Avalanche! Life and death by degrees


By Eric Ming, Watch Contributor


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The Battleship heading on a collision course with Hwy. 550.  Jonathan Thompson photo

On Jan. 5, a skier participating in an avalanche course in Senator Beck Basin on Red Mountain Pass was buried under three meters of avalanche debris and killed.

Two in-bounds skiers were caught in a slide on Kachina Peak, at Taos Ski Valley, on Jan. 17. Both were trapped under the snow for around 20 minutes and eventually died.

On Jan. 21, a skier in the Ashcroft area, near Aspen, was buried on a slope near where he had been skiing for the previous two days.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) listed 193 avalanches in 10 days last month, between Jan. 19-29 — and those were just the slides that were reported.

“So far this season, CAIC has recorded 54 people caught in avalanches,” the state’s forecasters wrote on Jan. 25. “Nineteen people were partially buried (three of whom had their heads beneath the snow) and four were completely buried. Tragically, two of these accidents resulted in fatalities.”

By contrast, “On average in a single season, CAIC gets reports of 63 people caught in avalanches and six people die in avalanche accidents.”

“The numbers above are just the incidents we know about, and we’re only halfway through the season. Bottom line: We have dangerous snowpack conditions this year, and even if we inch across the line to Moderate danger, conditions will not be safe for the foreseeable future. Most avalanche accidents happen when the avalanche danger is rated MODERATE or CONSIDERABLE.”

By Feb. 1, the numbers went up again, and the CAIC documented three more people caught in avalanches. These are “impressive and scary” statistics, the forecasters wrote.

Nine out of every 10 avalanches is caused by a backcountry traveler, and this year’s cycle seems far fiercer than usual. Is it because there are more people out there than usual? Is this going to be the year that snow riders recall as extremely volatile and/or especially deadly?

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Jerry Roberts readies 50 lb. charges for helicopter mitigation.  Mark Rawstoned photo

Jerry Roberts has labored over 40 years in the San Juans forecasting weather and avalanches for various organizations including the Colorado Department of Transportation, CAIC, INSTAAR and many avalanche education programs. Based on statistics in stacks of yellow, Rite in the Rain notebooks that he kept each winter on snowpack and weather conditions, he said, “Only six years were stable as a Mormon marriage. The San Juans are a desert range, dry, with a shallow snowpack and few storms.”

Such characteristics make for what he calls a “conditionally unstable” snowpack.

“You can’t ski the San Juans aggressively. You might get away with it for awhile, based on dumb luck, but eventually you’ll get caught,” Roberts said. “Ask many of the locals who’ve been buried numerous times. Pick your posse carefully — not one filled with Type A personalities, but a group with a variety of personalities. Beware of the ‘Expert Halo’ trail boss. No one wants to be the timid one, but you should always speak up and question a decision in a group if you are uncomfortable.” Snowpacks have regional climate characteristics, and Colorado’s is known as a “Continental” snowpack. This type of snowpack tends to be shallow, with temperature gradients that create faceted, depth-hoar snow crystals — and can result in long-term, unstable layers often buried near the ground. A Continental snowpack is considered extremely capricious and unpredictable when it comes to skiing or boarding safely, and snow in the San Juans, in particular, is generally the sketchiest of the lot.

Ridgway resident Angela Hawse is the president of the American Mountain Guides Association, and a former forecaster for Telluride Helitrax. “We have the worst Continental snowpack anywhere,” Hawse said. She employs a conservative strategy in the San Juans. “Everyone has to be a forecaster,” she said. “The days of going along with the group, expecting someone else to be the leader and casually ignoring safety protocols and equipment, are no longer appropriate.”

Peter Lev is a contemporary of Roberts, having worked in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, for the highway department, the Alta ski area, and as a forecaster and lead guide for Mike Wiegele’s helicopter operation in Canada.

“The Wasatch is pretty well known for lots of avalanches,” he said, “but Colorado takes the cake for its Continental snow climate. That’s why there are so many deaths here. And hazards exist frequently into spring. It doesn’t go away; it just goes into relaxed mode every so often.”

