At the start of every one of our courses and trips the IAG guide presents participants with a waiver. For many this may seem like an inconvenience that's getting in the way of getting going with what they really came for: climbing, skiing, adventure!
But to us that waiver is much more than some paperwork to get out of the way. That waiver is actually the culmination of a longer process of Risk Communication; that we want to engage in with everyone who takes a course or trip with us.
Risk Communication is a catch phrase that describes how we, the guides/instructors and guiding company, share with our participants the risks that they may encounter while engaging in activities with us. Communicating these risks to participants is very important to us because we want our guests to participate with as complete an understanding as possible that what they are doing involves risks and hazards, and precisely what those risks and hazards are. We want people to come into these experiences with their eyes wide open; knowing what the potential "costs" of these activities are, so that they can measure these against the rewards that they are seeking from them and make a very conscious choice about whether to participate or not.
Many will say "oh you're just covering your butts." Indeed protecting ourselves legally is part of the motivation for using waivers. But for me personally, and I believe for all the guides and instructors who work at IAG, the motivation is more an ethical one. We want everyone who adventures in the outdoors with us to carefully consider the risks and rewards of these activities and to make informed, conscious choices around these. Ultimately that risk/reward equation, in my view, should be at the centre of all the risk decisions we make in our lives.
Recently we beefed up our risk communication to make sure that our website and our pre-trip information packages do as much as possible to communicate risk to our guests. Check out the new "Safety and Risk" and "Waiver" pages under the "About Us" section of our website. Also note the statements included with every trip or course description, and in every pre-trip information package.
Our hope is that despite the legality that is inevitable with waivers, at the core of our efforts is a desire to communicate risk effectively, and to have you participating in our programs making conscious risk decisions for yourself. It is our responsibility, ethically and as role models, to demonstrate what we believe is a sensible approach to risk decision-making in our lives. As one of our guides, Ken Wylie, puts it as he introduces waivers to participants at the start of a trip, “these are about our freedom, because with having freedom comes the responsibility of assuming risks knowingly and willingly."
Do get in touch if you have questions or comments. We welcome interested debate about this. And join us on an adventure soon. The wilderness offers so much scope for adventure and learning, along with some risk. Showing you ways to manage that risk is a big part of what we are about at IAG.
Calling my company Island Alpine Guides was perhaps a bit of a mistake.
Sure, I spend most of my time climbing and skiing in the mountains, from the Rockies to the coast range, from the European Alps to the Himalaya. So 11 years ago, when Island Alpine Guides was born, it seemed logical to keep doing what we've been doing all over the world right here on Vancouver Island: mountaineering and skiing in our magnificent Island Alps.
The Island Alps have not disappointed; they are a uniquely beautiful range of mountains that offer wilderness, solitude, and adventure, rivalling what any mountain range in the world can offer.
So why the regrets about the company name? Simply because this island offers so much more than mountains. Our jewel in the Pacific is blessed with long stretches of coastline that are intensely wild and stunningly beautiful, which offer incredible scope for adventure.
It's not as if we've been neglecting to explore these coastlines over the years; Island Alpine Guides has been wandering on the shores of the north coast, Nootka Sound, the Hesquiat Peninsula and the Juan de Fuca since we began. My lamenting is more around our branding. Our name suggests that we are a mountain school and guide service for the alpine, that we are only about climbing and skiing in the high places of the Island Alps and the BC Coast Range. We are certainly about that, and have seen a lot of success as the Island's only service with Association of Canadian Mountain Guides certified guides and instructors. However I think this branding has limited our reach and that we could be doing much more to get islanders, and folks from beyond our shores, out into our wild coastal places.
Nootka, North Coast and Juan de Fuca are all trails you've no doubt heard about and perhaps even explored already, but did you know we offer guided hikes through these trails, including arranging all necessary water taxis, float planes, and/or shuttles? All your meals are taken care of, and we can even provide camping equipment free of charge, such as tent and thermarest, if you need it (which is great for out-of-town visitors).
Jump in on our upcoming Juan de Fuca Trail hike on July 21-24, or get in touch to set up a new trip on any of our coastal hikes this summer.
I’ve been skiing in avalanche terrain for more than 30 years. This winter will mark 22 years of heli ski guiding, a pursuit which has us skiing in uncontrolled avalanche terrain with a greater frequency than any other.
