buried weak layers

December 5, 2013



Trips are popping up and the calendar is filling in. The hit list seems to grow daily. Gear is dialed. I’m fit and chomping at the bit after two less than satisfactory winters in the Wasatch. We are lacking in snow, but I’m extremely fired up for the season! Winter can turn on in an instant and it’s actually trying right now. I don’t mind the slow start though it gives me time to temper the fire and properly transition.
I make it a habit to read Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain every year.

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That’s got my head back in the game and I’ve been thinking a lot about avalanche awareness. Thinking about what I think I know and what I know I “know” and what I know I don’t know. There have been many avy incidents lately where experienced friends and professionals have died, or had close calls. These haunt me and drive me inward to ask what happened and question myself and how I might prevent failure. And I’ve found myself writing about this fascinating subject. Partly because I don’t see certain things being discussed and I want to open up the discussion, even if it’s just between me, myself and I. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert, or an avy professional. I’m just a guy that has spent a lot of time in avalanche terrain and is trying to figure out something that really can’t be figured out. Thanks to some great teachers like Bret Kobernik and Tom Kimbrough, I know I don’t “know” and never will “know” snow or avalanches. But maybe in observing my thoughts and beliefs I can better understand where I fit in with this complex process of stepping foot into the snowy mountains.


“Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”
-Herbert Spencer-

Questioning and the awareness it brings is one of the many things I love about being out in the mountains in winter. Backcountry skiing forces one to be aware, observant and alive. To venture “safely” it is foremost about observing and inquiring into what is going on and then traveling in accordance with the results. Most of the attention is paid to examining the external world. How much snow fell last night? Where is it blowing? What weak layers exist? What are the terrain traps? Where would the best up-track be? Where will the “safe” skiing be? What if this slides? How are conditions changing throughout the day? This is all very important stuff that needs to be understood and experienced, especially for the beginner. With some education, the right partners, time and patience, it’s quite easy to observe, predict and understand the snow beneath us. What doesn’t appear to be so easy is processing the information clearly and lining it up with our desires, motives and plans.

“Human factors play a significant, if not dominant, role in avalanche accidents. Indeed, McCammon’s results suggest that only 4% of avalanche incidents might truly be called “accidents” insofar as there were no hazard indicators present.”

Here’s a great article on our role as the avalanche triggers we are. Human Factors in Avalanche Incidents by Steven Larson

This isn’t new to those of us who have been around. But what is next? If I am the problem then I am the solution, but what to DO? The discussion seems to end there. I can’t just tell myself, “don’t fall prey to the heuristic traps”. That’s like saying don’t be human. What steps can I take?


Leftover carnage from a close call in Days Fork a few seasons ago.  How did we talk ourselves into skiing the NE aspect that we all knew held CONSIDERABLE danger?! We were starved for powder and footage and let scarcity and familiarity lure us in. Six of us safely skied the slope one at a time. The slope then released underneath me after Andy Jacobsen had already broken trail back up to the ridge. I was fully submerged and swept through the trees and then popped out on top of the debris pile. We learned about HARD SLABS the scary way that day. Photo: Jay Beyer


So, what if we look at our insides like we look at the snow pack. What if our inner world needs to be observed just as keenly as we do the external hazards in order to see where strengths and weaknesses lie.   I believe the internal is just as important a place to “know before you go” and much more important for those of us who have years of experience and can read and “know snow”. I need to stay alert and aware to what’s going on INSIDE before heading out into the mountains and during the day as moods, thoughts and desires change. I’m asking myself to stay aware to what is driving the decisions I’m making.
I like to add these questions to the inquiry. What is my motivation? How do I feel about this? Where is my head at? Why am I skiing this? Would I ski this if it wasn’t being filmed? Would I ski this if I was alone? What is my gut telling me? These observations are just as important and help to line up my internal desires with the conditions of the mountain. This is a great benefit in touring, that it gives one time to take everything in and process it.

Before heading out, I’m heading in. And after digging around for buried weak layers, I’ve noticed the following motives and possible weaknesses for this season.