A natural slide from mid-January crossed the Ophir Pass Road, near Red Mountain Pass. (Photo by Bill Liske)


Red Mountain Pass seems to have been discovered this year: the number of skiers appears to have increased, along with new huts and yurts that accommodate overnight skiers and those looking for guides and avalanche courses. Roberts recalled when three cars parked on the pass was a big day; now Red is going the way of Teton Pass in Wyoming and Berthoud Pass on the Front Range, with their backcountry crowds and all the complications that go with finding parking, to having groups skiing above you in hazardous places, to turning a potentially untracked paradise into a tracked up, ski-area-like wasteland.

Hawse views more people overnighting on Red as a numbers game, where there are “more people without experience, and there will be more incidents. But the culture of sharing (avalanche information) is changing in a positive way,” she added. “People’s willingness to send observations to online avalanche sites is going to prevent more accidents.”

Roberts observes that statistically, the number of “winter recreationists doubles every five years but avalanche fatality rates have remained flat for the last 20 years.”

The question is whether avalanche training will be enough, given the increasing crowds. We’ll see if that holds true.

Lev believes that the moon’s gravitational pull influences not only tides but also snowpacks — and that as a result, there is more tension in the layers of a snowpack at certain times than there is at others.

“Sometimes the snowpack’s more relaxed,” he said — and people can get by with skiing things that might not otherwise be safe.

By contrast, in conditions like we’ve had the past few weeks, he advises pulling back to “pet runs,” places that you know well and that are safe to ski.


The slide on Jan. 21 that killed a skier south of Ashcroft happened on the third day of the trip. The group had been doing laps on a nearby slope with an angle of less than 30 degrees, according to a CAIC report. On Jan. 21, the skiers moved to a slightly steeper slope that tilted about 35 degrees. In a season with this much instability, those extra four or five degrees made all the difference, and a skier triggered a release 400-foot wide and 2-to-4-feet deep that ran 600 linear feet.

The angle of the slope that failed in Senator Beck Basin was between 32 and 34 degrees, according to the post accident assessment by the CAIC. The probability of a slope avalanching over 30 degrees goes up significantly, especially in seasons where there is buried weakness in a snowpack (and there is almost always some weakness).

The Utah Avalanche Center offers an online training program called Know Before You Go. In the section entitled “Get Out of Harm’s Way,” there is crucial information about angles and the importance of slope steepness. Statistically, most avalanches are triggered on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. When the Ashcroft skier decided to transition from a northeast-facing slope below 30 degrees to a slope of 35 degrees, on a day where there had been an avalanche warning specific to northeast slopes, he was moving into a perfect storm.

For 25 years, Roberts taught snow science/avalanche courses to students from Prescott College.

“Avoid the hazards,” he said. “Avoid getting caught. Take the old man route back home. Good route finding will always serve you well, and is the most important skill you can develop for the winter mountains.”

Because snow and weather conditions vary, forecasters divide travel areas into zones. Colorado has 12. Lev considers avalanche forecasts “broad brush strokes.”

“We have to remember, there are hundreds of slopes out there that can behave differently,” he pointed out. As accurate as forecasts can be, there are still endless variations not only in big ski lines, but also on small slopes and terrain traps (features that can bury you just as easily). Roberts advises stepping aside from the group and making your own “environmental observations.” He calls the personal sphere that your inner snow safety specialist engages in “Nowcasting.” Use your “patroller’s legs” to feel  the snow density: is the slab collapsing/fracturing or for anything in your immediate surroundings that hints at instability. It’s all part of the package that makes for a safe day  in the mountains.

“Every year is a new experiment,” Roberts summed up. The snow depth is different, the wind is from an unexpected direction and the water content (CWE) varies from storm to storm. It is hard to standardize and make generalizations.

