Land, Water and People
Making Decisions in the Backcountry
By Mike Blakeman
In Colorado, there are those that head to warmer climates in the winter, those that huddle
up next to the woodstove and try to avoid going outside, and those that head to the mountains to
engage in their favorite outdoor recreational activities. I’m part of the latter group, but playing in
the mountains during the winter comes with its share of risks.
Every year we hear the stories about people getting caught in avalanches. Some make it
and some don’t. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports 14 people have already
been caught in avalanches this season and two of those individuals died. One might think that
the folks getting caught in avalanches just aren’t avalanche savvy, but that often is not the case.
Many avalanche victims have had avalanche training and are well experienced. This article
explores why they make mistakes. Understanding these mistakes may help you to not do the
same. Here is the short list:
Bad decisions are made for a variety of reasons, such as not gathering enough
information, being tired, timid, complacent, overly excited or competitive, not thinking for
oneself, or having a tendency to take risks.
Many avalanche accidents occur in places very familiar to the victims. Often the victims
became complacent because they had skied (or pick your winter recreation activity) in the area
many times and had never seen an avalanche in the spot before. The victims did not consider
that the conditions on that day increased the avalanche potential in their familiar playground.
In some situations, people become competitive either within their group or with other
groups. For example, if two groups are skiing in the same area, the tendency is to try to ski the
good stuff before the other group does. This desire to put in the first tracks may lead to
disregarding dangerous conditions. Other possible competitive scenarios include skiing or
boarding steeper and steeper terrain or high marking with a snowmobile.
It’s not unusual when skiing in a group that one person becomes the de facto leader. The
tendency of others in the group is to defer to the leader’s judgment as they trust the leader has
more knowledge than them. This may also lead other members of the group to put their own
thinking on auto pilot. In other cases, group members may be too timid to question the leader.
The problem with this situation is that the leader may make a mistake while the entire group
follows like lemmings.
Those folks that have a high tolerance for risk are also susceptible to becoming avalanche
victims. There are probably a variety of reasons why some people are willing to hang it out, but
this kind of behavior becomes a big problem if the individual is also leading a group of people
who don’t understand the risks.
Over the years, I have lost three friends to avalanches. One was tired and took a short cut
across an avalanche path, another didn’t understand the hazard that awaited him at the top of an
ice climb and the third friend set off an avalanche while climbing a steep slope on his
snowmobile. One can only speculate as to why he climbed that slope.
The dangers are real in our mountains and for that reason some folks don’t venture into
them in the winter. I live here so that I can visit the mountains often and during all seasons.
Backcountry skiing up through the trees heavy with snow, seeing the feathery crystals of surface
hoar glint in the sun and carving turns through knee deep powder feeds my soul. But to do that
safely, I’ve taken avalanche classes, carry a shovel, avalanche beacon and probe pole, and study
the human factors that lead to poor decision-making. I also track the weather conditions in the
mountains every day, check the avalanche forecast before going out and make continuous
assessments of the conditions while on the snow. Even so, I know that I am human and could
someday mess up. Be safe out there.
To learn more about current avalanche conditions and find educational resources, visit
the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at http://avalanche.state.co.us.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center.
He has wallowed in the snow in the San Juan Mountains for more than 30 years.