Russian Roulette

I have a neighbour who comes around the house to talk skiing. He had a colleague, a young freerider, let’s call him Marco. Every week my neighbour would have tales of seemingly impossible routes Marco had skied with his friends. We used to pour over maps and photos imagining where he had been. We admired what he did, hard routes close to the limit.


One day I was touring with a friend. He had been out with Marco the week before. “That was something. The route was not that hard but we were on a big open slope. It had snowed heavily and it didn’t feel right to me. Marco said he had climbed a dozen similar slopes in the same conditions. He took a lot of convincing to turn back”.

Val d’Isère avalanche expert Henry Schniewind recognises the situation saying that “most steep unstable slopes that ‘should’ avalanche when you ski them won’t avalanche.” What he does find surprising is seeing and hearing experienced people “ignoring the fact that sooner or later one of these slopes that should go will go.” This has happened far too often this season, locals, experienced recreational skiers and snowboarders, guides and instructors getting avalanched. As André Roch once observed “the avalanche doesn’t know that you are an expert.”

The phenomena of experienced skiers and snowboarders getting numbed to risk is well known to psychologists and is termed “normalisation of the abnormal”. Too many risks taken where all has ended well.

Alain Duclos, mountain guide and expert witness for the Chambéry appeal court says that “when experienced backcountry skiers ride a slope where everything suggests it should avalanche and it does not it throws doubt on all they have learned. In the end they only retain the positive experiences of skiing deep powder.” Duclos says that skiers should remember safe travel procedures, leaving distance when climbing and skiing, looking around for danger and never stopping mid slope. He says that there were far too many accidents where the basics were forgotten this season.

The next time my neighbour called round he looked very pale. “Marco… he was hit by an avalanche, just a small thing but it swept him over cliffs… he is very seriously injured and in hospital”. As the extreme skier Jean-Marc Boivin once observed “if you play Russian Roulette enough you will end up putting a bullet through your head”.

Further Information:
Henry’s Avalanche Talks
Alain Duclos Website

Posted by davidof on Monday, 06 March, 2006 at 07:20 PM

This normalisation of the abnormal.

How very like tail gating - the practice of driving much too close to the vehicle in front. People do that all the time on the motorways of Europe, commonly with a separation distance a small fraction of the stopping distance. They, too, get away with it so often that they
dont realise that they, and their passengers are in deadly danger.

Until too late.

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 07 March, 2006  at 11:09 AM
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