Hawse tells her winter clients, “This isn’t the place to ski the gnar.” They are encouraged to come back in spring if they want to ski bigger lines. She says her “Spidey sense gets up” when she is on slopes of about 33 degrees. When Hawse worked for Helitrax, and the slope had been mitigated with explosives, 35 degrees might have been OK to ski. But if the slope hasn’t had the shock of explosives, she said, she is going to ski lower angled terrain.

She also reads the full day’s forecast, and any hazards that may exist, on avalanche sites. “People don’t do a very good job of alerting properly to the yellow colored ‘Moderate’ rating on avalanche sites. They don’t even take the rating ‘Considerable’ seriously enough,” she said. Reading all the analysis is critical, she said — not just skimming the colors on the hazard tabs. You start to understand forecasting when you can put all the components together: weather, snowpack history and weaknesses, wind, slope angles and surrounding terrain.

Hawse also agrees with her mentor, Jerry Roberts, that “hasty pits” — quickly dug snowpits — are an effective way to assess conditions as you travel. They’re efficient, and can tell you a lot about how the snowpack is holding together. She keeps a probe clipped to her pack so it is readily at hand, and she can poke around in snow that she is unsure of. Although there are apps you can download on your phone that show a slope’s angle, Hawse uses a compass (an old LifeLink Slope Meter accomplishes the same thing).

All three skiers have spent decades managing avalanche risks for the safety of untold numbers of people, whether they were skiing and riding in hazardous mountain terrain or merely driving up Red Mountain Pass or Little Cottonwood Canyon. And they all have their own version of pulling back to Lev’s “pet slopes” — places with angles of 30 degrees and lower when things are unstable and risky.

“We are not done with this season — not even a chance,” Lev emphasized.

Roberts reiterated the words of the Buddha: “Kill the ego, kill the desire” when it comes to skiing or riding the big line that might kill you.



Before you leave the house, check out the Friends of the CAIC’s Instagram page, which has photos of recent slides (an education in and of itself).

Jerry Roberts has collated seemingly every relevant avalanche and weather related site in one place, with links to remote weather stations, road conditions, extended forecasts, jet stream, radar, infrared, SNOTEL, highway cameras and more at: therobertreport.net/weather-links-2/

State weather stations can be found here: avalanche.state.co.us/observations/weather-stations/.

The Utah Avalanche Center’s excellent online education program, ‘Know Before You Go,’ is free of charge. The videos they’ve produced offer a good sense of getting caught in a slide. Find both at utahavalanchecenter.org.

A definition of a conditionally unstable snow pack from INSTAAR Occasional Paper
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North Face Will Help Open A Rare Women-Only Rock Guiding Course In Boulder ~ Colorado Public Radio

Hey …  here’s another great story/interview with old saddle pal Angela Hawse who was also a former Prescott College student of mine from a long time ago. 




Audio: North Face Helps Open A Rare Women-Only Rock Guiding Course

American Mountain Guides Association president Angela Hawse in action.

Courtesy of Angela Hawse

Like a lot of careers in the outdoors, the world of rock guiding can be a very “bro/bra” culture.

Angela Hawse, the president of the American Mountain Guides Association, is familiar with that. Only eight percent of the organization’s certified guides are women, Hawse said.

But now, they’re trying to change that.

With the help of The North Face, the American Mountain Guides Association is launching its first-ever women-only rock guiding course in Boulder this September. Hawse will be one of the course instructors.

Hawse talked to Colorado Matters about how women haven’t had enough role models in the rock guide community.

“When I started guiding over 30 years ago, I had very few role models that I could look up to as women that were successful and had carved out a career and had longevity with that,” she said.

Through the course, Hawse and her team are trying to encourage more inclusivity and eliminate as much unconscious bias as possible

Ouray’s iconic ice park has a plan for its future that could be a blueprint for other troubled Western wonders ~ The Colorado Sun


Climbers work their way up the frozen walls in the Ouray Ice Park on Dec. 29, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)


Ouray Ice Park to remain volunteer-managed under new plan after a thorny proposal to shift management to the city. Fees for groups could become a model for pay-to-play in popular recreation areas.


