Highlights from the NW Snow & Avalanche Workshop

Colin's talk at NSAW

I attended the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Seattle last weekend. The themes that ran throughout the workshop were safety, decision-making, and communication.

Professional Panel:

We started the morning with a professional panel on how to improve workers safety. There were six of us on the panel with Margaret Wheeler as the moderator. We were each tasked with looking at workers safety through a different lens – reducing worker exposure, reducing worker vulnerability, improving risk communication, fostering an environment of lower risk tolerance, and improving individual and team decision-making. The conversation highlighted the push to understand worker risk and make changes in our industry. The panel was excited about the near miss database that will be launched this winter, as this will help us better understand the problem. Attendees took notes on action items for their team, from talking about near misses, to reducing exposure, to improving communication as a team.

A near miss:

I was struck by Kevin Grove’s presentation about a near-miss he was involved in. Kevin walked through his accident step by step, and did a great job pulling out learning from the incident. He and his partner started off communicating well, but as they shifted objectives to a less committing one, the communication tapered off. Kevin made a movie about his near miss, that can be found here. He does a great job describing his day and the learning he took from it. He provides a great example that we should all follow, in learning from our mistakes and sharing this learning.


Colin Zacharias spoke about simplifying decision-making in the field. Recognizing unstable conditions is essential to staying safe. Colin’s message emphasized importance of tracking weak layers. If the forecast center is discussing a known weak layer, it’s important to proceed with caution. If it is a year where weak snow is the foundation, this season history should drive conservative terrain choices throughout the season. It is also important to anticipate when you are exposed, which means assessing consequences of an avalanche on a given slope. This can be hard to accurately do, but it is important for all of us to practice this. Colin also emphasized that a systematic approach to decision-making, such as using a checklist, is extremely helpful in traveling in a complex environment.

Colin's talk at NSAWI spoke about using a checklist to make decisions. We, at the American Avalanche Institute, have been using a checklist for backcountry travel for the last 5 years. The backcountry checklist continues to evolve, and the merits of using a systematic approach to a complex situation continues to be evident. The checklist is broken down into three parts – Pre-Trip Plan, Before entering avalanche terrain, Post-Trip Discussion. The checklist offers bullet points and conversation cues that can guide planning a day in the backcountry, executing that day, and debriefing the day as a group. The checklist can help all backcountry travelers approach each day the same, which decreases the likelihood of skipping a step in the decision-making process.


Bio Mechanics and Ski Gear:

Jeff Campbell spoke about alpine touring equipment – retention and release in the backcountry.  Jeff is finishing his PhD and studies the performance (read releasability) of boot/binding systems from alpine boots and bindings to AT boots and bindings to a combo of those.  Bottom line – don’t mix and match.  Use alpine boots with alpine bindings.

Technology & Avalanche Forecasting:

Jeff Deems gave a great presentation about the use of lasers for avalanche forecasting. He is working with the Arapahoe Basin ski patrol and applying laser mapping of snowpack depth to avalanche forecasting. With this technology, Jeff is able to map snowpack depths before and after loading events. Reviewing these maps, along with weather data, the ski patrol is better able to decide where to run avalanche mitigation routes, and where it might be unnecessary. This technology has also helped to pick out unusual loading patterns that aren’t obvious to the naked eye. I walked out of his presentation wishing I could have a laser.

It was a treat to make it to the Northwest this fall for the NSAW. The staff and volunteers put on a great show that got me excited for winter, and also got me thinking about snow and avalanches. It was a very well-run event!

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