“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” — John Powell
Most of us are likely pretty sure that we recreate safely in the backcountry, whatever “safe” means to us and however it correlates with our personal risk tolerance. Most of us have probably found ourselves at one time or another smugly judging others who either made bad decisions in the backcountry or appeared to be totally uneducated. As an example, despite relatively stable snow conditions this winter, a very lucky guy from Missoula, MT was injured in an avalanche recently after he and his friend ventured out without gear, without digging a pit and without checking the weather or avalanche forecast. (You can listen to the interview of the injured guy here. It is very easy to judge these guys and everyone in the local ski community has been doing so for a week or more.
Most of us have also probably, though we may not want to admit it, found ourselves making dumb decisions that in retrospect invoke a “duh!” response. Then we scratch our heads wondering how it is we, who know better, could make bad and unsafe decisions. This happened to me last weekend when I went slack-country skiing with a bestie in a popular backcountry area outside the ski resort. I was completely and thoroughly exhausted from the two prior long days of backcountry ski touring and could barely lift my leg to do a kick turn. I was really dragging behind. My friend had the good idea that she would race ahead and essentially do a short lap until she reached me and then continue skinning up with me (we were in low-angle treed terrain with no signs of instability). Of course, somehow she misjudged where I was and I had no idea she was now behind me. I got up on the ridge, certain I knew where I was, and figured I’d hike to the end of the ridge then circle back in case she had somehow gotten behind me (there were lots of skin tracks which made it impossible to simply follow her tracks). Of course, it turned out the ridge was not the ridge I expected to find myself on and was pretty disoriented and confused. And alone. I had GPS so I would have been able to find my way, and I had a cell phone with service, but my buddy had neither.
I turned around, figuring there was no way my friend would have continued so far without waiting for me, and after about 30 or more minutes of intense stress, we found each other. After shrieking like reunited sorority girls, we gushed about what dumb-shits we both were and how we really need to do better in the future and have some well-communicated protocols in place. We were both mortified. How is it possible that we could have made bad decisions? We are smart and safe! We are better than others! Or not.
In hindsight there were at least several bad choices we made. My first was my decision to go out at all. A tired brain is a stupid brain. There is no place in the backcountry for stupid tired brains. Tired brains tend to have a distorted logic and, furthermore, tired bodies are more easily injured. The rest is pretty obvious. We should always stick together, no matter how popular the area or how close to the ski resort. I should have stopped and waited rather than wandering on the ridge. We shouldn’t have assumed we knew exactly where we were or that we knew where we were going. We shouldn’t have let complacency seep into what are otherwise conscientious psyches. Feel free to comment on all the other stupid things we did. It’s fun to point the finger because it makes us feel “above” the behavior. But it’s worth remembering that we too are mortals and can make dumb decisions. It’s only when things go wrong that we truly understand where we messed up and learn from it. Sometimes the exercise of being sucker-punched by our own foibles is the best education possible. Oh the shame though… So please, criticize and judge, but also share your own shameful story. We can also learn from others once we get over ourselves.