On Not Dying
What I find particularly abhorrent is when people get themselves killed in the backcountry with little to no awareness they were in imminent danger. If you're standing atop a slope that's likely to avalanche and you know it, what you choose to do next is your business.
But how often do people have that level of understanding?
Cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of what's happening around you (and inside you) is one of the most important components of my own personal backcountry safety strategy—and that's a skill that can be learned and developed.
But first, a warning:
I believe any single strategy or piece of advice can, from person to person and/or in shifting contexts, result in very different outcomes (including catastrophic ones). What saves your life today might get you killed tomorrow.
So take anything you read from me on this subject as at best provisional, always subject to change, and, on any given Sunday, potentially hazardous.
On those terms, over the coming months I'll be posting a series of essays and videos exploring some of the ways I approach backcountry safety, tilted toward Southern California ski mountaineering.
The good news (I think?) is there's actually no way to avoid dying.
It's going to happen sooner or later, no matter what, so it probably doesn't make sense to worry too much about avoiding risk entirely. Instead, I recommend (1) learning how to identify and shift probabilities in your favor, where possible, and (2) being thoughtful about which risks are worth taking—and which are not.
I myself have strong feelings about that, but ultimately, as I say, if you understand the odds and their likely consequences, what you choose to do is your business. The important thing, in the context of the backcountry, is recognizing you have a choice.
You can choose which risks you take.
Developing awareness of your exposure to potentially fatal backcountry hazards, and acknowledging that exposure as a choice, might be a different way of approaching hiking, climbing, or skiing in the wild, but I do think it has merit.
In any case, it seems like a good place to start.
— November 18, 2023
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Dan Conger November 18, 2023 at 10:53 am
This is a very important topic, and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts. While I don't head into the mountains as often as I like, or as often as you do, my friends and co-workers know that I do. I have been asked a question very often (really, two questions that are a variation of the same theme). Why are more people dying and/or getting injured in the wilderness these days (or, the variation, do I believe that more people are and why)?
In my opinion, it really boils down to a few simple changes over the last 50 or so years. 1) there is enhanced accessibility due to modern cars; 2) there is enhanced accessibility due to modern roads; 3) there is a feeling of invulnerability due to the ease whereby a "not a professional" outdoor enthusiast can get access to world-class equipment.
1) Does anybody remember the old movie trope where a person is running from bad guys, the person jumps into a car, and the car will not start? Do you know why that is no longer a movie trope? Modern cars, in general, just don't have this problem. Also, I remember what it was like driving my first car, a 1988 Honda Civic, over 70mph ... kinda scary. My modern Honda Pilot? I can hit 90mph and not really feel it.
2) Highways 50 years ago were neither as well built nor as well maintained. For an illustration, anybody traveling from LA to Mammoth should hop off the modern highway just west of Bishop at Ed Powers Road and take the side roads all the way to Tom's Place. The side roads are the old highway. There is a huge difference.
3) I can head to REI, or some similar store, and buy all the same world-class equipment that people use on 8,000 meter Himalayan monsters. That equipment can make people feel invincible and thus make them careless.
So, for me, it is this ease of access combined with carelessness arising from access to world-class equipment that leads to a higher rate of accidents. Andy, really interested to hear your thoughts on what I've put forward here.
Stephen November 18, 2023 at 12:11 pm
Building up knowledge and awareness of risk will definitely keep you and those around you safe, more than anything else.
Without it, you wouldn’t actually have any idea what kind of world class gear to buy at REI in the first place (previous commenter was mentioning this)…or what kind of vehicle you might need to safely get to/from a trailhead etc.
I’m with you on all of this, but I’ve also had a few close calls when I made mistakes (sometimes big ones) because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I’m sure that I’ll make more in the future as well. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read your posts and to learn as much as I can (especially through experience) and to hope that nature—and my fellow humans—will give me grace when I get into tight spots in the future.
Thanks for sharing your experiences here Andy, it’s a great blog!