Backcountry Safe: Lessons Learned So That Every Journey Ends With A Safe Return

(Photo: Lynne Ratzke)

We thought we had done everything right. We had the three essentials of backcountry skiing – transceiver, shovel, probe – and we knew how to use them. We had taken AST 1 or AST 2 courses. We were all experienced skiers and good friends. And we had hired an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) ski guide. But things went terribly wrong.

On February 21, 2016, our group was hit by a size 2.5-3 avalanche. Five people were fully buried, five people partly buried. There were multiple serious injuries; broken bones, torn knees, dislocated shoulders, internal injuries, brain trauma, multiple surgeries. Two airlifted to ICU’s. Husband, father and friend Doug Churchill died. All of us are forever altered by the experience. The trauma will always be there.

So what went wrong? Looking back, it appears that there were a lot of escalating mistakes made not just by our guide but also by us, the clients – a fatal combination of ignorance, complacency, lack of communication and poor decision-making. Searching for answers and accountability from the ACMG left us frustrated and was the impetus to launch an online initiative called Backcountry Safe. Our website tells the story of our avalanche in a 30 minute documentary and the lessons we have learned. With support of the ACMG, we are using our experience as a catalyst for change through open and honest dialogue between all users, recreationalists and professionals.

How can Backcountry Safe help you? Whether you are hiking, paddling, climbing, snowshoeing or backcountry skiing, we have identified some key areas where we, as clients, made mistakes or could have done things better. These lessons are applicable to all backcountry activities, especially group activities led by a professional guide, expert or volunteer leader. Most lessons center around communication, education and preparedness.

• Always have a pre-trip group planning session. Before you go talk about trip objectives, personal tolerance for risk, fitness levels and skill level required. Although these may be your good friends and you hate to miss out, be honest – is this the right group or trip for you? Be willing to say no. If you or someone else prefers a faster pace or more exposure, are you/they willing to accommodate so that everyone feels comfortable and safe? The more aligned the group, the safer the decision-making.
• Always have a brief morning meeting before you go, even if it is at the trailhead or in the local coffee shop. Has the situation or conditions changed that may require you to adjust your outing? Do you have a back-up plan?
• Don’t rely on others for critical information such as avalanche conditions, public alerts or weather reports. Be responsible and check it yourself.
• Speak up. Although a designated leader/guide can help facilitate group decisions, all members should be engaged in decision-making. Strong two-way communication is the key to balance safety with an enjoyable experience. Never blindly follow – ask questions.
• If you hire a professional guide, interview him/her. You wouldn’t hand over your investments to a complete stranger, so why would you do that with your life?
• Check in frequently with each other and maintain a reasonable pace and flow so that in case of an emergency, energy levels are not a limiting factor.
• Practice accident/incident scenarios. Especially in avalanche related activities, practice, practice, practice. Every second counts.
• Have a day end debrief. Did you safely and effectively manage the risk? Did everyone feel comfortable and safe? What went well? Are there areas for improvement?
• And most importantly be aware of the cognitive biases/heuristics that interfere with good individual and group decision-making. Never underestimate the power of group dynamics. Communicate! Beware of the expert halo, overconfidence, unconscious assumptions, over-weighting decision choices based on information that supports your desired outcome, the ostrich effect, desire for social acceptance, etc.
• Get educated. Take avalanche courses. Learn first aid. Research the terrain. Improve your mountain skills. Learn about weather patterns especially in the mountain environment.
• Be cognizant of your group size. Higher risk activities like backcountry skiing or mountain climbing are safer when the group size is small. Understand that the larger the group, the harder it is to have a cohesive team that makes well-informed decisions together.
• Be prepared for the activity (or to spend the night outside) with proper clothing, nutrition/hydration, first aid kit, headlamp, compass/map, safety gear, space blanket, matches. Ensure that all equipment is in good working condition.
• Leave a trip plan and expected return time with a trusted individual.
• At minimum carry a fully charged cell phone. Consider one or more secondary communication devices such as a satellite phone, inReach, Spot of VHF radio.

As we navigate the changes that Covid has necessitated in our lives, getting outside with friends continues to be hugely important to our physical and mental health. Preparedness, education, personal responsibility and strong communication are essential to ensure that all our adventures end with a safe return.

Learn more about Backcountry Safe on our website:


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