My goal as a guide is to be able to work anywhere in the world and be able to manage any imaginable (or unimaginable) conditions. While that sounds bold, it's not to say that I am going to be so good at climbing and skiing that I can haul a couple of guests up any objective no matter what it throws at us. That would be rad, but that's not what I have in mind. What I'm working toward is to have an approach that is systematic and employs the largest tool box possible in order to set me up for success no matter what. Within that systematic approach, I can then employ a margin to protect against what I can’t predict and plan for. Or to simply protect against my inevitable errors in judgment and calculation.
How do I define success? In the mountains, whether guiding or recreating, the bottom line for me is getting home safely. Having fun is a close second. Success, to me, does not mean reaching an objective. It means having the flexibility and foresight to adjust objectives accordingly. It means knowing what I am getting into and, through planning and preparation, having the resources to deal with the unforeseen. It means having an appropriate margin built in to the plan, so that when faced with the unforeseen, it doesn't lead to tragedy. There are things we simply cannot control or plan for. And the only sure thing about a plan is that not everything will go according to it. So, when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan it can lead to a much longer day than expected, or spending the night out, or having to deal with less than ideal terrain. This is where the idea of margin comes in. The basic concept is that you keep a degree of padding around your anticipated, but least favorable, outcomes. So even when things go wrong, and then they go worse, you have the capability to deal with it.
To illustrate this idea anecdotally, I’m going to share a story of a day out skiing in the backcountry. It was one of the best days out in the mountains. The skiing was really good, but not the best ever. My partner and I got a late start, so we missed out on extra powder laps once we found the goods. The danger rating was at considerable. Making our way up through the valley and trees presented us with some of the least stable snow I have ever experienced. Spooky, to say the least. So why was this day so good? Because nothing went wrong, and it very well could have. And the reason that nothing went wrong is that we had an appropriate plan and sufficient margin for the day.
We were skiing in a zone I had never been in before. It sits right on the border between two different forecast zones, each prone to having very different snowpacks and avalanche problems. To further complicate the matter, I had just returned from a ten day trip and had not been following the local Colorado weather and several storms had moved through in that time. Needless to say, my uncertainty was high.
I put the time in the day before to closely study the terrain using several mapping tools and Google Earth. I studied the recent weather history of both forecast zones and got caught up on the avalanche hazards forecasted for those zones. I created my own forecast based on data I could gather from a variety of sources. I decided what terrain was absolutely off limits, what terrain was going to be on standby, and what terrain was likely worry free*. (*I say likely because even green-light terrain needs to be assessed with a skeptic’s eye). After identifying this terrain based on my forecast for the day, ie, closing any slopes steeper than 35 degrees on North to East aspects, I then went into my mapping tools and actually shaded and color coded skiable slopes by category. Importing that into Google Earth allowed me to get a visual tour of where we were heading. Actually zooming around the tour zone and seeing which slopes are closed, open, or on standby, is extremely effective. If you are not already using these tools for backcountry travel, I encourage you to play around with them.
Additionally, I identified four different tour options of varying lengths and ambitions. Without getting too detailed, I had a rough time, distance, and elevation estimate for each option. In talking the day before, my partner and I had some enthusiastic plans for the day. Having some less committing options written down would prove to be valuable should we end up getting a late start, or run into challenging navigation on the approach. Both of these outcomes occured. Having those shorter tours planned allowed us to adjust on the fly and still get in some fantastic skiing, rather than getting part way to a grand objective and having to bail and ski less than ideal terrain with our tails tucked, and possibly asses puckered.
This prep work, in total, only took about an hour. Granted, it used to take me a lot longer. Practice, makes for efficiency. The payoff is worth every minute of time. My partner hit terrible holiday weekend traffic on the highway. I slept in, then went back to sleep when he got delayed. Having driven home late the night before from a busy and exhausting week in Jackson, WY, I was running on less than five hours of sleep. Yet, because I had a good plan, and several options for the day, there was little stress over these *unexpected delays and complications (*to be honest, I was anticipating my lazy ass moving slowly so it wasn’t totally unexpected.)
As we started skinning, our forecast was verified. The snowpack, from the trailhead up to 10,000’ was rumbling like a thunder storm. Nearly every East facing slope we touched collapsed under our feet. Because I already had a clear picture of the terrain we were travelling through, I was comfortable navigating through the micro features we encountered. We found several steep test slopes and even on steeper features, the snow collapsed, but nothing released. As soon as we got onto any South facing terrain, stability increased remarkably. Just like I had forecasted. Damn, I’m good. I was feeling pretty confident. We dug a bit on several aspects as we went, got a good reading on the snowpack structure, and stuck to the plan.