Bark Beetles Continue To Devastate Colorado Forests. Climate Change Isn’t Helping ~ Colorado Public Radio

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Audio: Bark Beetles Continue To Devastate Forests. Climate Change Isn’t Helping

Spruce Beetle damage in the San Juan National Forest in 2018.

Courtesy of Dan West

Bark beetle outbreaks have continued to grow in parts of Colorado, and climate change could make the situation worse.

The State Forest Service does a yearly flyover to track and map the damage. Dan West is an entomologist with the state, and said one notable finding from the 2018 survey is the continued spread of the spruce beetle.

West talked to Colorado Matters about what’s being done about the beetle, and how the damage will impact the ecosystem for years to come.

The bug is different from the mountain pine beetle, known for its damage to lodgepole pine. West said the spruce beetle has been the most widespread and destructive forest pest in Colorado for seven consecutive years.

“About 40 percent of our spruce fir forests have been affected by spruce beetle since the year 2000,” West said.

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The spread of spruce beetles in Colorado forests from 2004 to 2018.
Courtesy of Dan West

The most damaged areas are in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, and parts of the San Juan Mountains, West Elk Mountains and the Sawatch Range. West said record-warm temperatures and record-low precipitation help the beetle thrive.

“That means there’s much fewer water resources that are available to these trees, which they use as a defense mechanism against attacking bark beetles,” West said. “So if it’s warmer and dryer in the near future, those prolonged drought events and warm periods cause these bark beetles to emerge earlier, have longer periods to be able to attack trees, and have fewer defenses that they’re fighting.”

Misjudgments led to fatal avalanche on Red Mountain Pass ~ Durango Herald

Combination of factors contributed to man’s death

The area where two avalanches killed a backcountry skier who was taking part in a Silverton Avalanche School course earlier this month on Red Mountain Pass.


2019/01/05 … Fatality at Upper Senator Beck Basin ~ Final accident report … CAIC


Eric Ming photo


CAIC photo

Avalanche Comments

This accident involved two avalanches. The first was a hard slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by the group of skiers, medium sized relative to the path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person (HS-ASu-R2-D2-O). The group triggered the avalanche near a shallow, rocky outcrop. It likely broke on a buried layer of near-surface facets that developed between storms during the first few days of the year. The avalanche stepped down to deeper weak layers near the ground, entraining the entire season’s snowpack. The face of the crown ranged from 12 inches to 54 inches deep. The avalanche released on a south-southeast facing slope around 32 degrees in steepness.

A crack from the first avalanche ran through the snow, releasing a second avalanche (remote trigger) on a connected east-facing slope. The second avalanche was a hard slab, medium sized relative to path, and had the destructive force to bury, injure, or kill a person (HS-ASr-R2-D2-O). Investigators estimated that the average depth of the crown face was 36 inches. The avalanche released on a slope around 35 degrees in steepness.

The debris from both slides overlapped at the bottom of the slope.

Events Leading to the Avalanche

The group met the morning of Friday, January 4, at the beginning of an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education  (AIARE) 2 avalanche class at the Silverton Avalanche School (SAS). This is the second course in the recreational curriculum created by the AIARE. The class spent most of the day in Silverton. In the afternoon, ten students and two instructors went to the St. Paul Lodge near the top of Red Mountain Pass. Their plan was to spend the night at the lodge and Saturday in the backcountry. They planned to return to the lodge on Saturday night, and spend Sunday in the backcountry before the course ended on Sunday afternoon.

Friday evening in the lodge, they divided into two groups. The instructors assigned each group a large section of terrain on Red Mountain Pass and asked them to plan a tour for the next day. Group 1 planned to travel to the west side of US 550 and into the area around Senator Beck Mine. Group 2 would stay on the east side of the highway in the Prospect Gulch area. Group 1 spent about 2 hours planning their tour with their instructor (Skier 1). Eventually Skier 1 went to bed, but the rest of the group spent an additional hour on their plan for the next day.

