Article By Anna
Lindsay was fresh out of her Avy 1 class. We were traveling up Sunburst, a popular destination for backcountry skiing in south central Alaska. The last storm or wind event was days ago, the avalanche danger was forecasted at moderate, it was a bluebird day, everything was a go. We set off up the skin track that was probably set over a week ago, trying to keep our human factors in check to keep us safe and out of danger. Lindsay took the lead and up we went.
As we skinned, I took in the conditions. I poked my poles in the ground: about 8 to 12 inches of medium soft snow over denser snow. I knew there was a persistent slab problem. The persistent slab dragon was buried deep in the snowpack, unlikely for our weight to trigger it. The slabs near the top seemed to be playing nice today. There were no recent avalanches in the zone we were skiing and the snowpack seemed content. There were no warnings of imminent danger. With the mid 20 degree sunny weather, this was a day in paradise. I did a quick scan of the obvious human factors:
- Familiarity: Yes, I was probably almost too comfortable with Sunburst at this point. I need to watch that and stay vigilant on warning signs. I knew Lindsay was hyper aware of the danger as she was less than a week out of her Avy 1 class.
- Acceptance: Well, Lindsay is my girlfriend and will love me even if I want to go back. I don't feel the need to impress her by getting caught in an avalanche. She knows I won't complain if she believes there is a good reason to turn back.
- Consistency: I had some lofty goals of doing a crazy ski tour way back in the mountains but the reality was we were out for fun. And my knee was bothering me. I was really just happy to be out and skiing whatever goals we do or don't reach. Reducing my goals wasn't a problem.
- Expert Halo: While I have a little more experience in the backcountry, Lindsay is sharp and fresh out of Avy 1. We are both going to be looking for signs of danger and are comfortable enough with each other to vocalize it. We see each other as equals more than anyone being an expert.
- Tracks/Scarcity: The hill was already pretty tracked up and we had all day to enjoy ourselves.
- Social Facilitation: We are both respectful of the mountain's power and deadly potential, and still new enough to be hyper aware of our own limitations. The goal for the day was to enjoy a few mellow laps and have fun.
It was about as "green light" of a day as you can get in Turnagain Pass. As we broke above treeline and started up in the alpine zone, Lindsay stopped. I came up behind her and asked her what was up. "I don't like it." She stated.
"Don't like what?" I asked, looking at the skin track that went up and over a small wind scoured cornice.
"That cornice there. I don't know what the wind loading is doing and I would rather avoid it all together." She responded.
Well, I can't argue with that. We looked around at the slope and then deviated off the set skin track, making our own way towards the summit and away from the wind loading mystery. This pointed out a flaw in my human factor assessment. I had thoroughly assessed the human factors of our small party. But what about that person I don't even know that set the skin track? Who was he or she? What makes her or him an expert in setting a safe skin track? What were the conditions when that skin track was set? Have they changed making the location of the skin track less safe? Have I fallen victim to the "Expert Halo" human factor without even knowing it?
It is important to consider how the other users of the mountain might also affect our human factors and judgement. How many times have I just set out and blindly followed the skin track up assuming that whomever set it was an expert? Or if they are an expert skin track setter, what human factors were affecting them when they set the track? Were the itching to set first tracks on the slope and falling victim to the "Scarcity" trap themselves? Who knows.
On the flip side, I am guilty of setting a few skin tracks myself. I would by no means call myself an expert. Maybe a snow nerd that knows just enough to turn the luck of the mountain gods in my favor most days. I once set a skin track in Thompson Pass with terrible visibility. It was my first time on that route. And I couldn't see. I can't say I have always made good judgements. I was certainly falling into the "Scarcity" trap that day. I only had two days to ski in Thompson Pass and didn't know when I would be back. I wonder what unfortunate skier thought it was a good idea to follow those tracks. Hopefully no one.
The point is to draw attention to something that isn't talked about much: How other people's behavior that we don't even see can affect our decisions and safety in the backcountry. It's the same trap as watching 5 people ski down a slope and assuming it is safe when in reality that 6th person triggers the avalanche. Except it is more sneaky because it is rarely talked about. And you don't see all those other people, just their tracks.
I personally dislike following a skin track for another reason: you don't become as intimate with the snowpack. Chances are if there a weak layer and you are the 50th person on that skin track, that weak layer is long collapsed and you will completely miss that warning sign. There will be no "whomph", no shooting cracks by they time you come along. This can lull a skier into another trap, "Familiarity". The skin track is familiar and safe. Nothing bad is happening on it. Things must be good to go.
Skin tracks are great. They are often a very efficient way up the mountain. Just, don't be a lemming. Stay aware of the hidden human factor traps next time you show up in the backcountry and head up the first skin track you see.
Chances are, if we had stayed on the set skin track, nothing bad would have happened. But, why risk it?