I’ve been reflecting on the risks associated with such a high level of exposure, and I’d like to share with recreational backcountry riders certain aspects of how we do this game professionally, which will also be useful to recreational riders.
The main things I wish to highlight are a methodical planning process, keen observation, and humility.
I’ve discussed the need for humility and self-awareness in previous blogs, and Ken Wylie has written eloquently about the human element in decision making (here and here). So it is the other two points that I want to focus on this time: a methodical planning process and keen observation.
In the professional ski guiding world, we use a very structured approach to our decision making. Guides will follow a defined set of steps to assess current and forecasted hazards, and will choose terrain with an acceptable level of risk. We will typically have a plan B and even a plan C as far as terrain choice if information in the field suggests we need to make adjustments to our original plan. Weather assessment is also crucial, as is the consideration of other hazards such as glaciers, creeks, the group’s abilities, etc.
I’ve developed a trip planning tool that provides a structure for recreational backcountry riders to plan their own tours. You can download it here.
If you’ve done an AST1 or AST2 course, the planning tool should look pretty familiar: most of it is covered in the AST1 curriculum. Having said that, there are some valuable tricks to learn when using a planning process like this. A great place to learn them is on our AST Plus course. On this single-day course, you’ll go through a morning meeting using this tool to plan your day. Then you’ll spend a full day touring, applying the plan in the field and learning at every opportunity (while getting some sweet turns in!). The day concludes with a structured debrief to leverage maximum learning and experience. The goal is to show you a template for how to organize your backcountry touring days in a way that manages risk and maximizes fun while also getting full value from the day in terms of building your experience in the backcountry.
Finally, there's the importance of keen observation. The bottom line on this is that you can plan as meticulously as you like (and indeed you should), but none of this planning will be of any use if you are not verifying or refuting your predictions when you get into the field for the day. This means you need to be a keen observer. Is there more or less new snow than you expected? Has the wind been blowing from the direction you thought it had been? Are you seeing signs of instability in the snow? Is it warming up more than you thought it would and is this affecting the feel of the snow? The list of questions is endless and it’s your job to be asking them, having your senses turned on at all times so that you can make adjustments to your plan as required.
If this all sounds a bit exhausting, don’t worry. At first it may seem like a lot to think about, but over time, it all becomes a habit and part of your normal routine when riding in the backcountry. With the hazards in the backcountry being what they are – and death being a potential outcome of bad decisions – I don’t think the alternative to good planning, keen observation and humility is an option!
Our first avalanche course of the season is already fully booked and the second one has just a few spots remaining. We have a number of other trips scheduled that still have space, and we are always ready to hear from you if you have other dates in mind that we are not yet offering, especially if you have a group of people who are interested in a certain date. Get in touch with us at any time if so.
Get stoked! Sliding on the snow is just around the corner.
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
Because he is such a prolific, engaging and interesting writer we're featuring Ken Wylie in our blog again. In this piece, written recently for powder magazine, Ken writes about some of the more interesting aspects of guiding in the mountains after his visit to Bella Coola Helisports guides training.
For the Love of Our Clients - Guest Blog by Ken Wylie
It has been long known to me that there is more to things than meets the eye: a depth in life that makes it challenging to know things intimately. Even simple tasks can be seemingly fathomless to master, which ultimately makes them captivating.
I have witnessed star-struck young men and women drawn to ski guide training programs thinking that they are destined for a life of play. Eying these keen individuals, I have witnessed their surprise and sometimes disheartenment upon learning that to become a ski guide takes time, commitment, hard work, and tenacity. I was one of them once, so I understand. Perhaps it is the guiding industry's Achilles’ heel: the idea that a career in snow is not difficult, nor should it require a high level of training and professionalism. I think we need to take ourselves more seriously and strive to be consumate professionals.
It is noble to competently lead people in hazardous winter environments where those following are entrusting their own lives and the future well-being of their families. The fact is that mountains in winter are hard as hell to master. Those of us who have backcountry skied for a few years eventually lose someone we know to decisions made about snow. Backcountry skiing is not for the faint of heart and requires resilience and great humility to survive, along with a healthy measure of luck.
In December 2015 I attended the Bella Coola Heli-Sports guides’ training. Most ski guides work hard at gathering information and skill about all aspects of their vocation, but there was something that set these guides apart from others I have known, a key to gaining mastery that many have missed.
