Grit and glory
Tough lessons on backcountry survival
Playing in backcountry powder often feels like connecting to the primal rhythm of the wilderness. At its greatest, it can even become an emotional and spiritual practice, according to avalanche survivor Ken Wylie, who is a writer, speaker, guide and human factor risk management specialist.
“It has the potential of shifting us and helping us become much more than we ever dreamed of being,” he said.
Yet sometimes the tempo changes and a rumble emits like a deep growl. While the mountain is often benevolent, sometimes she screams. Sometimes, there is pain.
“People will often think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a transceiver, probe and shovel so we’re good.’ But the truth of it is if you’re fully buried you only have a 50/50 chance statistically. So, how many of us would load a six shooter with three bullets and spin the chamber? But that’s how we are behaving out there – like it is okay to be buried. No, it’s not okay to be buried,” he said.
Wylie was functioning as an assistant guide in 2003 and was buried for 45 minutes in an avalanche in British Columbia. Nearly six feet below the surface, by all estimations he should not be alive – there was less than a 5% chance. Seven people died in the incident, and he says he was directly responsible for three of those deaths.
“The worst nightmare is being dug out and recognizing that you are responsible for other peoples’ loss of life,” he said. “If we’re not paying attention, generally what happens is the volume gets turned up. That was my journey. I wasn’t learning. I had lots of chances to learn personal lessons from my life of adventure, but I wasn’t paying attention, so the volume got turned up – real loud.”
It took a long while for him to put skis to powder again. On his first day back out he responded to another seven-fatality event involving high school students.
The double trauma resulted in an eight-year stupor and deteriorating health.
“I realized I really needed to drill down into this. It was a long and arduous process – but a worthy one,” he said.
What has resulted from his journey is not only a memoir of the avalanche titled, “Buried” but also a deep dive into the psychology behind adventure – and the benefits and errors when embracing it.
“The potential is that it’s very much like a martial art where we engage wholeheartedly and we look for mentors, gurus. We look for people that will help us through the process – because the game is real,” he said. “Because it’s real, it’s valuable.”
It does seem strangely logical that the very experiences that can elevate can also kill. So much is manufactured, so little real, that the quest for connection and understanding in an increasingly complex society is pushing people further.
Still, the game shifted some years ago to a sort of mentality for consuming events without processing them when it should be a game about “what we are tuning into and who we are allowing ourselves to become.”
“Part of our culture is using adventure as escape, but it’s not. It is not escape… everything that we might be running from is right there in front of us in the decision-making process,” Wylie said.
There are myriad reasons why so many people are lost to the blinding, choking panic from the quake and surge of snow.
“There’s this thing that seems to happen that we start to think that we know what we’re doing. I guess a way to think of it is that there’s infinite possibilities with snow and the potential of what can happen with snow far outpaces our ability to gather experience,” he said.
The analysis of data and resulting investigations of the snowpack and incidents are essential yet what is often lost is the human element. The woman who suffocated, the guy who hit the trees all have people who love them, family and friends who are left with questions, the feeling of unfairness, crippling guilt, and the incredible weight of loss. It takes therapy and the balm of time to even begin to come to terms with that kind of trauma.
“Tell everyone. This season is not the time to be out there. Especially if anyone is on the fence about it – don’t go,” said Lana Kitto, who lost her husband Craig to injuries sustained from the Valentine’s Day avalanche at Beehive Basin.
Wylie believes that when people have near-misses or a tragic outcome there is an obligation to the community to discuss the human story – a responsibility to share lessons learned.
As Gallatin County Sheriff ’s Office Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteer and Big Sky resident Andy Dreisbach pointed out the culture seems to be shifting to one of collaboration and conversation.
There are typical mistakes that people make when they become comfortable in their knowledge: “We are just going to do this low angle stuff so we don’t need all the gear; I was just walking my dogs and didn’t think I would need anybody else; I just skied this same slope a couple of days ago.”
Courage, he explained, is the ability to walk away even after beginning an ascent at 3:30 a.m. and investing hours of grueling effort – if the conditions are not right.
“It’s the true school of hard knocks, the more you do it the more you learn and the more you do it the more times you are rolling those dice. It’s kind of a fine line,” he said.
People will sometimes say they never would have taken that route.
“Don’t say that unless you’re in their shoes. Don’t play Tuesday morning quarterback,” he said.
Wylie noted that people are quick to distance themselves from the notion that they could ever make a fatal judgement call.
“It seems inconceivable because we are looking at the end point decision. But the end point decision is not how we get there. We get there by a bunch of little seemingly inconsequential decisions that put us at that end point...,” he said.
Dreisbach confirmed this: he has dug up avalanche victims whose transceivers were shut off. He has recovered people with traumatic head injuries whose helmets were strapped to their packs. Anyone familiar with the backcountry should be able to own that noone is immune to mistakes.
As both Wylie and Dreisbach pointed out: There are no experts.
With all the science and technology and the improvements to gear, the backcountry remains a frontier; largely unconquerable – which serves as both the appeal and the danger.
After the second week of February equaled the highest number of backcountry fatalities since 1910, heading out and skinning up almost seemed like crossing the Rubicon. Benign mountainsides suddenly became deadly. The old familiar ascent to the historically stable line was then wrought with the hazard of feet of unstable snow atop a slick hoar layer.
And yet, people go.
