What I Learned in Avalanche School

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Ryan might have used a synopsis of “Force Majeure” as an in-class case study, because shame and denial inhibit the reporting of human-triggered avalanches, which subsequently reinforces a culture of silence and impedes the sharing and disseminating of instructive stories in which the main characters do not choose wisely. Instead, during the second half of class, Ryan distributed a case-study synopsis about a party of experienced skiers on Microdot. (He didn’t use a case study from the latest Snowy Torrents, intuiting, perhaps, that many in our course had already scrutinized it cover to cover.) We divided into smaller groups to discuss what “stood out” in terms of the party’s preparation, safety, teamwork. The incident was notable less for the body count (zero) and more for how, even though several members of the eight-person party had previously triggered avalanches and even, in one case, witnessed a fatality, they had ignored the many obvious dangers, suggesting that these skiers had become dazzled by their own expertise, falsely brightened by luck.

The case study didn’t include — as the case studies in The Snowy Torrents don’t include — the psychological factors that led these skiers to continue when the signs against it were so compelling. Here’s where my skill set came in handy. Here’s why all avalanche courses should include at least one novelist. In my head, I imagined the real “avalanche problems” on Microdot.

Skier 1, an avalanche survivor, hadn’t slept well for weeks because his business, which he hadn’t run scrupulously, was being audited by the I.R.S. Skier 2, a past witness to an avalanche fatality, was dating Skier 3, who had recently expressed doubts about their long-term compatibility prospects, and so Skier 2, though worried by the ranger report, said nothing when Skier 3 insisted they keep climbing. Skier 4, a tech executive, learned over the years that she could gain the respect of her male co-workers by behaving in a cavalier manner, and so, wanting the same respect and acceptance from her male skiing friends, she employed this strategy on mountains too. Skier 5 wanted to appear “committed to the plan” to Skier 6, creator of a successful series of life-coaching videos for aspiring C.E.O.s, and for whom Skier 5, an unemployed filmmaker, hoped to work. Skier 7, also an avalanche survivor, had lost his father, a Libertarian, to bone cancer in January, and his father’s final admonition was, “never cave to the mediocrity of groupthink,” which Skier 7 took to mean that caution equals cowardice. The sun was temptingly warm. The sky was temptingly blue. A wolverine crossed their path. Skier 8, a folklore scholar, said that wolverines, in Finland, signaled safe travel.

We’d never know, of course. But Ryan encouraged us to be empathetic, because empathy helps us learn, and judgment does not (the Microdot case study warns, “This story underscores the fact that all humans are capable of making poor decisions”), which I believe to be superficially true, though it strikes me as a conclusion drawn from data sourced from the Bible, not actual data. Regardless, we didn’t judge, if only because we were going into the mountains for the next two days and, based on whatever biblical or superstitious story math we did in our heads, we didn’t want to curse our outcomes. As we packed up our notebooks and travel mugs, however, I wondered why these case studies were called accidents. To call these deaths and burials accidents implicitly perpetuated the idea that the randomness of nature was the killer, not the shortsightedness, cowardice or hubris of people. It acquitted the subject and the object of the action: “Damage was done.” In the interests of vulnerability, growth, shame-reduction and clear communication, The Snowy Torrents might revise their subtitle: Timeless United States Avalanche Mistakes.

Bad winter weather in the Sierra is nothing like bad winter weather in the Northeast, where I’m from. Snow falls so quickly in the Sierra that you can barely keep up while shoveling it. If you’ve never seen snow like this — and I hadn’t, not until I moved to California in my 20s — you might realize, upon first experiencing it, that you never understood why the Donner party couldn’t just walk out of the mountains when winter hit.

As always, before starting the course, I enthusiastically prepared for the worst. Preparing for the worst, when you’re not on an avalanche course, can earn you the label “catastrophist.” To some, ceaselessly scanning a plain day for big and little dooms is a highly optional and neurotic activity. David Page, who lives in the nearby mountains and who met me for dinner the night before the course began, told me that he prefers to call otherwise-pathologized attentiveness “heightened situational awareness.”

I preferred this term, too.

Because I knew how quickly the weather in the Sierra could turn, I reserved a four-wheel-drive car weeks in advance. Right before my flight, I called the rental agency to confirm that my car would have four-wheel-drive. When I arrived, and was given the keys to a vehicle, I checked with the lot attendant before putting my bags in the trunk: Does this car have four-wheel-drive? He said he didn’t think it did. I returned to the desk. The clerk apologized for the error. On my way back to the lot, the same attendant said, “Oh, you’ll be really happy, that’s a good four-wheel-drive car.”

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