Killing People With Avalanches

I am killing people with Avalanches.  Am I telling them to ski avalanche prone slopes during a storm?  Am I failing to dig them out once they're buried or telling them to choose terrain where the consequence is death? No.  But I might as well be.  I might as well be killing people with avalanches because I am part of a culture that is killing people with avalanches.  I am part of a generation that worships the philosophy "Live Fast, Die Young".  And this culture is killing people every year.  Is it only a matter of time before I'm next?

Our culture is a landscape of high risk activities.  We turn on the TV and see men and women using wing suits to fly a hundred miles an hour within inches of rock walls. We login to Facebook and see skiers hurtling themselves down super steep spine covered mountains at 60 miles an hour with the occasional backflip thrown in.  

Each piece of media on its own has little effect on our psyche other than creating a sense of intrigue.  But cumulatively, as we watch them over and over, these powerful visuals undoubtedly influence our thinking and how we conceptualize our sports. They make us believe that risky behavior is normal and that the only way to participate in our sport is to push the limits. To go one step further, you’ll be a “Hero” if you go for it. And not only will you be your own hero, you’ll join a whole army of heroes that is pushing the limits across the globe. So why wouldn’t we stuff our doubts in our pockets, swallow our fears and think,   ‘F - it…I’m dropping!’ 

Whether we like to admit it or not, this happens to all of us because we are all influenced by the culture that surrounds us. We stand on top of that steep powdery slope, and despite the voice of reason in our heads that says ‘this thing could slide’, culture swoops in and many times makes the decision for us. Sometimes it’ll even go so far as to make us believe the statement "if I die, at least it was doing something that I love".  

But today is the day I fight back against that force. Today is the day I finally say I've had enough. I'm 29 years old and for the first time in my life I have realized that I don't want to die a horrible early death.  I don't want my friends to suffocate on a mouthful of snow, or have every bone in their body broken as they rag doll down a cliff face.  I don't want to go the way of my childhood heroes who have passed away while searching for the ultimate physical limits. I want to blaze my own path and have the power to determine my destiny.  I want to pioneer a new direction. I want to live slow and die old.

I started today by sending the following e-mail to 7 friends who are coming on a backcountry trip with me to Iceland in April.  I encourage everyone in my generation to do the same.  Have this conversation with your friends.  Talk about the risks you are really taking.  Help to build a culture that puts safety and longevity before anything else.  Only then will we develop a backcountry culture where zero deaths per year is the norm.

 

EMAIL

Subject: Preparing for Iceland: Avalanches and Mindsets

Hey Everyone,

 

In a little more than 3 months we'll all be on one of the most epic trips ever, backcountry skiing and split-boarding in Iceland!  I'm super excited.  We've been talking about this since 2012 and it's finally going to be a reality.

 

I'm sending out this e-mail to start a conversation about avalanches and I'd like everyone to participate.  The more I read about people who die in slides, the more it becomes apparent that it's group think, group culture and group mentality more than anything else that's causing these deaths.  Individuals who would otherwise make very good decisions seem to make very poor ones once they're placed in a large group.  We're a group of 9 including the guide, which is VERY big and can create some very dangerous dynamics if we're not mindful from the outset.

 

So here's what I'm proposing: We create a group culture with a primary focus that is NOT about getting rad and getting after it.  We create a group culture that values the safety of every member above anything else.  That means making decisions with the goal that we will NEVER set off an avalanche.  Not one.  Even if that means turning around and skiing back down the skin track.  A group where we truly value everyone's voice, no matter how much or how little experience they have.  And a group where anyone can have veto power and feel comfortable using it.  Creating a culture like this is difficult since most of us (myself included) are risk takers by nature.  We're also part of a generation and culture that worships risk takers and memorializes them when they die.  We also don't know each other and there will be a ton of group dynamics playing out once we arrive.  Finally, there is a guide involved, which creates another difficult group dynamic in terms of staying safe since the guide is the expert and often deferred to for risky decisions.  I asked E if the company would put us in touch with our guide to be a part of this conversation since that will be a major influencer once we are out there.  E is that possible?

 

That being said I think this group culture can be built over the next few months with some communication via e-mail and a plan for arrival.  So here's what I'm proposing:

 

1. We all answer a series of intro questions that I'll pose in this e-mail and keep the convo going as we see fit.

2. We use this e-mail chain to share anything we learn or read about avalanches throughout the season.

3. When we arrive at the hut on Monday April __, we use the afternoon to discuss group dynamics and decision making, avalanche safety, learn about the snowpack from the guide, and practice beacon searches and group shoveling/rescue techniques.

 

So here are the questions I'd like to answer and then hear from all of you.  If you have questions you want everyone to answer please add them here.

 

1. What do you think of this plan?  Anything you would like to add or take away?

Please speak freely.  If you feel it is overly cautious do not hesitate to say so.

 

2. What is your level of experience traveling in backcountry and avalanche terrain?

I am an absolute beginner when it comes to traveling in the backcountry.  I have taken an AIARE 1 course and will take an AIARE 2 course next month.  Total number of days in avalanche terrain is around 5.  I was caught in a slide in South America 2 years ago and broke my leg.  I'm lucky to be alive and understand first hand what being caught in a slide is like.

 

3. What are your concerns?

I am concerned with the size of the group.  9 is a lot of people to make a good decision.  I'm concerned about the dynamics with a guide.  I'm also concerned about GoPro fever :)  Will I get caught up in trying to get a sweet shot and will it cloud my judgement?

 

4. What's your name?  Where are you from?  What do you do for fun?  Work?  etc.

Most of the trip is going to be f-ing fun as hell.  So let's get to know each other.  I'm Grant Alexander.  I went to grad school with B, R and E.  Originally from New York but have traveled all over the world.  Skiing is my life in the winter and sometimes in the summer.  And oh yeah I teach high school math in Inner City Boston and have some ridiculous stories...

 

That's all I've got for now.  Looking forward to hearing from everyone!

 

All the best,

Grant Alexander

 

 - Grant Alexander is a Math for America fellow and Mathematics teacher in inner city Boston.  He teaches 180 days a year and skis 100 days a year.  He studied Management Science at Stanford University with a focus on how organizational culture and group process effect organizational outcomes.  After breaking his leg in an avalanche in Chile, he began developing methods for integrating group dynamics into the avalanche terrain decision making process.  You can read his blog at www.soleofskiing.com

Comments

I am going to be blunt-

Bad
1. You don't know all of these people 2. You have 5 total days in Avalanche prone terrain 3. You broke your leg in South America, which obviously spooked you. 4. You even consider having GoPros? Is this trip to say you did it and post that gopro footage on Facebook?

Good

1. You are coming to a realization that this may not be the greatest idea. 2. You are reconsidering going some where else. 3. You just realized you need to cancel this trip and go to Alaska, where the best, safest, steepest skiing in the world awaits you.

Bottom line- You having to write this email and think about these things is a sign that this trip is not going to be ideal. It does sound amazing though, and I am jealous. Just listen to your guide, he will know what to do.

Agree with your thoughts!

Good honest discussion points and well worth considering for anybody, regardless of the number of days you've spent in avalanche terrain. An experienced guide will take charge and help your group experience the conditions safely and understand the particular hazards to address. It sounds like the trip will be a blast!

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