Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Avalanche Awareness: False Alarms and System Overload

I’ve been picking up on a safety trend the last two seasons that I’ve somewhat struggled to handle. Basically, the gist is, we get an event (or a winter), that creates widespread variable conditions that overwhelms, or numbs the avi radar, and results in a system malfunction for recognizing what might otherwise be obvious, potentially dangerous situations.
We know to recognize the big, red, warning flags flapping in the wind: big crowns from natural or skier-triggered slides; whoomps and shooting cracks; steep faces with nowhere to hide; and creaky, hollow, wind slabs that pole-punch to nothing.
The alarm goes off, we re-evaluate, and make decisions. The world is comparatively black and white.
The days I fear most now are the days when every step I take yields a different condition: bullet proof bed surface one step, airy/recycled/spin-drift pow the next step, unsupportable crust the third step, supportable crust, tundra, whoompf; mix, match, and repeat.
It’s so variable, and so inconsistent, it’s hard to pin-point and isolate the danger from the nuisance, and is easy to slough off the warnings as simply false alarms.
  • Ya, that was a whoompf, but the slabs are tiny, shallow, and unconnected.
  • Ya, this bed surface blows, but there’s nothing on top of it but little wind drifts and loose snow.
  • Ya, tundra, this winter sucks.
It’s like sitting in a big control room and having every alarm go off, but being 99% that every one of them is just an alarm malfunction rather than a crisis.
This goes on for hours. Soon, I find myself just shutting off the alarms and just going numb, when I should be thinking:
  • The slabs might be small here, but at some point they might be big enough, and tilted enough, to break loose.
  • The icy bed surface is the icy bed surface. It’s going to be pervasive, and probably exist under a massive swath of terrain. It may only present a nuisance here, where exposed to thinly covered, but beneath the right patch of snow, it could let the above-mentioned slab run, and run a long way.
  • Tundra…rocks, whatever, they’re sucking up the heat of the sun and pumping it into the surrounding snowpack. As the day wears on, and later in the season, small slabs will become more reactive than they were in the morning, something that’s easy to forget in mid-winter.
A lot of these issues are basic principles any backcountry user should know and understand before hitting the slopes, but the problem that I find I have, is that when the alarms are going off every other step for issues that really aren’t actually hazardous, and I keep hitting the override button, when the alarm finally goes off for the last time, I long-ago stopped listening, and am caught by surprise.
As we enter the equinox season, and the daylight presents the opportunity to go deeper and farther afield, we can cover greater distances, thus exposing ourselves to even more variability.
Conditions, and what might have been false alarms encountered early-, or even mid-day, could, and probably should, carry more weight, or warrant re-evaluation, if encountered later…be it due to increased solar radiation, or because the alarms are occurring in an area with different wind patterns and snow load then what was traversed 4 hours ago.
If the same damn alarms have been going off the whole way though, do they still register when they finally matter?

In extremely variable conditions, conventional testing may be of limited value.
I found that more often than not, for me, the answer was no.
Where I landed, was that when I go out in extremely variable conditions and find the alarm panel is lighting up non-stop with what I feel to be false alarms, and I keep hitting the override button, it’s time to raise a different flag, and realize that the conventional warning system is shot.
Sure, maybe the target slope/line of the day is likely going to be OK, but without said radar working, how will I know?
It’s kind of a weird concept, but basically, I realized I need to treat this particular situation like I would if I’d just spotted a big crown or a natural, or some other major red flag.

The three best resolutions for this situation that I’ve found:

  • Bag it. Go home. Extremely variable conditions usually results in mediocre skiing/boarding, at best. Sometimes, it's not good "just to be out."
  • Be a tourist: stay in the flats and off the slopes, take pictures for future days.
  • Isolate the terrain and reduce the variables: stay local, pick a slope or aspect that is low consequence given the alarms and conditions, and lap it; avoid temptation to push higher or steeper.

No comments: