Disclaimer: I am not an avalanche expert. My personal protocol to approaching the backcountry is something I am always trying to evolve and improve. I have made many mistakes in the mountains. I take these mistakes seriously and I try to learn from them.
As I come over the roll my stomach drops. I am in the wrong spot. I’m five feet left of where I need to be and as much as I fight to correct my mistake I can not. I am going too fast to stop and am now descending an unrideable rock strewn face. I skip down some rocks, take some unwanted air, land on some rocks and start rolling in a place I should not be rolling.
My mistake was that I misread one of two identical shadows as the entrance to my line. Tactically a true statement but my mistake that day was more mental then tactical. Why did I blow that call? When it comes to analyzing mistakes made by ourselves or other people we tend to focus too much on “what” the mistake was and not enough on “why” the mistake was made.
You see it on the internet forums and hear it in the bar room every time there is a fatality in the mountains. “How could they have missed the signs?! I would have never done that, etc.”
Some accidents are extremely reckless and do not keep me up at night. It’s when I see experienced backcountry experts dying in the mountains that I lose sleep thinking about their mistakes. What led them to make that mistake that day? If they missed the call then who am I to say I would never do the same thing?
The day of my fall down the rock face I was over confident, in a rush and not present. I made several mental mistakes that nearly cost me my life. Looking back at this accident and other mistakes I have made over the years, I realized there were a few common lessons to be learned from all these experiences. I turned these "mental keys" into a checklist that I go over in my head every time I step into the mountains. Here’s the list:
“Mountains Speak, Wise Men Listen,” is a John Muir quote I live by. Am I present enough to read the signs? Life can be crazy but I view walking into the mountains as walking through a portal into a different world. A world that does not care about life’s dramas. The mountains demand your full attention. Turn the phone off and start reading the signs.
For the real serious lines I like to disconnect from the world and camp in front of the mountain for long periods of time to feel the mood of the line and observe the weather cycles.
The battle between ego and humility is one of the greatest mental challenges of daily life. Am I over confident? Do I, anyone in the group, or the group as a whole have a big ego today? Is our confidence over-boosted by recent success? Observing and avoiding over amping ego in other people is easy but it is much harder to see in yourself. Lack of humility is one of my most common mistakes at times when I have screwed up in the mountains.
The mountains do not care that your only day off is Saturday, it is the last day of your trip, or that the shadow is creeping up your line. For the real serious lines the calendar and your agenda needs to be thrown out the window. The more critical a line is the rarer it is in form. A serious line with consequences should be looked at as unrideable. It is only in rare occurrences that they become ridable. That window can be minutes long. As quick as it opens it can also close.
When I get the opportunity to be around longtime backountry riders or mountaineers I always try and soak up their knowledge. I often ask, “Any advice for being able to do this for my whole life?” 72 year old Norwegian snowboard legend Tommen summed it up best, “Tomorrow is good too. Ride for Tomorrow.” The season is a marathon not a sprint. Do not force the issue. “What happens if this slope slides or I make a mistake?” I ask this over and over moving through the mountains. Don’t hide from the answer. Try and avoid the “I die if it slides” answer at all costs.
This is another mantra I say over and over going into the mountains. The mountains are guilty until proven innocent. I do not like to say, I am going to ride xxx, rather, I am going to look at xxx. I do not become mentally attached to a line until I am dropping into it. Look for reasons to back down and anticipate that the turn around point may be at the top of a line you just spent hours hiking to the top of. I get antsy if I have not backed off a line in awhile. Celebrate when you do turn around. Nothing shows your head is in the right place more then backing off a line.
Here are a few dramatic crashes that occurred about fifteen years ago while filming with Standard Films and TGR.
The avy in this video looks a lot more dangerous then it was. We were dealing with 1 to 5 inches of new snow on a hard surface. The snow was extremely dry and smokey and had zero density to it. The heaviest avalanche scenarios I have been involved with have occurred in intermediate terrain not while I was filming.
The tumble down the pinner chute was the scariest and most serious of the bunch. I hit a uphill ice chunk that sent me superman-ing headfirst down the chute at 50mph.
I learned an important lesson this day in the Wasatch about foot powered snowboarding. The emotional high of topping out at sunrise, mixed with the cocktail of endorphins from hiking and the adrenaline of dropping into a dream line had me peaking like never before. Riding this buzz I throttled the line way too hard.
The mountains are not going anywhere. No line is worth dying for. Hopefully these mental keys I have learned the hard way help keep you safe. And remember, one bad call can erase 1,000’s of good calls.