Viewing the Backcountry Through Socratic Goggles: The Danger in Becoming an Expert
Most backcountry skiers and snowboarders want to be experts when it comes to traveling safely in avalanche terrain, but considering yourself an expert can be more dangerous than considering yourself a novice.
“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” -Socrates
Last winter I had the opportunity to spend a couple very candid hours with Bruce Tremper, one of the world’s premier avalanche experts. He’s written many of the books considered the gold standard of knowledge by backcountry users across the globe, and few people, if any, have spent more time in the backcountry. We shared stories and experiences over a couple of beers one evening, shortly after I’d experienced an “epic” of a day.
One thing he shared resonated deeply with me, and I’m forever grateful for and humbled by it. He told me, “The more time I spend out in the backcountry and the more I research avalanches, the more I’ve come to realize that I don’t know shit.” This was a person I’d admired and respected for years, ever since my backcountry genesis. I took his word as truth in all things avalanche related … and he’d just told me he doesn’t know shit! The title “expert” was something others used to describe him. It wasn’t a term he applied to himself.
My interest in the winter landscape first piqued about 14 years ago. I took (what’s considered today as) a level 1 course, and I began amassing gear. Soon I was out in the snow as often as possible. In those early years, everything about the backcountry was intimidating. Every slope was suspect, and extreme caution was the goal for each day spent in avalanche terrain. The wisdom I gained from the instruction I’d received was very fresh, and I was very aware of my abilities (or lack thereof).
Touring in the Deep Creek Mountains
Exploring the backcountry is an extremely addictive habit, and I found myself out there more and more. I gained experience quickly, and my confidence in my abilities and judgment increased as well. Looking back, it was my unchecked confidence in those formative years that, years later, sent me into a dangerous mindset that nearly cost me my life and almost left two young girls without a mother.
Don’t get me wrong. Confidence is, at times, necessary. For instance: say you’ve decided to drop into a “puckerfest” of a chute. In that moment, you’re going to need complete focus and every ounce of confidence to safely complete the task at hand. On the other hand, when it comes to the decision-making process leading up to the “puckerfest,” confidence can be your most dangerous quality. When you’re out in the hills, absorbing every clue and red flag the backcountry spits at you, I believe one thing should dominate your thought process: “I know nothing.” With the admission of ignorance, you are able to question everything. Most importantly, you can question yourself. Too much confidence in your own judgment and abilities can make you less aware of the warning signs and lead you to make poor decisions.
Last season ended abruptly for me. My wife and I narrowly escaped death. We were nothing but lucky to have survived, and, as anyone who has experienced a traumatic event knows: I will never stop re-living those events. I’ve revisited every sign that was missed or ignored that day. If I had been more humble and receptive in my approach, dangers could have been avoided. I’ve also looked back to other days I had close calls and near misses—days on which I pushed my luck and was rewarded with grand excitement and heavenly turns. I’d wrongly allowed these experiences to influence my decisions. They’d given me a sense that I was an expert who could safely navigate the backcountry, even on the most dangerous of days. I was wrong. I should have approached each day like I had in the early years: with humility and healthy skepticism of myself. This is a lesson that I, apparently, had to learn the hard way.
Looking down from the Summit of Pfeifferhorn
I’ve had to decide if backcountry skiing is something I want to continue, to decide if the risk is worth it. In short, the answer is yes. But I’ve also decided to change the way I approach the backcountry. In the past, I’ve prepared for an upcoming season by buying gear, preparing my body, thinking about fall lines, and generally getting stoked. This year my pre-season preparation has been different: I’ve been focusing more on my mind and how I come to my conclusions concerning safety, less so on muscles and gear. Rather than setting goals to ski a particular line, I’ve set a goal to simply have fun and, most importantly, return home to my loved ones. I will try to remember to be as cautious as I was in the early years and to always question what I think I know. I will listen.
There are many important things to have in your bag-o-tricks as a backcountry user. I believe the most important thing we can bring with us is humility: the humility to listen, the humility to turn around, the humility to consider oneself a novice, the humility to share one’s mistakes, the humility to fully appreciate how little we understand about the backcountry, and the humility to respect its power.
In a very beautiful way, the backcountry is something that will never be fully understood or controlled. It will never be 100% safe, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We can prepare for the worst, and we can work to mitigate the risks. A healthy dose of humility can go a long way in achieving that.
Above Photos: Adam Morrey