Life as a Human Being
by Bruce Tremper
are avalanches and people are people, and often the only to know an avalanche is to first
Everywhere I go, there they are. In the grocery store, at stop lights, stampeding through the malls. There's no getting away from them. All lined up nose to tail, just following and flowing like rivulets and streams and rivers. And there I am, one of them.
There's no way to prove it, but it feels right. I've seen enough of the world that I don't trust anything anymore and feeling right is all it takes to make a believer out of me. I think that most people are reincarnated buffalo.
Think about it. There are more people on Earth now than a couple of hundred years ago-two, three, four times more. But then herds of buffalo used to cover several western states at a time. Where did the buffalo spirits go? More people, less buffalo. You figure it out.
I'm waiting behind some of them now. The traffic light is red and we're all waiting. The person in front of me decides to turn left instead, pulls out and races ahead into the left turn lane. I feel like I should move ahead so there's not this big space in front of me, and I feel somehow guilty and vulnerable, like someone will come and steal it from me. The buffalo behind me is honking his horn. He can't understand why I'm not moving up, like I'm crazy or something. But I don't move. I like that big space there. It's like a statement, which I know means nothing to him, but I need to do these things. It's a reminder-a little thing-to keep the buffalo habits at bay. Otherwise that's the way I'll ski too.
I make my living as an avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center and I think about these things. I compile avalanche accidents and read about others, and pilot error comes up in almost every instance. I seem to have come to the place where most other scientists eventually arrive, where it's not enough to know the discipline, but how the discipline interfaces with people. Euclid, Newton and Laplace no longer answer the important questions, and that's how scientists know when they have finally arrived-when they turn to psychologists, philosophers and poets.
The native Americans used to kill buffalo, by the hundreds sometimes, chasing them toward a cliff. The buffalo follow each other nose to tail, feeling safe together, to the brink. This herding instinct, this safety in numbers, is what I call a "perception trap," and that is what this article is about-when we see the world one way but it's really another way. It's about the cognitive poisons of culture and testosterone, about fear and risk and ecstasy and the 360 degrees of being a human being among avalanches. And reincarnated buffalo.
The snow just feels more people skiing and falling down its back, more weight, more swarming rats to trip the traps, its trigger points stumbled upon and overloaded. Avalanche dragons are living beings, with a spirit; they feel and think and have habits-and it's easy enough to anthropomorphize about them but they're not like us, not anything like us. Safety in numbers means nothing to them.
I love to ski by myself. I'm always more cautious; no one to dig me out; no one to splint my leg. Add a trusted partner and I'm suddenly braver. Add 10 people and I'll go anywhere. It's a hard perception trap to overcome-one I still struggle with, these instincts which run millions of years deep. But the snow is exactly the same: one person, ten people, one hundred people; the same, exactly the same. Numbers have no domination over it.
I usually travel in smaller groups, two, three, four people. Some will argue that you need a group of at least six to perform a rescue properly, which may be right. But I have always been of the mind that the best avalanche rescue is not getting caught in the first place. Smaller groups tend to be more cautious. Less talk, more thinking, observing, feeling, fewer people to impress. More fear.
We also feel safer on a slope with other ski tracks, and there's some justification in this. If the slope was extremely unstable, it would probably go with the first skier. But many slopes which catch people are just marginally unstable. The first, the fourth, the tenth skier have close to the same chance of tripping the big buffalo trap.
I have dug snowpits on slopes with ski tracks already in it and still decided not to ski it. Sometimes I feel crazy for it, like a failure. The worst part is just never knowing what that slope would have done, whether you could have made it. It's like when you meet a certain someone who makes your heart pound every time you think of them. You want to just call them so bad, ask them out, but you don't. You play it safe and spend the next month just kicking yourself, never knowing how it would have turned out. But this is a way different game. I say a slope is guilty until proven innocent and ski tracks are weak evidence.
I seem to have come to the place where most other scientists
eventually arrive, where it's not enough to know the discipline,
but how the discipline interfaces with people.