The allure of wilderness skiing for work is obvious. It is a promise of a lifetime of powder turns where your job is to always go first, without question. No jockeying for position. No being labelled a greedy shyster. You are the point person for the untracked snow that blankets the slopes below your ski tips. This is only the surface of ski guiding, and if this is what it were all about, I suspect that the guides would get bored. Managing hazards however, engages and sustains interest even in the most spirited for their entire career.
Why? It may not be self-evident but at Bella Coola I witnessed the emergence of three disciplines in their training, two are common in most guides’ training and one is not. Their guiding disciplines championed by lead guides Paul Berntsen and Jan Neuspiel are: environmental knowledge, interpersonal skill, and intra-personal awareness (knowledge about oneself). This is the kind of stuff that holds interest because all of it is fascinating.
Environmental Knowledge. Guides study their medium. There are many things in the physical world to know when it comes to leading people in this "wicked" environment. Snow is the most obvious. The white stuff is complex because it is a record of the subtleties of the winter's weather, (and weather is a fickle phenomenon) which can produce layers that at times result in the potential for deadly avalanches. It is a constant process that can change in a very short span of time.
There are two rules that guides follow about snow. First, know as much as you can about recognizing its characteristics without making a habit of betting your and everyone else's life on your assessments. Second, listen when it is speaking to you. Yes, it has a language and being able to heed its monologue will help to keep you alive. These two rules take fantastic discipline to adhere to and this is what the best guides do. They set aside their impulsive desires and manage the same in the group as they make choices about where to ski safely. Sometimes this means taking flak from clients who have no reference point for the worst-case scenario and who believe they have paid in order to get the goods.
The second object of study about the environment, after snow, is terrain. Ski guides are studious about mountain-scape as it relates to skiing safely. Accustomed to the mercurial nature of snow, guides study the art of putting landscape features in positive play. It is a practice of picking the slope angle and shape that is unlikely to slide regardless of snow conditions. This is called a "terrain eye" and relies on an intimate knowledge of assessing slope angle and shape. A healthy terrain discipline holds fast to the principles of "supported" terrain, which is concave in shape. Terrain is the predictable part of the backcountry skiing game, but there is an art to being able to pick and ski the sweetest line. Choose the wrong line and clients may not follow, which can lead to safety issues down the road.
Finally, guide training includes all of the hard skills development so that the guides are ready for the challenges that may come, which includes various forms of emergency response; avalanche response, crevasse rescue, and lost skiers searches.
Interpersonal. A good guide knows the social environment that is required for safety, and cultivates this environment. A safe social environment is one where all members work together in a situation to bring the important decision making information to light. The guide must be a good communicator and show the group that they are willing to listen to information from any source that will help to keep the group out of harm's way.
Next, a first-rate guide puts the needs of the group before their own desires. I repeat: desires, not needs. It is about taking the time to manage a situation as it needs to be managed as opposed to being impatient. For example: pulling a shovel out to make a difficult traverse easy for a struggling client, where a guide could easily side slip on their own. Coaching the client step-by-step to use the right technique that matches their ability mitigates risk through action and pedagogy. This self-sacrifice is not one of the superficially alluring aspects of being a guide. It shows a level of care to attend to details and to mitigate problems before they happen, and ultimately becomes rewarding for the mature person.
Intra-Personal. Decision-making in hazardous environments is about gathering all of the available information and making a choice based on due diligence. Any military commander knows that to win a battle they have to know the personal habits of the opponent, and perhaps themself extremely well. It is personal, which can be a scary place to journey into. Tragedies are human-made. Without question, we make poor decisions if we let our egos or other unsavoury personality aspects get in the way. (See Taming Your Avalanche Dragons, the previous IAG blog by Ken). Most impressive about Bella Coola Helisports, and what sets this operation apart from most other operations is that as an organization, the guiding staff have the courage to delve into understanding themselves individually, to see the underpinnings of their personalities and to share these with their team members. Their training is also about developing self-awareness.
Throughout history, humankind has told tales of human journeys with a moral to the story, a lesson that the hero or heroine learned or failed to learn along the way that helped them to avert or to suffer disaster. The guiding team at Bella Coola have tapped into this wisdom to make a practice of gaining insight from their experiences through reflection. This sets them apart as perhaps one of the best heli-ski guiding operations in Canada.
