We may be in the middle of winter, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to get out in the world and take in the beauty of God’s creation.
It’s the perfect time to hit the slopes, and you’ve been preparing and practicing to make sure you have the best adventure ever. Safety first, right?
Well, one author’s recent trip to Avalanche School taught her some valuable lessons about what happens when human nature and Mother Nature collide – and it’s a warning to us all.
There are countless fearless souls who like to participate in experiences that may quite likely lead to their deaths.
Not a pleasant, peaceful death either. Death – or at least severe, painful injury – in a way none of us would like to go.
Bungee jumpers, cliff divers, mountain climbers who summit the eight-thousanders, those who like to swim with sharks or surf the biggest waves in the world.
Author Heidi Julavits does not seem to willingly fit into this category of risk-takers, but she recently shared her story about a unique type of school she attended – one that would teach her how not to die.
In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, Julavits takes part in a very necessary course for anyone who likes to take risks in their quest for adventure in the winter – Avalanche School.
But unlike her classmates, she seems all-too-aware of the ironies involved with such a course. She likes the outdoors, sure, and she’s doing research.
She’s also asking all the right questions – questions that would never occur to most of the population – and definitely has the right attitude.
Over the three-day course, she’d learn how not to be buried alive – admittedly, number one on her list of ways she doesn’t want to meet her end.
Her classmates in Avalanche School were the usual suspects – mostly men who lived to risk their lives in the outdoors, who had summitted all the peaks, surfed all the waves, and were ready to tackle the next big adventure.
Others were skiers and hikers with a healthy fear of the dangers their favorite activities could bring.
In Julavits’ words, “Half the room wanted to become less scared of avalanches; the other half wanted to become more.”
While that may not make much sense, what Julavits learns in Avalanche School is far more than just staying safe on the slopes.
The Human Problem
She learns about the arrogance and naivete of human beings.
“To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”
Julavits quotes Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial in her account of the Avalanche School experience.
Maybe Poe’s fear and fascination with death was abnormal, maybe not. But better to be aware than ignorant of the risks.
Taking a safety and prep course like this one on avalanches is always a good idea. No one should take part in a risky activity – no matter how exhilarating – without knowing what they are doing—and getting themselves into.
But here’s the thing: Most “accidents” that occur in recreational activities are due to human stupidity.
Shocker #1: Ninety – ninety!! – percent of deaths and injuries caused by avalanches are not caused by avalanches. That is, people are the ones that cause this natural disaster.
Shocker #2: The largest demographic of victims of avalanches are young, male, and usually have training and experience.
Men, in all their glory, are still mentally stuck in the “caveman” days. “Me strong. Me climb mountain and look impressive. Me know everything.”
To prove further that men are to blame, Julavits’ Avalanche School instructor, a thirty-something male named Ryan (apparently immune from most of the weaknesses of his gender) states that all-female groups make better decisions in dangerous situations and are far less likely to die in them.
Mixed-gender groups are significantly less safe than all-female groups because – even now – women overwhelmingly follow the lead of men.
Now, I’m not bashing men – even though it seems like it. I think they’re great, but facts are facts.
And here are some more facts: In the last decade, an average of about 30 people a year (mostly men) have died in avalanches in the United States, with many others injured and requiring rescue.
According to the Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center, avalanches kill more people in national parks and forests every year than any other type of natural hazard, like falling off cliffs or being mauled by bears. (Also not good ways to go.)
Ryan tells the class that just by taking part in the Avalanche School, the students were now more likely to die than before they walked through the door that morning.
How can that be? Re-read “Shocker #1.”
If I only had a brain…
That’s right – once we feel like we know what we’re doing, we’re far less likely to do what we know we should be doing.
Risk-taking is not doing something dangerous, it’s doing something dangerous – stupidly.
Ryan taught Julavits and her classmates about the six “heuristic” traps. (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too.) It means, “Enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.”
These traps that influence our decision-making – often our stupid decision-making – are “familiarity” – feeling so comfortable that you’re not on your guard; “social facilitation,” otherwise known as peer pressure or “everyone else is doing it;” the “expert halo,” wherein we stop thinking for ourselves because experts know better than we do; “consistency,” like when it’s “too late to turn back now;” and “scarcity” – “I’ll never see powder like this again, so better keep-a-skiin’.”
Bottom line – our arrogance, stubbornness, and fear of looking or feeling stupid makes us, well, stupid in our decision-making.
This is the problem behind most recreational accidents. In fact, Julavits questions why they’re called accidents in the first place.
They’re not accidental; they’re caused by poor, and often woefully stupid, decisions that we knew were wrong and went ahead with anyway.
The stupidity of humans in their decision-making process was the number one lesson to be learned in Avalanche School.
Sure, there was the usual stuff you’d find in any safety course – Power Points, statistics, group and role-playing activities, case studies about how others lost their lives by making stupid decisions, and heading to the slopes to practice not being stupid.
But Julavits seems to have a good head on her shoulders.
She completely recognizes that she’s falling prey to the “expert halo” trap when she follows her instructors to slopes marked under a “considerable” danger warning, all the while wondering which of her expert teachers would be the first to die in an avalanche.
They talk about the horrors of being buried alive, see some avalanche areas, and practice with their equipment.
Meanwhile, Julavits wonders if this course – or others like it – will do anything to keep people alive.
It’s not that safety and preparedness training courses like Avalanche School are a waste of time – quite the contrary.
But if people ignore the training, the warnings, the statistics – as many do – there’s little help for them, no matter how much knowledge they take in.
Knowledge must be coupled with awareness. Awareness of our faults, our arrogance, our belief that we are immortal, impenetrable, immune.
We’re not. We’re human. We’re more fragile than we think.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek adventure or take risks. What it does mean is knowing when to stop and think.
Neglecting our common-sense and training is what kills. It kills people on Mt. Everest who are too stubborn to turn back before they plant their flag.
It kills people who get lost in the desert or mountains because they went off designated trails and didn’t bother to bring water.
What will your legacy be if you die trying to achieve something that boosts your ego? No one will think about how brave you were for trying. They’ll wish you listened.
So get out there. Have fun and live life. Take risks.
But do what you know you’re supposed to and keep yourself alive.
And, this winter, stay smart on the slopes.