The best way is-even when you're with your most trusted partner-to pretend you're alone. Make decisions as if there's no one to dig you out. For those who don't spread out or cross things one at a time, there really won't be anybody left. There will be the crack and the roar and suddenly everyone will be gone
numbers!" we cry, and you can see us out there,
The doors of perception
Living our lives as human beings, as we do, we have certain advantages: We have complex language. We can record history and learn from mistakes of people we will never meet. We can look backwards to the cannon which shot us out and choose another trajectory. But the things which separate us from the other creatures work both to our advantage and disadvantage. The same culture which unites us as a species also serves to separate us from the natural world. We see through the eyes of our culture which, in the natural world, is about as big a disadvantage as you can get. As Thomas Kuhn has said, "you don't see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it." psychologists tell us that seeing is one .thing, perceiving it is quite another. To perceive a thing, we must first have a place for it in our brain, with a meaning attached to it and a way of thinking about it. Otherwise, often we do not see it at a11..A tribesman from New Guinea, for: instance, looks at a carburetor differently than we do. We look at his ceremonial dance different than he. Knowledge behind something changes it. It changes one thing into another thing.
We hear the expressions like, "I'll believe it when I see it," or "Seeing is believing." But just like many of the things we believe or think we believe, like Columbus' "discovery" or "dirty commies," or the salvation of technology, on closer inspection we find that it's just another sacrosanct lie. It's the other way around. We see what we believe. The monstrous importance of belief: Both of us look at the same thing. We see it one way; they see it another way. There's a war. History is written.
Avalanche dragons live in an invisible empire beneath the perfect facade. They don't often come out into the light of day and let you see them directly. Visible only through symptom and artifice, avalanche forecasting means seeing the invisible and the only way to see the invisible is through imagination and the only way to imagine something invisible is by believing it first.I have a friend who was frightened by an avalanche once and then she imagined them everywhere. The only time she relaxed was when she skied with me because she thought I was some sort of expert-as if the avalanches somehow know that. Then I taught her how to dig snowpits, to look for the signs. Now she has a weapon to take away the uncertainty. She is, no longer a captive of her beliefs. Then there's the ski-to-die folks. I don't understand them. I don't understand them at all. I have to admit that every time I go out there I'm frightened, especially on the freeways. But avalanches scare the hell out of me too. I was told once by a psychic that the work I do as an avalanche forecaster seems the perfect metaphor for my life because I'm always waiting for something to fall, and she may be right. But I have read that Eskimos feel the same way and they have a word for it, ilea, which means "nervous awe." They have seen enough of the world to fear that which they most worship-the earth-which is our paradise, our home, and which at times kills without mercy. Maybe the ski-to-die folks live for adrenaline or pleasure; maybe if you take the risk away, you take away the attraction. I don't know. Different people have different levels of this. My friend Kevin Kobe from Logan studied this kind of thing in skiers for his master's thesis. Ire tells me that for many, the risk of avalanches is an important factor in the enjoyment of backcountry skiing. For instance, several years ago I talked to a man from Logan on the phone who took a nasty ride in an avalanche on his snowmobile. He was an older gruff spoken man who I got the feeling liked to watch John Wayne movies. "Of all the avalanches I ever rode," he said in his thick rural Utah accent, "this one was the meanest." It seems that he makes a habit of riding avalanches. He especially likes to ride them from the top by jumping off the cornices. "I got a fast machine," he said. "I can outrun 'most anything." Maybe he's onto something-going all these years without getting killed. No beacon, no shovel, totally naked. Me? I'm a wimp. I can't enjoy skiing a slope unless I feel safe. It's like making love when there's a fear of pregnancy or disease or a jealous lover coming through the door with a gun. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I figure. Some people like this kind of thing; there's no pleasure without it. But Murphy's law can only be stretched so far. Two seasons ago, near Red Mountain Pass in Colorado, a man who looked at the world through ski-to-die colored glasses, did exactly that. The previous season, he became the first person ever known to be ejected from an avalanche class for having an "attitude problem." Apparently, he was berating the instructors for teaching snowpit techniques. "Why do you dig snowpits? Just ski it," he would say. The following season, the San Juan Mountains had a very thin and weak snowpack. With the recent addition of over a foot of new snow with wind, avalanches were everywhere. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had issued an avalanche warning. The one with the "attitude problem" and his partner had struck up a conversation with a Colorado Avalanche Information Center contract observer that day who advised them not to ski the slope they had planned. "We'll go anyway," he said. "Do you have beacons and shovels?" the observer asked.