-Getting out more and more with people I don’t know
-I’m very eager to tick off some projects that have been on the hit list for years
-We’ve had 2 poor seasons that have kept me from the bigger lines
-Pressure from self and sponsors to “produce”
-I feel like I know the Wasatch really well and when to go where. I can ski safely on any day in any condition
-The Wasatch sees so much traffic that it hardly feels like backcountry. It’s easy to forget to respect it.
-Trying to film un-tracked lines pushes us further and can make us loose focus on safety
-I’m stronger and more fit than ever, but the feeling of invincibility can be very dangerous

And some weak facets of myself I’ve encountered before-

-Trying to impress others-Just trying to keep up, not paying attention
-Letting others take the lead and make the call for me
-Thinking the gear will keep me safe
-Not really understanding what is at risk
-Rushing to beat the crowd

Running down the heuristic traps like a checklist seems too tedious and I can never remember them all off the top of my head. To simplify and cover the bases I think it’s adequate to be aware of motivation. If the primary goal isn’t to align the days travel and turns with the current conditions then I’m in danger of bringing the house down.  The game of matching up the snow with the objective is the goal, and a fun challenge.

How do I continue to check in and stay internally aware?
At the trail head when I hide the keys on the truck (not in the gas-cap) and before heading out, I make a practice of touching the truck, the truck becomes my goal for the day, returning to touch it again (it is a nice truck). The peak, the line, the shot, the project, everything that goes on in the mountains is all secondary to returning to the truck.
Checking in with others and asking how they feel is very important, then ask them what they think about the snow. There is a difference between the two questions. How do the two line up?
Constantly check in with myself. Check in before decisions are made, before a peak is chosen, before a skin track is set, before the descent is made. Make decisions in “the moment” (overused new age term) because in each new instant there is fresh information from inside and out that should determine the next move.
And finally, I have a mantra I repeat at the top of every descent. It helps clear my head, forces me to choose the slope from the right mindset, not because I’m rushed,  not because it’s being filmed, or I’m trying to impress someone, or the snow is really good, or any of the endless number of ulterior motives.

There is a time for all things to be skied, pay attention to what lies beneath the skin and the snow to find it.

“External nature is only internal nature writ large.”
-Swami Vivekananda-

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22 Responses to “buried weak layers”

  1. Smokey says on :

    Well writen, Noah. Thanks for that.

    Impress me by skiing till your 85 years old.

    Here’s to a safe seaaon.

  2. noahhowell says on :

    Thanks Smokey! I’ll be thrilled if I’m walking at 85 😉

  3. A OK says on :

    Insightful post, Noah. Not only that, but introspective enough – especially in a public forum – to make you a bit vulnerable. That’s rare in ‘ski’ writing, so good job there!

    As for the topic material, I don’t want to oversimplify a complicated subject, but I’ve long thought the issue could be handled pretty simply: I wish that every single Avy Level 1 student was required (taught?) to ski solo and safely for 10-15 outings through avalanche terrain before passing the class and receiving their certification.

    Why? Because in my experience, absolutely nothing (including talking with friends about conditions, reading the avy report, watching videos on avy safety, etc.) focuses the mind more intently on current conditions and a slope’s skiability than having to entirely rely on one’s own decisions out there.

    The real answer comes to one in a hurry when solo: ‘I must be right, I HAVE to be right, or else I face a very high chance of dying.’ Because that’s what you’re looking at when you don’t have a partner to dig you out out there. Being aware that you have no backup whatsoever kinda forces one to face every single item that you wrote about. Heuristic traps, internal worlds, and all the subsets beneath them. Sincerely, with focus and concentration. And that’s the sort of thinking that 1) keeps people alive, and 2) seems to disappear in some group dynamics.

  4. noahhowell says on :

    I really like solo travel for that reason, it’s all on you and you can’t afford to F-UP. Possibly deluding myself, but I actually feel much safer.

    Thanks A-OK!

  5. A OK says on :

    Ditto, but it really just depends on the group. Others can notice things solo travelers miss…

  6. Derek says on :

    Wow, great post. Reading it just tells me how often I’ve buried those same thoughts and paid them no thought time and again. I don’t even think I was capable of recognizing that until my proverbial testosterone started to drop in my m mid thirties.

  7. Bruce Tremper says on :

    Thanks so much for publishing this. Well written and all true. The internal landscape is the next frontier in backcountry riding. And the one hardest to conquer. It’s really the essence of adventure, don’t you think?

    Well done.

  8. noahhowell says on :

    Felt like I was getting out there too much into the touchy feely stuff, but it means a lot to see it’s appreciated from a man of science. The essence of adventure for me is heading into the unknown to find and know oneself. There really isn’t anyplace as dynamic and unlimited as the mountains in wintertime.

    Thanks Bruce!

  9. Jeremy Larsen says on :

    Great external discussion of an internal battle. The topic needs to be discussed more often and with complete humility. Thanks Noah and stay on top.

    PS- couldn’t help but post this.


  10. Wookie says on :

    So….tell us more about the truck – eh?

  11. DB says on :

    Thanks Noah, I think you hit the “sweet spot” with this article. Be safe and have a good winter.

