May 2, 2011
The Paradigm of the Extreme
There in some understandable confusion over how, if the hazard level was rated low throughout the Eastern Sierra, two people could have been killed by an avalanche this past week on Split Mountain. Over at ESAC, Sue Burak elaborates a bit on the subject in her May 1st advisory, writing:
"Avalanche advisories do not apply in extreme terrain for obvious reasons."
Though it is perhaps a remarkable statement, I find myself tending to agree. The Split avalanche was the subject of much discussion between me and my friends, particularly as we were flirting with high angle, high altitude terrain in the Whitney region this past weekend. In my opinion, the entire beacon-shovel-probe paradigm falls apart when you enter extreme terrain, in part because avalanches in fall-you-die terrain aren't likely to kill you by burying you.
In extreme terrain, avalanches become deadly merely via their potential to take you off your feet. Size becomes almost irrelevant. In the worst-case scenarios, localized instabilities act in concert with exposure to create hidden tightly-coupled systems—invisible mouse traps waiting to be sprung. Triggered at just the wrong moment, even the tiniest slab can be all it takes to knock you loose and send you to your doom.
In such high-consequence terrain, assessment becomes a constant task. Every variation of angle and aspect—indeed every shadow—will likely have its own microclimate. Thus, extreme skiers must enter and maintain a mode of continuous assessment, testing and measuring the snow by feel with every step, recording and memorizing each and every change for the trip back down.
Viewed within this paradigm, an avalanche forecast becomes at most only a minor factor in a complex and ongoing process of deciding when and where to ski—and how much risk to bear. It is perhaps the height of arrogance to believe it possible to control one's destiny when skiing extreme terrain. Experience, skills, and judgment are critical, but ultimately they are not enough. When we ski the extreme we are always playing a sort of roulette game—and hoping we don't get unlucky...