Should I Ski Alone in the Backcountry? Statistics Say So
Should I ski alone in the backcountry? D’Arcy McLeish delves further into the truth about skiing solo in the backcountry in the light of a recent study.
A study published last year by the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine looked at data comparing backcountry usage and avalanche accidents in the Swiss and Italian Alps. Their conclusions were interesting. The study found that groups of three or more had a greater chance of being caught in an avalanche than skiers travelling in pairs or alone. Does that mean you should ditch your buddies and start touring solo?
“The study found that groups of three or more had a greater chance of being caught in an avalanche than skiers travelling in pairs or alone”
This study presents evidence that skiing alone in the backcountry is safer. But is it really? Does being alone in the backcountry truly reduce your risk? When you consider all the factors at play, the answer is no, not really.
To explain the results of the study we need to delve into something called heuristics. Heuristics (or human factors) are what makes us human. Our emotions, desires, wants, needs, opinions and motivators play a huge part in our everyday lives (for more reading on human factors in avalanche incidences, see this article). This is as true when we’re about to cross the street as when we’re on a ridge ready to drop into a thousand-foot couloir. So what does that mean for the solo skier or rider?
Solo skier in the backcountry.
Credit to Jon Flobrant via Unsplash.
Outside influence is minimised when you’re alone
I used to ski tour alone a fair amount. Over the span of about three seasons, I found myself heading out of bounds at my local hill, Whistler Blackcomb, where there is easy access to some of the most epic terrain on the south coast of British Columbia.
I think I did it for a few reasons. Firstly, going solo allowed me to ski tour more. I didn’t have to find a partner and if I had limited time and wanted to smash a sidecountry lap, I could do so anytime I wanted. Secondly, there’s nothing like the freedom of being in the mountains alone. There’s no debate of opinion and no outside influence; it’s just you and the mountains. Lastly, with the potential consequences of being buried or injured on my own looming over me, I was more cautious alone than if I would have been in a group situation.
“With the potential consequences of being buried or injured on my own looming over me, I was more cautious alone than if I would have been in a group situation”
At the beginning, those potential consequences kept me cautious and humble. But over time, as I continued to ski the same slopes and slowly started to bang off longer and deeper missions into the mountains, I began to get careless. That’s not to say I was cavalier, I just started to rely a little too heavily on my own experience rather than what I was actually seeing in the snow on that particular day.
Eventually, I bit off a little more than I could chew and went for a ride on a slope I had skied dozens of times without incident. It ripped out much higher than I thought it could and I was buried up to my chest. Fortunately, I was unhurt, but it still took me over an hour to get myself out, by which point I was exhausted, scared and had barely enough juice left in the tank to make it back down into the valley. I learnt a big lesson that day.
Being alone means there is no backup
That is where statistics can fail us. The study mentioned above makes sense, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In smaller groups of two or with a lone skier, human factors are reduced. We have less resources (none in the case a solo skier) at our disposal should something go wrong, and as a result of that we are more cautious and tend to better make decisions based on logic and reason instead of our emotional wants and needs. But as I discovered, human factors still play a significant role in how we make decisions.
Group of backcountry skiers.
Credit to Simon via Pixabay.
“No matter how good a decision maker you are, you are still by yourself”
More importantly, skiing alone is just inherently unsafe. No matter how good a decision maker you are, you are still by yourself. Anyone who has spent any time in the mountain environment will tell you that things can (and do) go wrong. It doesn’t have to be an avalanche. Maybe you clip a rock, catch an edge or make a bad judgement call on a line you’re skiing and take a tumble. All can lead to disaster. Even in a group, a broken ankle is an epic drama. Alone? You’re screwed.
Solo is a No Go
So should you ski alone? While the study presents evidence that you have a lower chance of getting caught in an avalanche in groups of two or as a solo skier or rider, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The potential consequences of something happening to you when you’re out in the ether all by yourself can be catastrophic. Managing that risk is extremely difficult, especially over time, with repeated exposure.
“The potential consequences of something happening to you when you’re out in the ether all by yourself can be catastrophic”
Furthermore, if something does happen, you have potentially put others at risk — the folks tasked with coming to find you. In a group, where the awareness of risk is part of the implied collective agreement you enter into before heading into the mountains, that’s not such an issue. But solo, you’re putting others at risk because of a bad decision to head out there alone in the first place. Besides, why go alone? Skiing with a friend is always better.
Be safe, ski hard.