"No, I ski to die," he said. Like many slopes, it was small. It just washed him down into the transition and he was buried-no trauma in the slide; all his equipment was right near him-and just suffocated lying there without a beacon like a living needle in a haystack. I wonder if there was any atonement. I wonder sometimes about these things we can never know. The mountain doesn't care about your words or ideas or opinions. If it decides to turn over in its sleep and shake something down on you, suddenly you will be gone from a world where you will hardly be missed.
No matter where you go, there you are
"It was such a beautiful day, such great skiing, that nothing could possibly go wrong."
I'm not sure how many accident reports I have either read or written in which the survivor has said this. Although it's true that most avalanches occur during or immediately after a storm, most avalanche accidents happen on beautiful sunny days. One of the most basic of human failings is that we think the whole world is exactly like where we are. Sunshine gives gumption and hope. Storms bring on the gloom. It's hard to imagine one while the other is going on. To a snowpack which is still suffering the effects of the last storm, the sunny skies and great skiing haven't changed its mood-only ours. Testosterone poisoning
The accident statistics show that most avalanche victims are between the ages of 20 and 35 and are male. Very few females get killed in avalanches and those who do are usually following a male at the time. In a number of cases the men involved in avalanche accidents did not listen to the advice of sensible women. But a man has got to be a MAN! And no better way to prove it than in a stupendously violent death.
Testosterone makes the muscles strong, the voice deep, the body hairy, the ego big, the brain numb. You feel invincible! As my girlfriend often reminds me, I myself happen to be particularly affected by this disease.
Many of us deep in the throes of testosterone poisoning miss the subtleties. It's as if you need to beat us with 2 x 4's. Avalanches make great 2 x 4's and there's no way you can get pummeled by one without it changing your life -like a broken heart. Settle down, get a job, get married, have some kids. Avalanches seem to have that effect. Utterly humbling and horrid. It's good for men to feel that sometimes.Avalanche Eyeballs
The avalanche accident files almost burst with examples of people walking past recent avalanches and then getting caught in one. It doesn't seem too mysterious, since the best sign of avalanches is avalanches, but it happens over and over again. I don't know why. Probably these people seethe avalanches but they don't seethe avalanches. My friend .and Alaskan avalanche educator Doug Fesler calls it developing "avalanche eyeballs."
Avalanche classes teach us ways not only to understand but also to perceive the natural world. Without education we see it through the filter of our culture. The words we use to describe something often fall short because they either carry implications beyond what we mean or they don't carry enough implications. Sometimes no words exist to describe it. We live by words, think by words, perceive by words. We also have beliefs about the natural world which more often than not are lies. It's a hard fight all the way against culture and genetics -millions of years piled up. That's the ultimate challenge in our lives as human beings: to go past the lies and see the world as it is.
I have a master's degree in geology. I love geology for the same reasons I love avalanches and weather forecasting: I can be a nature detective. Observing, putting the pieces together, figuring it out. Trying to think like a rock, like an avalanche, like a cloud.
I grew up on a hill just on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, in one of the few houses on a dirt road. There were only rolling native grass fields far more vast than a boy could run in a day. Up the hill a half mile were two ranches. I rode horses there sometimes. Before the subdivisions came, there were meadow larks and grouse to chase, and deer, lynx, fox, hawks. We skied out the back door, down the hill a half-mils to the nearest paved road.
I visited the old house recently on one of what has faded into semi-annual trips, but things are different now. Houses cover the whole hillside. There's a golf course which runs by the front yard. I stood and watched a boy hit his ball into the "rough," the only remaining narrow strip of native grass which used to cover the entire hillside. My playground. He stepped high, grimacing, walking on his tip-toes like it was an unshoveled corner of a dog kennel. It scratched his legs, the poor baby. A bee flew near him attracted, no doubt, by his colorful shirt and he swung the golf club wildly at it in desperate fear. I laughed and laughed. Not at the boy, but at the differences-the vast gulf which separated our childhoods.
