Winter is here as a new season begins and our Colorado snowpack is back in full force. A few early season storms came through the state over the past couple of months with long dry periods in between. The dry and sunny periods helped to melt the snow on most Southerly aspects but on Northerly and shaded aspects the snow was lent to rot and created a mixed bag of basal facets, crust/facet combos, and wind slabs.
I linked up with Gary Fondl and we headed up to a usual early season zone, Jones Pass. A new load and heavy winds. With this we expected to see some wind slabs and we discussed being cautious on those slopes that where holding that early season snow, suspecting basal facets and a weak cohesion of the new/old snow interface.
There is a crisp to the air as the morning dew turns to frost. It's a beautiful time of year in Colorado. The leaves turn burnt orange and golden yellow and the contrast of the color against the freshly fallen white snow on the mountaintops makes for that postcard picture. Winter is just around the corner.
For those of us who enjoy playing in the snow, this is one of our most anxious moments of the year. Anticipating that cloud of powder engulfing overhead in what we like to call the white room. Your ski's or snowboard carve ever-so beautifully through the freshly fallen snow and your face being snow-plastered with a grin from ear to ear. This is life.
Being able to get out in nature and clear our minds while feeling the energy, beauty and grandeur of this amazing home we call Earth is something that I feel is a human necessity. Now there are multiple ways of achieving this but to me there is no better way than backcountry snowboarding. But with backcountry snowboarding comes risks, and risk management must be put in to play. The tricky thing is that we are all humans, and we all make mistakes.
Recently the alpine community just endured a heavy loss. It's disheartening to see somebody with so much knowledge and experience endure that fate. I did not personally know the party but any loss to the community is hard, and it has allowed me to personally reflect on my decisions and processes as I travel into the backcountry. I sit now and think about what I can do better or differently to increase my margin for error.
As we find ourselves amidst the beginning to the new season there are certain ways we prepare. Dusting off the skis or snowboard and putting on a fresh wax. Running through all our gear and fixing things broken from the season prior. Double checking first-aid/repair kits, replenishing the batteries in our beacon, headlamps, and GPS. Stretching and working out to try to be in shape for those early season tours. Re-reading through avalanche books and manuals, notebooks, and practicing companion rescue skills. This is all great, but what is missing?
One of our most important tools in the backcountry is our mindset. Being that our decisions are what will keep us alive out there, then why don't we evaluate and align our mental processes early and before we even set out on our first day of the season? If human factors can be one our biggest pitfalls then why don't we start training our mind to think and react to these factors? Too often do we hear of peoples goals for the season to be rad lines and technical peaks and checklists and too few do we realize safety, great decisions and communication, and constantly addressing the human factors aren't just implied and should in reality be our main goals. Not to say that it isn't good to have those other goals or ambitions, but what we don't want to do is be in the mindset of achieving those goals without first addressing the more important topics ahead of them and again realizing that they aren't just implied. Did you get in a bad fight with your spouse? A recent tragic event? Hungover? You've been wanting this line for years and this is the only day you can do it. All of these can affect your mindset. Safety needs to always be #1. Dealing with the human factor and heuristics can be hard. By starting to think this way early we can then train our minds and in turn make it easier to start each day with that same thought process. By doing this we then hopefully increase that margin for error. There are ways that we can also work together as a community to achieve this.
With technology, internet, and social media we have the world at our fingertips. If we harness this power and use it to our advantage, it's unparalleled what we can achieve. Unfortunately, social media can be both a blessing and a curse. For example from a backcountry standpoint, if we used social media as a tool by sharing weather and snowpack observations with the community then as a whole we will have a better understanding of the big picture. There are a lot of people traveling in the backcountry these days and if we all shared these things than we can increase our knowledge and in return better manage our risk. Luckily we have slowly been starting to see this take trend, but we still need to set ourselves and peers up for success by getting into this habit and mindset early. What we don't want to do is to be sucked down the social media wormhole of acceptance. For instance, if you find yourself doing this for the "likes" or "follows" then you are immediately putting yourself and your partners at risk. Put any ego's in check and mitigate this by starting the day with a different mindset. If the thought goes through your head that "hey this will be a cool photo", then it's time to check yourself. Are your there just for photos? If you are skiing or riding something because you saw somebody on Facebook or Instagram recently just ski it, then again check yourself and your mindset or turn around and go home. These are the curses of social media. I know your thinking "Yea, that's not me", but I would almost guarantee you that one of these thoughts or something similar has gone through most people's mind at one point or another. I know that it has happened to me. If we recognize and acknowledge these social media human factors and start with this mental thought process early then maybe we can save ourselves that error or lapse in judgement somewhere down the road. It's also very, very important to note that making sure your partners are on the same page as well regarding the goals and mindset for the day is crucial in group dynamics, managing risk, and increasing that margin for error.
Young or old, single or married, parent or not, many factors will play in achieving and maintaining the right mindset for folks and it may be harder for some versus others. These are just some of the things that I now start to think about as we start a new season. After all, we are all human so the more we can address these different ways to mitigate the risks and increase that margin the better. Personally, I just recently became a father to a beautiful boy this past May so managing risk for me is now as important as ever. It's hard to explain but ever since he was born there was a biological shift in my thought processes. I now must survive this life to raise this child. It seems that this alone can be motivation for any mother or father to want to make sure that they are managing risk to the best capacity. But that doesn't mean that we need to forgo that human need. The need to connect with our Mother Nature. Whatever you do to prepare for the new season ahead never forget the power of the human mindset. The mountains are calling.
Make good decisions, choose your partners wisely, and cheers to a great season ahead!
Words by Justin Ibarra
Justin Ibarra, owner of CSG headed across the globe to work with 40 Tribes Backcountry for a few weeks of yurt-based ski/splitboard touring.