If you’re only serious about having fun, then things might end up being no fun at all…
In his latest blog, exclusively for Freeze, The Avalanche Geeks? own Mike Austin wonders when the UK and Europe will get serious about avalanche safety.
It’s a rainy evening three days before Christmas and I’ve driven 2 hours to Aviemore to present a free avalanche lecture. The town streets are empty. There is no snow. Few things are as miserable as a ski town in December without snow.
Eventually about 20 people make their way into the lecture room above one of the town’s ski shops, tempted in by free cake and gluwein to accompany the free entertainment. But it doesn’t look like a ski audience ? more Women’s Institute than freeride. I do my best to engage them, but it’s hard going with the over 70’s crowd we’ve pulled in for the evening. I swear someone in the back is knitting.
We don’t have an avalanche information problem in Europe ? we have a public engagement problem. Whilst North Americans dutifully sign up for avalanche courses as an integral part of their tool kit for going into the backcountry… Europeans on the other hand, well, we just don’t get it. It’s a little-appreciated fact that avalanche skills aren’t acquired through osmosis ? they’re learnt ? they’re an acquired skillset just like any other. Happy to let a novice with sketchy knowledge of knots belay you at the climbing wall? Nope? But you’re happy to ski the backcountry with him without any avi skills because…?
The European backcountry ski mindset is 20 years out of date. That wasn’t a problem when there was only crappy backcountry kit, backcountry skiing was called ?touring?, occurred in the snow-stable months of late spring and consisted mainly of old guys with beards linking up servings of Tartiflette in alpine huts. These days it seems like anything goes. Dynastar’s range of carbon fibre skis are ruthlessly efficient. The latest generation of touring bindings on the market are scarily good. A fellow could get himself in whole lot of trouble with this kind of gear.
There’s a well-known skier based in Chamonix who constantly refers to the skiing around the Aiguille du Midi area as ?Disneyland?. He equates one of the planet’s greatest concentrations of extreme skiing to a children’s play park. His mindset, for anyone following his Instagram account, is plain to see. He is having a freakin? ball! Hellz more fun than you and me combined buddy. For sure, he has plenty of good avi skills, yet pretty soon his mindset is going to sneak up and kill him stone cold dead. Not Disney ?kiss the Prince and he wakes back up? dead, but that pale-skinned, cloudy-eyed, crying family dead ? you know, the bad kind of dead.
Here’s the thing: we’re not as good as we think we are at keeping safe in avalanche terrain. Fact is, we just get lucky a lot of the time. As a species, we?re hardwired to have an over-inflated opinion of ourselves and our abilities. Hands up everyone out there who thinks they?re bad drivers, lovers or karaoke singers. Anyone? Anyone? Your brain is saying to you: “Hey Stud, nice job. You’ve totally got this dialled. You rock!?
Now add to this mix our inner monkey brain which is very much about the here and now. It’s all about the fun: “Mikey want to make big happy fun! Big happy fun now.”
Basically, we?re putting a hedonistic monkey with an over-inflated opinion of itself on fat skis and lighting the blue touch paper. All I?m saying is that it may be an idea to give the monkey some avi skills.
Alps in early January. There’s no snow here either. It’s drier than a rattlesnake in a wagon rut. The candidates on our first AvRec Level 2 course of the season is a strong mix of advanced recreationalists and mountain professionals. Even the Chamonix free ride community is represented.
We have a great course with these fine folk, and even get to lay down some fresh tracks in cold dry snow by driving through to Italy for the day. Everyone is happy, even through Bruce and I are shaking out our new syllabus. Granted, you?d expect these committed guys and girls to be super-engaged, and there are undoubtedly more folks out there just like them, but even with courses like the one we just had, it still feels like we’re only scratching the surface of getting the avalanche message out to the wider European backcountry ski community.
It’s up to everyone, especially those with influence, to promote a positive message about doing things responsibly. We’ve got a long way to go before we truly get the reins on the monkey, teach our egos to take a step back, and realise that taking things a little more seriously doesn?t get in the way of us having fun, it keeps us having it!