January 11, 2013

The Echo Test

The Echo Test

By now you've likely seen this video of an avalanche that trapped one skier on Echo Peak in the Tahoe Sierra on December 30, 2012. This is exactly the kind of video that tends to polarize opinions—the party members display a startling lack of familiarity with their avalanche gear (gear in general seems to prove endlessly problematic), and almost no knowledge of avalanche rescue protocols.

In short, if while watching this you found yourself shouting, "Take a Level One class!" at your screen, you're not alone. I had the same initial reaction myself. But, as I continued watching the video, and the primary rescuer continued to battle his gloves, the cold, wet hands, and a handle-less shovel blade, and as those awful seconds and minutes continued to drag on, one thought began to dominate all others in my mind: this is what real life looks like.

Kudos to all the involved skiers for making this public. The video will no doubt become a regular part of avalanche education classes and discussions across the country. But let's not get the lesson wrong! This is not a Keystone Cops routine. It's a story about all of us tiny little humans, and the raw, unconstrained, merciless chaos we can and should expect in the event that we ever find ourselves confronting not a training exercise but rather The Real Thing.

All of us have fantasies of how we'd react in the event of an emergency. I don't know about you, but in mine, my reactions to an avalanche, or a masked gunman in a mall, or a child running into a busy street, my reactions are pretty damn heroic. I save the day. The problem is, that's just fantasy. Real life is much, much messier.

That's not an argument against preparing, or training, or acquiring expertise. It is rather a reminder that, when the bomb drops, we are all pretty much going to find ourselves in the very same situation you see in the Echo Peak video: terrified, confused, trying to control what is not only uncontrollable, but what was only moments ago utterly beyond our ability to imagine.

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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