Saturday morning the two groups left the lodge for their day in the field. They met with a staff member of the Silverton Avalanche School, who relayed current weather information, the avalanche danger rating, and the avalanche problem list from the January 5 backcountry avalanche forecast issued by the CAIC. Group 1 descended to the highway, crossed, and headed toward Senator Beck Mine.

Group 1 had a detailed trip plan that included a time schedule, a series of waypoints, and locations where they needed to make decisions. Their ultimate goal was to climb a peak locally known as South Telluride Peak (marked 13510 on USGS maps). They followed their planned route with a minor variation just below treeline. They stopped as planned at their first decision point, below a steep slope just above treeline. They decided that rather than ascend a snow-covered portion of the slope, they would ascended a slightly steeper section of the slope where grass was sticking out of the snow. They used the shallow snow on the southeast aspect to reduce their exposure to avalanches. They continued up the drainage, making observations, and discussing the avalanche conditions. They observed a whumpf in a grassy area of shallow snow, but no other signs of instability. At about 12,700 feet they dug a snow profile on a southeast-facing slope and conducted a series of column tests. None of the tests highlighted instability on a specific layer or showed propensity for crack propagation (STN, CTN, ECTN. Both the ECT and CT broke 57 cm off the ground with continued blows from the shoulder) (AAA 2016). Their route continued uphill towards point 13106 to the west of the Senator Beck Mine. It was almost 2:00 PM and they decided it was time to look for a descent route and return to the highway.

Their trip plan identified two descent options. The first was to descend the same way they had come up. The second was to descend the east side of a small cirque, travel to the northeast to their ascent route, and then descend the way they had come up. They decided on the second route.

After climbing to the top of point 13106, they moved west to the low point of the saddle between point 13106 and the rest of the cirque. Their plan was to descend a south aspect with shallow snow to reduce the risk of avalanches. They discussed moving the group from the saddle to a mid-slope bench where grass was sticking out of the snow. From there they would descend the rest of the slope, before returning to their skin track for the rest of the descent.

The group decided to travel down the first section to the bench in short succession. Skier 1 would start and when he was part way down, Skier 2 would follow. This would continue until the group was all on the bench. Skier 1 explained the plan and also where he wanted the group to travel on the slope, providing a boundary on the skier’s right (west) for them not to cross. He began his descent. Skier 2 followed, traveling a little to the skier’s right (west) of Skier 1. Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 all began sidestepping down the slope so they could see Skiers 1 and 2 as they descended. The snow surface was hard wind-packed snow. Skiers 3, 4, and 6 stopped to adjust equipment and get ready for their descent. Skier 5 continued to sidestep downhill. He saw a crack shoot across the slope and yelled “Avalanche!”

Accident Summary

The avalanche caught all six skiers. When the avalanche caught Skier 1, his ski bindings released and he fell forward, traveling head downhill on his belly. He was under the snow at times, but rose to the surface as the debris stopped. He lost both skis and one ski pole. He was carried to the bottom of the slope.

When the first avalanche stopped, Skier 1 was partially buried–not critical (his head was not under avalanche debris). He stood up and saw a second avalanche coming at him from an adjacent slope. The debris from the second avalanche ran over the debris of the first avalanche, but stopped short of Skier 1.

The first avalanche caught Skier 2 and carried him to the bottom of the slope. The rest of the group was preoccupied with their own involvement in the slide, so we do not know Skier 2’s condition at the end of the first avalanche. The second avalanche overran Skier 2’s position in the debris of the first avalanche.

