The Human Factor

When I first set out into the backcountry, I did everything wrong. I didn’t even know there were things I should know. That’s how clueless I was. I had been issued a beacon, probe, and shovel as part of my job as a liftie. I worked on a back bowl chairlift and had to ride down to the lift before routes, so we needed the equipment. I had it, and I understood it was for my safety. There is where my understanding stopped. I found out this was the same equipment you needed in the backcountry, so i figured I was ready for the backcountry.

I can remember my first outing. I had borrowed some extra equipment from another liftie, and a friend and I set out. I had heard people talk about one of the more popular trailheads so we found it and started climbing. I remember going straight up a creek bed with super steep banks that towered above us. At some point, we decided the creek wasn’t taking us where we wanted, and we wallowed straight up one of the banks bringing tons of snow down into the creek. We managed to continue to be lucky and get in a pretty fun (though short) run.


Of course I bragged to some of my friends about getting out into the backcountry (a term I still didn’t understand). One of them was very kind, and gently suggested I could have been hurt. He proceeded to write down a list of books I should read, and some names of people I could talk to. I wish I could remember his name, he probably saved my life.

The more I learned, the more mortified I became about my behavior and my skills. I began to do beacon drills with my fellow lifties. I read everything I could find. I sought out experienced touring partners, and apprenticed myself.IMG_20160121_164607

But some where along the line, I got the idea that my knowledge had gained me some kind of control over things that were quite beyond my influence. I began to get sloppy and overconfident. It took many years, two heavy rides that could’ve killed me, and dozens of close calls, but I woke up.


I realized that even though I hadn’t deserved it, I had lived to ski another day. That became my mantra. When I’m staring down a sick, steep, tempting line but the snowpack is against it, I tell that line “I’ll be back for you when the time is right”. When I’m on my way to a destination line and it starts snowing 3 inches an hour and the wind picks up,  I remind myself that some of the most fun I’ve had skiing has been low angle powder meadows.

Over and over in my career I keep coming across this diagram. I like to remind myself that I only truly have control over one of those factors, and it’s the most dangerous one.