The same culture which unites us as a species
also serves to separate us from the natural world.
We see through the eyes of our culture which, in
the natural world, is about as big a disadvantage
as you can get.
Boys grow up differently there now, with the golf courses and pavement and backyard barbecues. Not better, not worse-different. It's the difference between city thinking and nature thinking. Although I do, I don't like to use the wordy "nature" and "natural." They suggest, somehow, that people are separate from "nature," which is exactly the problem. I like to call it the real world, which is what it is. When we leave the pavement, we must leave the city thinking behind. The city ways are gone. They don't work anymore. We must think like a mountain, like an avalanche.
When I walk or ski, I try to turn off the words. Listen to the breathing instead. Then I notice the birds, the falling pine needles, the whispers of wind on the ridges. I notice the things I came there to notice. It's hard to turn off the city and turn on the real world, but it's a good thing to do. You can even talk with the avalanche dragons.
|One plus one equals magic
It's the new paradigm for the next millennia, say the futurists. Interconnectedness, interactions, the relationship between things, are more important than the things themselves. The whole. The new global thinking is taking hold everywhere. Soon even the politicians will have to acquiesce. If you think that the individual human being is a work of magic, then put several of them together and really watch the magic. The books by those who try to understand how humans interact fill endless rows of library shelves. Thank God it takes all types to make up a world and thank God the interactions between them can never be accurately predicted. We are magic, not machines. Thank God, thank God.
But I have noticed some things, some patterns. Like common denominators in mountaineering accidents, and sure-fire ways to manufacture danger using nothing but interactions between humans.
Several years ago, an uncharacteristically large group of us went touring for the day, about ten. As large groups tend to do, one person-the most aggressive in this case-established himself as the alpha male. There's no equation for this kind of thing. It just happens in some stupendously complex dance of variables. It's easy enough for everyone to see it, but hard indeed to see exactly how. He knew the terrain better, he was aggressive, and there were women to impress.
He immediately took the lead trail breaking with vigor and vengeance, like it was a guarded possession. He went and went, like a lead malamute, never allowing anyone else to spell him from his lead. Fine, I thought. I can lay back, chat with the ladies, dig some snowpits, enjoy the nurturing side of life. He continued on upwards for two or more hours, getting slower and slower, still not relinquishing the lead.
Then the problems started cropping up. First, his trail was too steep for some whose skins didn't bite as well. They had to side-step and cut new, more shallow trails. Second, when we came to a fork in the valley, he charged up the left fork, the steeper, more avalanche-prone of the two-with no consultation with the group. And the part which finally forced intervention: he charged up a spur ridge with his switchbacks obviously too wide. He was venturing each time too far out into the steeper, wind loaded terrain.
Another more experienced member and I quickly caught up to him. First I distracted him-I think I asked him something about his bindings. Then my friend charged past. He shortened the switchbacks, made the trail shallow enough so everyone could follow and steered a course to a more gentle, less avalanche-prone slope. The king was dethroned and exhausted, clearly not enjoying himself on this starkly clear sunny day in the mountains with friends. "What is wrong with this picture?" I was thinking.
"It was such a beautiful day, such great skiing, that
nothing could possibly go wrong." I'm not sure how
many accident reports I have either read or written
in which the survivor has said this.
Group dynamics aren't confined to the mountains either. I myself was nearly caught in the middle of a mutiny on a private Grand Canyon trip a few years ago. Yes, there were certainly a number of unfortunate miscommunications. But it came down to a nightmarish battle between two machismo boatmen, who believed that a river trip was not a river trip without steak, lobster, and insane quantities of beer every night, and the trip leader, my strong-headed, teetotaler, vegetarian girlfriend who had planned the entire menu.