The avalanche carried Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 between 15 and 20 feet downhill. The debris around them remained in large blocks, several feet thick and up to 12 feet wide. Skiers 3, 4, 5, and 6 stood up in the blocks of debris and looked around. They saw the second avalanche overrunning the debris of the first avalanche, but could not see Skiers 1 and 2.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Your Heart and Brain Are Working Against You in Avalanche Terrain ~ Powder Mag …… especially timely piece for backcountry users


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If you’re a backcountry skier, you spend a lot of time thinking about the snowpack. You pay attention to the impacts of weather and time on the layers hidden below surface. You anticipate where there may be strengths and weaknesses, and then you dig big holes in the snow, seeking evidence. You investigate, rigorously, because you know your life depends on it. But how rigorously do you investigate the universe of cognitive principles hiding beneath every thought you have in and about avalanche country?

In Whitefish, Montana, one skier is digging into the rich fields of psychology and economic theory to advance the entire ski community’s understanding of backcountry behavior.

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Every winter, Dr. Sara Boilen, a licensed clinical psychologist, teaches skiers in local avalanche workshops about decision-making. This includes a lesson in the human factors, a theory that dates back to a 2002 paper published by the engineer and avalanche researcher Ian McCammon. In an analysis of more than 600 avalanche incidents, he observed certain reoccurring mental shortcuts that undermined otherwise good judgement: familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, scarcity (tracks), and social proof. Acknowledging the presence and danger of these heuristic traps, commonly referred to by their acronym FACETS, has become an essential element of safety dialogue over the past 16 years.

“FACETS gives us a simple, easy way to organize a complicated world—but it’s just not the ending point,” Boilen says.

Currently, she is working on a new paper, alongside Montana-based snow scientist Erich Peitzch, that takes one step closer to the source of backcountry behaviors: the brain. Boilen is exploring how skiers utilize certain well-studied cognitive processes to receive, interpret, and use information while planning ski trips and traveling through avalanche terrain. She doesn’t have a nifty nemonic device, but she does have a catch-phrase. Her work investigates how our “dumb hearts and lazy brains” work against us while we try to make cool, calculated decisions.

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Related reading: Explore our award-winning digital feature, The Human Factor.

When we engage in planning, organization, strategy, and other complex behaviors, the prefrontal cortex lights up with activity. When we get emotionally overwhelmed—say, from stoke or from fear—cognitive activity shifts over to the limbic system, which is what we talk about when we talk about the heart. We no longer think as methodically, because the limbic system just doesn’t interpret data as well as the prefrontal cortex. We may make dangerous decisions because we’re fixated on glorious shiny things, like powder and sunshine. Conversely, we may make overly conservative decisions because we’re excessively anxious. This is the dumb heart in prime form.

“There are ways to disengage our limbic system activation, and pull us back,” Boilen says. “I teach that you can use your body, your words, or your outside surroundings. [Processing these stimuli] happens in our cerebral cortex. So if I can engage my cerebral cortex, I’ve broken the rhythm in my brain.”

Choose a physical cue, like clicking your ski poles together, wiggling your toes, or clapping your hands. Boilen’s personal stratagem is to sing the Grateful Dead’s “El Paso” aloud. She frequently counsels clients to name every color they see—not so helpful for skiers, she jokes, but the idea is to somehow focus, analytically, on the outside world. Maybe try to name every mountain in sight. Boilen says our brains sometimes mistake a rapid heart rate for anxiety, so the top of a really steep bootpack is not an ideal place to make big decisions, for example. Stop in a safe place for a snack break, harness your mind, and then evaluate your plan.

Even when our dumb hearts aren’t dominating our decision-making, we unknowingly use an enormous collection of processes to efficiently synthesize information and make judgements. Normally, this is helpful. But if unconscious processes steal the mic in high-stakes scenarios, they can give us bad data, resulting in a faulty analysis. That’s our lazy brain at work.

“We’re always [using these processes],” Boilen says, “But we’re not aware that we’re doing it, and sometimes it’s not really serving us.”

