forbidden terrain for the day), pre-mortem (what would tomorrow’s newspaper headlines say?), and dissenting opinion (always offer a dissenting opinion so the group can consider why they might be wrong).
Athletes in today’s action sports industries have increasingly taken on the role of entertainers. Do you think this overall relationship between the athlete and the audience could be an avalanche risk factor as well?
There was a great article in Wired Magazine recently that the use of social media has clearly caused a large increase in gang violence in Chicago’s South Side. Gang bangers regularly post their exploits on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube and it often causes huge spikes of related violence within hours and days of a prominent post. They regularly pose with their guns to show off. Does any of this sound familiar? When the GoPro came along, we noticed a big uptick in the rad lines that people would hit right after storms when it’s most dangerous.
During a photo shoot situation like that during the Grizzly Gulch incident—with a photographer, a pro skier, an expectation to deliver images—what parts of the system need to be involved in avalanche assessment?
Although my wife does not seem to appreciate it, when I’m a passenger in a car, I feel like I have the right and the responsibility to tell the driver when I think they are endangering my life. Everyone is responsible for the decisions made by the group, yet it’s difficult to speak up when you are not the “leader.” There’s the rub. Avalanche professionals handle this by having morning meetings and evening debriefings to formally discuss decisions and create run lists or make a list of open and closed terrain. But it’s very difficult to do this in our group of informal peers. I think this is the most difficult problem of all in preventing avalanche accidents.
When an avalanche incident makes it into the news, we sometimes see support of the victims, but often we see harsh criticism of those involved. What effects does this harsh criticism have? Does it have any effects on your ability at the Utah Avalanche Center to crowd source necessary data?
At the Utah Avalanche Center, we have a strict policy to not criticize the decisions of people who tell us about their incidents. We don’t care who they are and what decisions led them to it. We just want to know about the avalanche activity and snowpack conditions because that can help to save other lives. We feel that it’s extremely counterproductive to be a Monday morning quarterback. More importantly, almost all avalanche pros have several stories about their own near misses and accidents. We know that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When you deal with mediums like snow and weather, where there is so much uncertainty, our risk reduction measures can only take us so far. I’m always reminded of my favorite cartoon where one rat is standing above a maze with a bird’s eye view watching another rat negotiate the maze and he’s pointing his finger and shouting, “You idiot!”
How did your office deal with those involved in the recent Grizzly Gulch avalanche, particularly the main victim, Amie Engerbretson?
We interviewed Amie and the rescuers to learn what happened. It’s our strict policy to never publish names of people involved in incidents. Since the video went viral, I fielded many dozens of calls from media all over the world who demanded that I give the name and contact information of the victim and the rescuers. Of course, I always turn them down. We will, however, pass along the media requests to the people involved in the incident and leave it up to them whether they want to talk to media or not. When we interview the people involved, we never pass judgment and we try to make them feel comfortable. Each one of us has been in their shoes before and we know how it feels.
Are there any other lessons you hope will come from the Grizzly Gulch incident?
It has already been a great learning experience for everyone. We are doing video interviews with the rescuers and the party members and we will put together a short video on our website about the incident and tell the story without laying blame in any way. It’s a great story because there was a happy ending with all the factors present in almost all avalanche incidents.