As I touched on before, language that minimizes close calls can reinforce overconfidence and an illusion of skill. A close call doesn’t count or isn’t that serious, because it’s an exception, because nothing really happened. It must be our abilities that made the difference. And with these abilities, we can take more chances.
I’ve wondered how to break that cycle. Recently, I heard how it happened for a friend and occasional ski partner. We were talking while skinning on a mild day. He’s had at least three close calls, two of them involving large avalanches. He’s never seemed to shrug off the incidents, and he takes avalanche safety seriously. But still, the hits just keep on coming. Enough so that he and his frequent partners earned the nickname “The Wrecking Crew.” The most recent involved a small avalanche earlier this season.
I was surprised to hear that he’d hardly skied in the backcountry since then. I figured it was just conditions. “No,” he said, “it was like a switch got flipped. Suddenly it just seemed so risky.”
The defining incident had happened early one morning, on what was supposed to be a casual one-n-done with some of the Wrecking Crew. The group had an inconclusive discussion about a line down the bowl, with at least one member of the group arguing that they stay away from the bed surface of an older slide. It had been reloaded with new snow and a few days earlier someone had triggered a second, smaller slide that released the new snow on the other side of the bowl. My friend watched the first skier nonetheless turn into the old bed surface and trigger a small slide that briefly knocked him off his feet. He recovered and escaped out the side.
Several things made this incident feel different for my friend. The skier who triggered the slide was recovering from knee surgery. My friend said that while he watched the skier struggle with the debris, “I kept thinking about his knee and how it would suck for him to get hurt again.”
This incident was also more of a surprise, unlike the previous ones, when he knew he was pushing the line and far more prepared for something to go wrong. “It was supposed to be a casual day. We weren’t really going to be exposed to much danger. The terrain and the danger were moderate. Yet something still happened. I realized it could happen anytime.”
The big thing, though, was a conversation with one of the others in the group when they arrived back home. “We looked at each other at about the same time and said, ‘That was not ok, was it?’ And it was like waking up after one too many frat parties.”
My friend and I had a good tour together that day. I didn’t ask him if skiing in avalanche terrain felt different this time. I don’t know that there’s a recipe for replicating his come-to-Buddha moment. I do see some elements that seem common to people who aren’t overconfident: a visceral sense of the consequences of a slide, an awareness that avalanches are unpredictable and ultimately unmanageable, and lastly, a willingness to listen to friends who don’t write off close calls.