Anchoring describes our tendency to hold super tightly one piece of information, and to compare all new information to that reference point. It’s the cognitive process advertisers exploit when they show how much an item was priced before a sale, so you anchor to the original price point and view the discount more favorably in comparison, regardless of how affordable the item is. For many backcountry skiers, the avalanche report and observations are likely anchors. While these sources offer valuable data, conditions change and microclimates exist. When digging a pit, Boilen recommends taking a moment to isolate your evaluation to the data right in front of you. There are other types of anchors, too: Boilen says she’s anchored to the concept that snow is really dangerous, which can result in challenges related to being over-conservative.

You’re probably familiar with confirmation bias, the propensity to see data in our environment that supports our original hypothesis. Expecting green-light conditions, and overlooking red flags, is clearly dangerous. “I recommend assigning somebody who is knowledgeable, confident, and willing to speak up in your group to be the Devil’s Advocate for the day,” Boilen says. “This person’s job is to battle confirmation bias. They are going to come up with valid arguments against whatever the group is moving toward.”

And you’ve likely heard of sunk cost: “I’ve been planning this for two weeks, I drove all the way here, I spent all this money, I paid for this helicopter,” Boilen says. “Here’s the tricky thing, if I invest, say, $1,000 or six hours that has led me to this present moment… I can’t do anything in this moment to actually get back that $1,000 or six hours, but I make decisions about the future as if it will, somehow.” If you notice this thought pattern, try to tap into that logical brain.


Related reading: The Human Factor 2.0: Changing the Way We Look at Risk

Sunk cost has a buddy, Boilen says, in opportunity cost. “I think economists don’t really know what FOMO is, but we do,” she explains. “However, we tend to overestimate how disappointed we will be… and so we think, ‘If I don’t ski that line today, I’m going to be crushed, and then when I see it on Instagram, I’m going to be devastated and I’m probably never going to get out of bed again.’” One familiar maneuver for slowing your roll is the pre-mortem analysis: What would they write about you in the avalanche fatality report? “Super morbid, really helpful,” Boilen says. Additionally, creating time to debrief can correct memories that may someday fuel opportunity cost anxieties. “What we know about memories is that we change them every time we remember them, and especially when we talk about them,” she notes. This happens when we re-live our best days on snow. “We can have a script that highlights that this was a dangerous thing we did, not just a fun thing that we did.”

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Defaulting is exactly what it sounds like. “Our brain loves to not decide things,” Boilen says. “We love to default, or revert to the mean, or do what we know.” In the backcountry, this acts in concert with anchoring, leading us to rigidly stick with a plan. If we have a Plan A, we may default to it even when conditions change, because, as everyone knows, Plan B is not as desirable. Boilen recommends changing the letters: perhaps form a Plan N and a Plan K, or label your plans with route descriptors. “Suddenly, your brain is like, ‘I can’t be lazy, I have to think about this.’ And that’s what we want.”

“I’m really beating up on the brain,” Boilen says. “But, hopefully, in the spirit of empowering ourselves to make better decisions.”

Like any of your backcountry skill sets, your awareness of cognitive biases and the ability to interrupt them can improve over time, with practice. If you can manage terrain and snow hazards, you can manage your brain. Make it a habit to observe your thought process, and determine whether these brain traps have taken over. Think of it like digging a snow pit of the mind.

human condition photos, rŌbert

High honors from high altitude ~ The Watch


From the Grammys to alpine ski racing, awards made in Ridgway are all over the world

Lisa Issenberg
Lisa Issenberg (Photo by Eric Ming)

The creative output of Ridgway metalworkers Lisa Issenberg, owner of Kiitellä, and John Billings of Billings Artworks has touched thousands of lives in some of the most elite professions on the planet.

Billings is responsible for the music industry’s highest honor, the Grammy Award, every one of which is individually crafted in the basement of his Ridgway studio.

Issenberg has designed awards for the American Alpine Club and for competitors in many winter alpine sports. Slalom superstar Mikaela Shiffrin of Vail has hoisted at least 10 of Issenberg’s made-in-Ridgway awards overhead in her brief career, and female racing greats Lindsey Vonn, also of Vail, and Bernadette Schild of Austria, Federica Brignone of Italy and Tessa Worley of France have all won Issenberg’s medals, too.


