We’ve all had those bluebird days of touring when every turn you make is in deep blower pow; nothing beats it. Turn after turn throws cold smoke in your face, and your hand aches at the end of the day from the endless high-fives. Often, however, these days come with a less-than-stable snowpack. It is easy to let your adrenaline overcome your better judgment, which can often inhibit decision-making. More times than not, you will get away with that sick powder run on these sorts of days, but you shouldn’t let this influence your decision making process in the future.
As you build up a number of these days, which are often rated moderate or considerable by the local avalanche center, it becomes easier to make poor decisions when confronted with a similarly unstable snowpack. It is human nature to compare the present conditions to a day when you were confronted by similar conditions and got away with skiing some steep and deep powder. Remember, all it takes is one bad decision to put yourself in a sketchy situation.
My close-call experience with this came while skiing in the Berthoud Pass area of Colorado on a day rated at moderate. While skiing a tree chute that I had skied countless times before in moderate or considerable avalanche danger, I came upon a small but steep 150 foot rocky chute. After some time discussing with my partners whether to ski it or not, I decided to drop. Before I could make one turn, I hit a shark under about a foot of snow, and released a small loose avalanche. The slide left me partially buried to my waist with a mangled hand. If I had looked at that scenario as an isolated event, I probably would have decided not to ski the chute. But since I was “used” to skiing in those conditions in that area, I ignorantly decided to ski the line anyways.
I got lucky, but had I been in bigger terrain or had there been a terrain trap underneath me, the outcome would have been different. Just because you got away with it that one day, doesn’t mean you will get away with it today. I’m guilty of it; most people are, but it is often not until an accident happens that you step back and reevaluate your decision making process.
Whether you realize it or not, it is human nature to compare a given situation to past experiences. In the backcountry, however, the potential consequences are too high to be making assumptions. Whether confronted with a similar snowpack or familiar terrain, every situation should be approached from an unbiased perspective. In other words: dig that pit or execute that belayed ski cut. If it crosses your mind, then you should just do it. Taking the extra five minutes out of your day is always better than putting yourself in a situation that you would regret later. If you start each day in the backcountry on a clean slate and avoid comparing the conditions and odds to a past day you’ve had, then you will be more likely to make better decisions and live to ride another day.