Backcountry enthusiasts form a legion of daring athletes – and it is very much a community.
After their own near-misses and tragedies, some members of that community – like Wylie – are urging a reckoning; a shift in mentality.
Fritz Sperry writes backcountry guidebooks and co-founded the Facebook group “The Avalanche Room”. The group is a sort of global consortium of backcountry enthusiasts who swap information and are determined to increase education and safety. Sperry has been chasing that backcountry bliss for 35 years and in his mind it is akin to addiction, but he tries to be pragmatic. He thinks about it all the time: chasing his passion for powder while trying not to die.
Some theorized early on that limited skier numbers allowed at resorts due to the pandemic would cause a surge of inexperienced people to the backcountry – and with dire consequences. So far tragedy is striking the experienced; leaders in the outdoor world; people who have received endless training; skinned up countless trails, and found the perfect powder to play in over and over again. It just takes that one time, that one little seemingly insignificant decision...
Practical backcountry tips
Dreisbach, who is on the short haul team for SAR has responded to a number of incidents within a couple hundred mile radius. There are some basic practices: Never go alone, go one at a time, dig your pits, listen to your avalanche forecast. He further noted “the continual human error factor is always the demise.”
“People tend to underestimate the slope degree. I wish people would consider looking at a slope and maybe try overestimating,” SAR Commander Capt. Scott Secor said, noting he believes that step alone can probably help save lives.
Alex Marienthal, with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said people need to practice using their rescue gear a few times a year, particularly at the beginning of the season “no matter the experience level. Practicing keeps you calm. It also helps you keep track of any damage to your gear.”
Around a third of avalanches are triggered on the ascent, when some skiers and split boarders have their helmets fastened to their packs. Wear the helmet.
While airbags can sometimes be helpful, they can also provide a false sense of security and make people more prone to risk, Marienthal, Sperry and Wylie pointed out.
“Those things are last ditch efforts. It means that we have really screwed up as a decision maker if we need to use our transceiver, probe and shovel or airbag,” Wylie said.
Satellite communication can come in handy when cell service is not available, Marienthal said. It is also important to carry the gear to survive staying the night and care for anyone who might be injured.
A different kind of education
“The curriculum of [avalanche] education is finite. It’s time-limited and the lessons mountains deliver on the regular – that’s not… People don’t learn enough from their avy classes. They need to learn in the avy classes and then harden those lessons with experience,” Sperry said.
Avalanche courses were not a thing when he first started. It was renegade– old school: trial and error, learn from mistakes. “And if you didn’t learn from your mistakes and what the mountain was telling you, you had close calls – at best,” he said.
There is a difference between classroom knowledge and real world application – the kind of difference that exists between book worms and people with street smarts. A person can know charts and data, but it is applying that knowledge that becomes paramount.
He calls the mentality of some people on the mountain the “Safety paradox – where you inject a delusion of the absence of harm in an environment that is completely uncertain, where you are in a high-risk environment of likelihood and consequence – and they can’t equal zero in the equation of risk. The only way you can get to a certainty of safety is the avoidance of risk.”
Wylie said that information gathering is often regarded as an intellectual process: “But it is also emotional and spiritual. There’s another way of gathering information that has nothing to do with science – I think to divorce ourselves from that is a big mistake.”
He argues that living an event does not equal experience. Reflecting on events – metabolizing them, as he puts it, that is what allows for the expansion of knowledge, safety and understanding.
“We’re like a stone skipping along a pond and we are going so high speed we are skipping from one event to the next and never sink down into, ‘Why did I make that decision? Why did this happen? What was I missing today?’ So, we make this huge assumption that just because we are out there we are getting experience and that is not true,” he said. “I think it’s really important for people to take time to reflect. We think about the kind of technical lessons but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the human lessons: ‘How am I showing up? What kind of feedback did my friends give me that I need to pay attention to?’ We are skipping all of that – not only with the adventure community but globally, we are missing something. I think human development is the answer.”
The extreme mountain film industry breeds a culture that encourages athletes to push the envelope, he said.
“I think that every accident that happens out there – we all play a role in creating a culture that glorifies that. About the movement skills, about the high risk… and there’s a huge opportunity to shift the game into ‘this is the arena where we actually learn to become adults and this is the arena where we kind of go through a process where we have a rite of passage.’ The conversation seems to be shifting. The new generation is curious about how we deepen this practice.”
Wylie has started teaching fiveweek courses on the mentality of backcountry adventure.
“One of the things that I teach is this series of choices: the choice between acceptance or denial and there is a whole bunch related to that: Do we accept or deny the avalanche forecast? Do we accept or deny that what we want to ski is out of condition? Do we accept or deny our partner and their risk tolerance? And it goes down the chain. Do we have the courage to turn back? Do we have the courage to speak up? Do we have the courage to look at the snowpack and what it is telling us? There’s a whole series of those that build on each other. They are really simple concepts that look at the avalanche problem in a really different way.”
He said people need to shift their intention. It needs to be about developing as a person. “If we start there, we are going to significantly drop our number of fatalities each season.”
The courage to communicate
“We need to ask ourselves the question: ‘I had this near miss and survived. Am I willing to watch somebody else make the same mistakes?’ And I’m not. I’m not willing to watch other people make the same mistakes I did. I at least want to give them the opportunity to choose,” Wylie said.