Eventually we climbed up into a higher elevation band, we took a break for lunch. I dug a pit on some East facing snow, expecting to find some reactivity. I did a few tests. Nothing! Interesting. The snow structure was different. The recent storm snow fell on a deeper, more stable base compared to what we found down low. Almost twice as deep as the spooky snow we found lower down, this actually seemed quite stable, based on a single snow pit. From here to the top, we jumped on every test slope we could find, and couldn’t buy any action no matter how many chips we threw down. No collapsing, anywhere. As we skinned up higher and higher, I couldn’t help but think of all that prime ski terrain I had closed off in my planning. It didn’t help that we could see it all on our way up. Big, open bowls. Untracked, with over a foot of fresh, low density powder. To say it was tempting would be a serious understatement. Based on what I saw in one pit, the most concerning weak snow was well over a meter deep and unlikely to be triggered. The more shallow weaknesses that I was worried about were unreactive in my tests. I could dig another pit up high on the slope, and if it showed the same structure and strength, maybe those North-East facing bowls were reasonable options? Sure, down low we were seeing extremely weak snow on the same aspect. But the snowpack had an entirely different structure at the higher elevations. I had a solid theory for the improved stability, which seemed to be validated by every other piece of evidence I could find.
On the other hand, what if I was getting it wrong? Even if we were to dig a second pit higher up, that’s two data points. Could I confidently extrapolate that to an entire mountain side with complex features and elevation changes? My data down low suggested widespread and extremely weak snow, while a single data point higher up was pointing toward stability. If that single data point was representative of the slopes in question, then I’d shred their gnar with comfort. If the reality of the slope was anywhere in between, I’d be much more concerned. So what to do? This is where margin and a systematic approach comes into play. Terrain that gets closed in my pre-tour planning, stays closed no matter what. Even if all the signs point to it being safe, it stays closed. The next day, that new information gets taken into consideration and maybe that terrain gets bumped down to standby or even open status. But closed in the am, means closed all day. That’s the margin, for error, miscalculation, and poor judgement. So as I caught myself pondering a change in plans I knew it wasn’t really an option. We stuck with our standby terrain, which was more than steep enough to produce avalanches, but based on the planning should be safe and free of a concerning snow structure. We dug and made observations throughout the day. All the evidence gathered supported what had been planned for. And it was some fine skiing!
Bottom line here is that a systematic approach, with a built in margin, allowed for a fantastic day out skiing, in an area with complicated terrain and a considerable avalanche hazard rating for the day. The system and the margin work together, but neither can stand on its own. Just having a system can fail due to human error and the inherent uncertainty of snow covered mountains. Margin, on its own, might look like simply avoiding any and all slopes over 25 degrees. That would be safe, however, it can be quite limiting in where you can go and the fun you can have. That said, please keep in mind that this is not about trying to outsmart the avalanche hazards. Rather, my approach is to understand the hazards that might be out there and where they likely exist. Based on my confidence in that assessment, I choose terrain with some degree of margin in case I do get it wrong. This all happens before I leave the house. Once out in the field, I am constantly observing and reassessing what I find. To operate in this way requires training, mentorship, and years of field verified practice. If you are just starting to explore the backcountry on your own, you can use the systems, try creating your own forecasts, and having solid plans. Then adjust your margin appropriately. There’s nothing wrong with simply staying off all terrain steeper than 30 degrees when the hazard is elevated. You can still have a theory for where the snow is stable and where it’s not. Verify it by making observations as you go. You can do all of this while sticking to terrain that is safe, regardless of how unstable the snow might be. Always set your margin for someone who’s not as good as you. Chances are, you just might have a few moments when you don’t act as smart as you think you are.
There are a couple other examples of how I used margin during this day I’d like to share. We knew we had a later start to the day then we had hoped. We had two headlamps. Even with lights, the idea of skiing past or even near dusk is concerning. Rescuing someone should they be caught in an avalanche is hard enough. Trying to perform a rescue late in the day would be an extreme challenge. Little to no visibility, colder temperatures, and essentially no hope for rescue assistance make it a daunting and dangerous proposition. Best avoided altogether. As we were nearing the top of out route, it was clear that skiing conditions were deteriorating the higher up we went. We came to a decision point and opted to continue up and tag the summit even though we would be pushing our daylight by the time we got down. There’s a reason my partner’s nicknames include The Bosnian Badger and the Siberian Snow Prince, or any combination thereof. Nothing brings him more joy than trudging up an icy, wind blasted ridgeline and standing victoriously on the highest pile of rocks in sight. Knowing we would be back down into lower angles trees with minimal exposure, by the time we lost our daylight, I felt it was within our margin for the day. Still, looking ahead, even while we had ample daylight, I made subtle shifts in how we travelled to nudge our margin a little wider. We skied shorter pitches, kept each other in close view, and once into the lower trees, I slowed the pace even further while still keeping us moving efficiently. At the very end of the day, after having deployed the headlamps, we skied up to one final steep pitch leading to the valley floor. It was no more than four turns, but approaching fifty degrees, and we had once again been observing rumbling collapses once into the lower elevations. Consequence was pretty low, maybe a twisted knee or leg injury if it took one of us for a ride. It literally dumped right into the valley. It was dark, I was hungry, and I really wanted to just say fuck it and send the little pitch. But once again, margin! I opted to ski-schwack my way around through some dense trees and find a lower angle shot. Sure enough, as my partner traversed above the questionable slope, it released below him, running to the ground. Would it have killed anybody? No, but it would have at best done some damage to our ski bases, and easilly could have caused an injury. Neither of us would have been psyched for the mile long journey back across the valley floor, hauling a rescue sled in a foot of fresh storm snow.
So, margin. Use it. With a system. And may you find success in all your mountain journeys.