Communication is certainly the key to understanding. Whether it be a Himalayan expedition or a day of fishing with friends, communication skills rank highest in the arsenal of accident prevention tools. Ask questions. Find out people's preconceptions, misconceptions, expectations. Nothing causes unhappiness quite as effectively as unmet expectations.
Ask as well what kind of equipment limitations the group may have. Whose skins aren't working very well? Who's not feeling well? What is everyone's tolerance for risk? Any group, after all, can travel only as fast as its weakest member. The weak links need extra nurturing, not cursing, and, if you aren't willing to do this, then you shouldn't have invited them, as my friend Joe Lemire and I discovered in Yellowstone National Park perhaps fifteen winters ago.
It was a four-day dream-tour where we stayed each night at a different Park Service cabin. To do this you need a Park Service key, and to get a key you need to have a Park Service employee along, which is why Joe invited a friend by the name of Marian, which we later learned was a big, big mistake. To be fair, it wasn't entirely Joe's fault. She had passed herself off as a skilled outdoors woman and a cross-country ski racer. Perfect, we thought.
The first mile up the Lamar Valley is an expansive meadow which on that day had the most perfect of perfect skiing conditions, a solid ice crust with an inch of blue-wax snow on top. Joe and I skated across it whooping and hollering like fools, "We'll be to the cabin by noon! Yahoo!" Joe, one of the top triathletes in Montana, was also a top cross-country racer, and we reached the other end of the mile-wide meadow in minutes. Then we saw the horror. We looked back to see Marian waddling-I mean waddling, not even gliding her skis between waddles-and only about 100 yards from the car.
Yes, looking back on it now, we can clearly see that we should have just taken her back to Mammoth, stolen her key and done the trip on our own. But no. We had to carry her pack the whole way. Coach her, baby-sit her. It took her two days to learn how to glide her skis instead of walking on them like snowshoes, and it was three days before she would ski down even the gentlest slope instead of side-stepping. No, we were too nice in those days-something I am rarely accused of being any more.
Each day we arrived at the cabin well after dark. One would have to ski ahead, and have the fire burning and dinner waiting. Marian would be so exhausted (after ten miles of easy flat skiing) that she couldn't even take off her own soaked cotton clothing. We would have to undress her like a baby, and I can assure you that this did not elicit even have a hint of eroticism. Yes, many times, we talked of turning back.
But no, we pushed on like fools until the teeth gnashing frustration came to a head on the final day, at the final cabin. There was a long downhill with the cabin at the bottom. It was Joe's turn to baby-sit the side-stepping Marian and I skied ahead to do the start-the-fire-and-make-dinner routine. With all of the dark trudging our headlamp batteries were exhausted so I skied back up the trail with a lantern to light their way. To my surprise I caught them not far from the cabin. Marian waddled past completely covered with snow, tears streaming down her face, "That Joe is such an a !" she wailed. "How did you get here so fast?" I asked Joe. "Easy," Joe bellowed, so that Marian could hear every word. "At the top of each hill, I just pointed her skis downhill and gave her a shove, and every time she crashed I just picked her up and gave her another push." "You a!" she wailed into the darkness.
I am not particularly proud to say that we seriously-and I mean seriously contemplated pushing her into an ice choked river or over a cliff or even having a little accident with the double billed axe. But in the end we didn't have the stomach for it. We had gotten ourselves into it and by God we were going to get ourselves out of it, as our third-generation Montana fathers had taught us to do. But I am proud to say that we didn't split up the group, which is a common denominator in mountaineering accidents. We took care of ourselves.
These days, I refuse to ski with people who bolt off by themselves or who don't consult the group in decision making. Yes, this is a country where the word liberty is bantered about with pride, where what we do is our own business and nobody else's. But who among us will sit idly by when another needs a rescue? It's the glue which holds us together as a species. No, we don't have the right to do stupid things in the mountains. Even when we're alone the invisible heartstrings bind us. Our decisions are everybody's business.
Time after time, it's the human factor which causes the horror. Technology can take us only so far and then it leaves us off to confront the abyss of our being. Avalanches are easy. It's living life as a human being that's the ultimate challenge. *