For one of her clients, Squaw Valley, host of the 2017 FIS Ski World Cup races, Issenberg designed stainless steel awards shaped like skis. The skis were modeled after vintage wooden boards with graphics reminiscent of an antique ski poster (a nod to the historic venue).

“Every piece is new, every project is custom,” Issenberg said of her work. “It’s a poor business model.”

It does, however, allow her to tailor each award specifically to the needs of each client, something Issenberg thinks a lot about.

She got her start in Telluride, where she moved after college.

“I guess it was Telluride that influenced me, but mostly it was finding (the nearby small community of) Ophir. I remember having a feeling of home that I’d never experienced,” Issenberg recalled.

“The combination of getting outside, high into the mountains, at first with a camera,” for photographs she fused with metal jewelry, was an initial inspiration.

“Bärbel Hacke at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art took me in when I was just 21 and sold my work. I’m so grateful,” Issenberg said. Almost three decades later, the gallery still represents her.

As she met more people, her work broadened.

“Mountainfilm asked me to create awards, and that led to work for the Telluride Regional Medical Center, and for the Michael G. Palm Theatre, which to this day is the site of my largest donor wall,” she said. “All the while I was accepting assignments for everything from furniture to metal railings. I said yes to everything. I felt fortunate, but it was a scattered feeling.”

So Issenberg took a break to study industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.

“I was out of place there,” she said frankly. “I was an artist. Eventually, somebody told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do.’”

It’s a philosophy she’s followed ever since. Her design today is a fusion of art and a clean aesthetic coupled with a newfound understanding of how industrial processes work.

“Prior to design school, my personal design ‘depth’ felt so limited,” Issenberg said. “I’d come up with one design and not know how to go deeper. It cuts off passion when you can’t go deeper. I learned that whatever the object, no matter how simple,” its permutations are limitless. “It was a world of possibilities that I brought back with me to the mountains.”

Now in Ridgway, she decided to focus solely on creating awards, and today her portfolio includes clients from Marmot to KEEN to Squaw Valley, Lake Placid, the Vail Valley Foundation and more.

“With any project, my design philosophy is multifold,” she said. “My first thought is to learn what is the essence of a place or an event. Everything will be different, whether it’s a snowboard race or a theater. The second is to see what’s essential. It can’t just be a simple, minimal sculpture with no words. Names and titles are part of this. Often there are logos and dates, and sometimes more than that. I want to use only what is absolutely essential, to take all these objects and ask, ‘How can I strip these away, so the essence is what speaks to people?’”

Commissions often come by word-of-mouth. Two years ago, Issenberg designed awards for the U.S. Ski Team Freestyle National Championships in Lake Placid. That is where Jenna Lute, an event manager for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, first spied Issenberg’s designs.

“We’d been using the same medals since the beginning of time,” Lute recalled. “I had no idea we had a choice. Lisa’s awards had a rustic look and the way she layered colors on them was really cool. They were multi-dimensional. So, I reached out to her. I was surprised that it’s just her, a one-owner business. I put through a proposal to our CEO that we use her medals for all our World Cups this year. He really liked her work and said yes.”

Accordingly, Issenberg has designed awards for World Cup bobsled, skeleton, luge, and freestyle aerials and moguls events (in Lake Placid next week).

Earlier this season, her awards went to elite downhill men’s skiers at the World Cup Birds of Prey event in Beaver Creek.

The work “is enormously fulfilling on so many levels, artistically and philosophically,” she said.

Some of the awards she’s proudest of have been given out by organizations such as the Conservation Alliance, “which distributes funds to smaller groups in order to, say, clean up a river, or take down a dam, or protect open space,” and to individuals deeply involved in conservation, like the former Secretary of the Interior.

“Last year, Sally Jewell received one of my awards from the American Alpine Club,” Issenberg said. “She’ll never know me. I’m just tickled I got to create an award for someone I admire and am thankful for.”

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