  12. Shawn Carter says on :

    Getting into the voodoo, where science cannot go. The scientists would like to think its possible to get there but the metaphysical realm is out of reach for the moment. Check your gut peeps.

  13. Toddeo says on :

    Well said Noah.
    The object is to return so we can countinue to age and acquire tales to tell. After all, the goal should be to be a wandering old fart…… I echo the thoughts about re- reading Trempers book. I also echo the above thought that no-one should pass an avalanche class until they return from some solo journeys through avalanche terrain..

  14. Jim Harris says on :

    Thanks for the good read, Noah. No doubt both of us are tempted to toe the line of what we think is safe. For me, a big part of taking a step back from that edge is not letting myself think of skiing a line or getting a photo as competition with the other people who also happen to be out there trying to ski and shoot. When I feel that aggro competetive mood welling up, it’s time to stop and reassess what I’m doing and why. My #1 least favorite thing about resort skiing is the pushy, must-get-mine mood that can dominate the lift line on a powder morning. To bring that attiutde with me into the backcounty is bad for longevity.

  15. RockNSnow says on :

    Great post Noah. Making decisions as if you were skiing alone is a great and simple way to stay safe even when skiing with a group. As for soloing, unfortunately as you solo longer its easy for your risk tolerance to creep up without you noticing (at least that’s been my experience) so its gotta be treated like climbing solo – no mistakes can be made! As for touching your truck at the trail head can I recommend touching your girl before you leave home? Happy tours!

  16. omr says on :

    My ‘near misses’ over the years have all occurred when with a group and when the ‘charismatic leader’ swayed the group decision making to near fatal results. It seems peer pressure is the number one safety issue. Ski alone to ski another day!

    Also, I’m doing my part to promote P.W. – I wore your tee all through Spain last spring. If you get really bored check my blog for photos. The Madrid LDS Temple and ‘Whore’ just feel right together.

  17. Ian Provo says on :

    The camera is without a doubt a major player in decision making. I think its a lot easier for folks to make safe choices in the backcountry when their goal is not getting shots, but rather to make it back to the truck like you said. Thanks for sharing Noah!

  18. Whitney Guild says on :

    I like the part about getting back to the truck. It helps to put all the external information into perspective. As Ed Viesturs said: “Getting to the top is Optional. Getting back down is Mandatory”. Skiing or climbing in the backcountry Solo can be a very enlightening internal experience.

  19. Pierre Askmo says on :

    Thanks for putting down in writing the dark secrets of this internal battle. It is a scary thought that it is all on me… I am neither sponsored nor filmed nor even that competitive with my ski buddies anymore. My absolute #1 enemy is my extreme giddiness when faced with a great line in great ski conditions (which often is not great avy conditions). My most dangerous conditions are Considerable and to some extent Moderate risk days. I know to refuse anything vaguely shaky on a High risk day when cracks and slides are everywhere (I have a nice truck too…). It’s those pesky Moderate and Considerable days that I am most likely to get caught because, when faced with a really beautiful line where the go no-go could tilt either way, I find that I have a huge problem with impulse control… I completely agree that the real test of what risks we are willing to accept is the solo tour however as soon as there is a group there are group dynamics. For better or for worse group dynamics have two effects on me: 1) I will push the envelope a little bit further if I am surrounded by people with great shovelling skills, 2) In a group discussion I am not ready to tell anyone “my way or the highway”. Part of group dynamics is that we have to respect our buddies’ analysis too (or we are skiing with the wrong crowd) and sometimes it’s not in agreement with mine. It’s easy to oppose even a group if I feel they’re off their rockers but the vast majority of the time it’s an honest discussion where no one is right or wrong. In those situations, where I am not in agreement with the majority view, I always struggle with the idea that I am putting my life on the line based on majority decision. With my closest ski buddy and when it is just the two of us we have a cure for this. Our procedure is: The “no” has veto right and ends all discussion i.e. if any one of us have “a bad feeling” we move on to next line with no discussion. It works wonderfully and ads the benefit that when we ski together we both only ski lines we are comfortable with and enjoy. This still doesn’t resolve the internal battle because “we have met the enemy and the enemy is us”. He still is…

  20. trent says on :

    excellent soliloquy.

    “[Nature] pretty much comes down to three things — everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” Jane Hirshfield.

  21. Inspiration This Week #9 says on :

    […] Buried Weak Layers – Noah Howell […]

  22. Kt Miller says on :

    I absolutely love your comment about asking your partner how they feel and how they feel about the snow and then seeing how the two responses line up.

    Keen observation.

    Thanks for sharing.

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