What I Learned In Avalanche School, by Heidi Julavits

Gearflogger reviews What I Learned in Avalanche School by Heidi JulavitsIf you're looking for a New Year's resolution, how about committing to being safer in your backcountry adventures? Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Heidi Julavits has penned a great article about backcountry decision making. Heidi admits she is an unusual avalanche school student, because she doesn't spend much time in avalanche terrain. She cops to two reasons for making the investment: first, "Preparing for hypothetical terrible events (a terrorist attack involving high-speed elevators in a Vegas hotel; the dismasting of a sailboat while rounding Cape Horn) provides a creative high to which I’ve become addicted." And second, "Among the deaths I do not wish, being buried alive is the one I do not wish the most." Heidi is also a novelist, and her unusual explorations into dealing with worst-case scenarios provide grist for her writing.

The thrust of her article is the irony that taking an avalanche class statistically increases your odds of dying in said event. The question is why that should be so. She starts her search for answers by looking at how people make bad decisions, referencing David Page's 2016 classic The Human Factor 2.0 that traces "the shift in avalanche education away from snow-pit forensics and toward human forensics." Heidi's working theory is, "The curriculum of preparedness, no matter the cataclysm, isn’t only about the concrete knowledge and skills a person must acquire to survive. Often these curriculums make legible human contradiction and weakness."

That pretty much sums it up. She goes on to outline the six basic mistakes people make – no spoilers here, but know that they're all psychological rather than technical – and along the way provides some interesting asides, including the fact that all-female groups make better decisions than all-male or mixed-gender groups. In her own experience, she recounts "I do and did speak up, often repeatedly. I was just never heard." It's a great read that ends in an unexpected place: the need for "emotional vulnerability" to minimize negative influence within the decision making process.

If that sounds like a little too much navel-gazing to you, just remember that the number one cause of expedition failure is personality conflict, a fact recounted in Climbing: Expedition Planning by Clyde Soles and Phil Powers. Once you realize that, you have to ask yourself why personality matters so much to a successful expedition, and then suddenly it starts to make a lot of sense.



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