Revisiting ‘A Dozen More Turns’

Ski Tracks on Snow

It would not be entirely accurate to call the Beacon-Shovel-Probe paradigm a failure. Since its mainstreaming in North America, advocates can rightly point to a huge increase in backcountry ridership without an accompanying increase in avalanche fatalities.

But even twenty years ago, it was obvious the BSP approach was, on its own, inadequate.

Amber Seyler was a graduate film student at Montana State University when an avalanche on nearby Mount Nemesis claimed the life of Blake Morstad, a Montana alumni and snow science expert who had recently earned a master's degree doing cutting-edge research in avalanche dynamics.

That tragedy led to Seyler's 2005 documentary A Dozen More Turns, which perhaps not coincidentally marks a shift in North American avalanche education from focusing on technical to "human" factors in the decision-making process.

All these years later, Seyler's film remains wrenching viewing, plain and practical, yet also deep and disturbing, and most of all baffling for its central mystery: why did the film's protagonists do what they did on that day?

The conceit of the human-factors approach is the presumption that we can teach ourselves the ways in which our minds trick us, and in doing so, improve the quality of our decision-making in the backcountry.

It would be heartening if we could point to Amber's film and say that, in the ensuing years, the shift to human-factors education has clearly demonstrated such an improvement. But if anything, the reverse often seems true.

There remains a particular and peculiar pattern in many deadly backcountry accidents—one that has persisted despite the best efforts of our experts and educators.

People correctly identify the hazard. They correctly identify the steps necessary to avoid that hazard. And then, inexplicably, they march straight into its midst.

What we can (and can't) do about that will be the subject of my remaining backcountry safety posts.

— December 21, 2023

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

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