Words: Amanda Hankison | Photos: Dustin Lalik
There is rarely a matter that brings people together faster than that of safety. As humans we tend to learn what not to do only after it has been done, and when it comes to avalanches, our greatest lessons are learned when lives are lost.
By studying what went wrong, deconstructing the glaring clarity of hindsight, we can honor those who are no longer with us and have the chance to share yet another sparkling blue day with their spirit. Without this self reflection and systematic study of risk, by ignoring warning signs that were the untimely demise of those who came before us, we are doomed to repeat their missteps. Seeking to increase his own knowledge and that of his film crew Pat Moore teamed up with the beard behind Baldface Lodge, Jeff Pensiero, and his articulate team of guides led by the encyclopedic John Buffery. In the last three years this search for knowledge has grown into a multifaceted mountain safety course attended by numerous snowboarders in the top tier of backcountry exploration, and it seemingly has only just begun.
Upon arriving at the helipad in Nelson, British Columbia I had no idea what the following week would hold. Months ago, during a morning spent at a coffee shop in Mammoth before another day of Superpark, Pat asked me if I'd be interested in attending an avalanche class at Baldface this December. I accepted the invitation on the spot, trying my best to seem like this was a totally normal conversation to have with a guy who made me cut off the sleeves of my zip-up hoodie and secretly want a mohawk after seeing his part in Revenge of the Grenerds ten years prior. The crew gathering in the airport hanger was younger than I had expected and I was excited to see a lot of familiar faces. Surrounded by the next generation of backcountry rippers I was pleased to know that so many of them were making their own safety, and the safety of their crew, a high priority.
With a unique mix of equal parts classroom lecture, field study, medical assessment, and evacuation tactics this course flies under the radar of its contemporaries. We talked about the different types of avalanche problems and tracked the growth of surface hoar that week. We took weather observations, dug pits, and preformed mock rescues for multiple burial scenarios. At the end of each day we debriefed the events of the day and in an open environment admitted mistakes, honestly evaluating our own performances and those of our crew. We covered case studies and watched our peers faces when flux lines were hard to find, a sense of real loss hanging in the air even though it was just a backpack that was buried. This was more intensive than any avalanche class I've been to, the guides throwing drill after drill at us quickly taking hand shears, making slope evaluations, only to ultimately find an "unconscious patient" needing to be extracted from a tree well. At the end of the day we were beat, the bartenders of the lodge making claims that this was the most sober group of professional snowboarders the lodge had ever seen. Pat and Jeff set out seeking to raise the standard of safety that permeates throughout the snowboard industry, and after last week I can confidently say they are doing just that.
A common story told that week was of the pioneers of big mountain snowboarding heading out in a helicopter in Alaska with nothing more than their snowboards and a case of beer. True frontiersmen if I must say so. This romantic tale is nothing more than a memory these days as technological innovations and a movement to 'get educated' have spread through the industry. But, I postulate that your beacon/shovel/probe is as reliable as that case of beer if you haven't broken into a sickening, anxious sweat during a beacon drill with your crew. When that cornice fall triggers a slide burying your best friend will you attack the slope with efficiency, clear communication, and organization honed with hours of practice? Or will you choke, in the end pouring one out in their memory from that case of beer? Your partner, the one person that caught the same spark in their eye as you did when you finally glanced out of the ski area boundary, their life is in your hands and yours in theirs. How accurate is that fine grid search of yours? Do you impatiently start digging before a probe strike occurs, spewing your finite amount of energy across the slope in sweat and spit only to find the buried body is two meters away from your premature pit? This week I learned that your safety gear is only as good as your practice, and the more real you make the practice the better chance you have of holding it together when shit hits the proverbial fan.
On the second night of our case studies Jeremy Jones's voice filled the lodge's vaulted main room after dinner. As he began to speak I realized that I knew this voice, even though we had not yet met in person. The sound sent me back to childhood, watching Mack Dawg's Follow Me Around over and over again in a basement in Illinois. This was the same voice, the voice I was listening to right now, that introduced the Trapped in Chile segment, the voice that played as Dolly Parton's Jolene began to serenade Chilean sunsets. Jeremy, standing in front of us this night, took his first runs on a snowboard just earlier that day, since a fateful day last winter when an avalanche swept him into trees below a cliff drop, breaking both of his legs as the mass of snow compacted down on him. His experience, although traumatic, was just that, an experience. That night he shared his experience with us, his peers, some of whom have Olympic medals and others with extraordinary video parts under their belts, undoubtably inspired by Jeremy's riding over his illustrious career. He reported the sequence of events that led up to the avalanche and described how the crew came together to get everyone out safely. That night Jeremy set an industry standard for sharing experience. By sharing his experience, an experience that any one of us might have or still might endure, he made us all safer. By being open and disregarding his ego Jeremy was able to make that group sitting in front of him better equipped to handle tough decisions, better able to speak up the next time a pang of intuition calls from the back of our minds.
Herein lies what I find to be the biggest takeaway from the course – we are all in this together. Avalanche forecasting and education can only take place within a community. The manner in which we interact with each other is paramount to furthering our collective safety in the mountains. We all hold the same responsibility, regardless of previous experience, professional status, or deep running motivations. When the community can share observations, hold open conversations, and be honest without worry of judgement we not only learn from everyone's experience but we support each other in being the best version of ourselves that we can be. Honesty, openness, and acceptance are pinnacles in our collective journey not only in the mountains but throughout our lives.