With great wisdom, they have embraced the practice of mastering themselves. It was refreshing to participate in their training because I came to know myself better, which will help make me a better guide. Hard training work for the entire team, in an effort to protect the client, which is perhaps an act of love.
For this blog I am delighted to feature a contribution by mountain guide, friend, colleague and IAG guide Ken Wylie. You can read much more about Ken in his bio on our Guide Bios page. It is my belief that Ken is making some important contributions to mountain safety by pointing out that the best way we can mitigate risk is to know ourselves better.
Taming Your Avalanche Dragon - Guest Blog by Ken Wylie
Over the last ten years there have been fantastic advances in the field of avalanche safety through research and technical development. Additions made to snow stability evaluations like 'fracture character' during the 'compression test' deepen our awareness of what is happening with the snow. There have also been the development terrain assessment tools, which help us to make choices while traveling in avalanche terrain. Fruitful advances in avalanche response: digital avalanche transceivers, smart probes, and better shovelling techniques like the ‘V shaped snow conveyer belt’ make it more efficient by considering the avalanche subjects’ needs, like not being stepped on and having the air pocket collapse.
When I look at all of the effort, research hours, and costs that have been invested in avalanche safety, I am frustrated that people are still dying out there each winter; even some of the best; Robson Gmoser. The fact is that even the best in the game need to make it safer somehow.
One can argue that the mountains are inherently dangerous, and that would be true. However this argument only serves us in accepting the risk before a tragedy strikes, and is never to be used as an excuse after. Why? Because it inhibits the potential for learning: to hide behind the statement after the fatally wounded are dug out in effect stunts our growth.
Ian McCammon's work with Heuristic traps is helpful: the idea that we are guided by "rules of thumb" or unconscious ways of being, like familiarity. As if a past experience will predict a future one. Or by seeking acceptance from others socially, yet not sharing what we know to be true for ourselves. These are also a great step forward toward the idea that our decisions are in some way flawed, and this is true. I propose, however, that we go even deeper.
From my own experience I have discerned that the problem is not one that can be solved entirely through technology or new techniques or anything external to ourselves, like a ‘trap‘. Certainly, tools and knowledge give us more leverage, and the efforts of scientists, engineers, and researchers have been valuable and have saved lives. I would posit that the real issue is less about tools and techniques, and more of an intrinsic personal challenge. Like keen martial artists we need to study our hearts, because who we are as individuals and how we act and react is a key part of the equation.
The idea is that the largest part of the avalanche problem is our own character flaws. This may be frightening to most. Maybe we think human error is beyond our capacity to observe clearly and treat with any level of accuracy; that we have to be a certified psychologist to delve into that territory, which is beyond our capacity to manage in day-to-day operations. But I am certain that this is not the case. Frankly, we are afraid; terrified of looking closely at our internally motivated behaviour for the answer.
In "Transforming Your Dragons" Dr. Jose Stevens lays out seven archetypes that humans can be afflicted with that I see negatively affecting our decision-making capabilities in high-risk environments like skiing in avalanche terrain. In his work is a powerful tool for putting a language to human factors in a way that we can easily identify with, if not fully admit to. Stevens calls them "Dragons" and they are:
According to Stevens, each of us is particularly plagued by one of these seven dragons and they surface, or gain control, in the presence of fear. However, it is also important to keep all of them in our awareness. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these and see how they can play out in the backcountry skiing paradigm.
Arrogance. There is a big difference between confidence and arrogance. A confident winter backcountry guide or enthusiast also has an ear to listening to other people's input. There is a willingness on the part of the confident individual to welcome new information from anyone in the group. Conversely, a person with the arrogance dragon will say, "I am/know the best" and believe it. Paired with this belief - that we are the most skilled or qualified - is the complete inability to receive input from others. To us, there is only one way to do something, or the opinion we hold is the only one worth considering. We might scoff at other people's ideas and mock them as substandard or stupid. Rooted in the arrogance dragon is the fear that we are not good enough and reject other input because we are too insecure to hear other perspectives.
This is a real hazard while traveling in avalanche terrain because individuals do not make as good decisions as they would with the input of other people. Any leader worth their salt uses advisors and listens to and considers the most humble advice. Individuals have blind spots; a limited perspective grounded in our biases and perceptions. If we invite others into the process, the scope of available information broadens, which can impart the choices we make. Those of us plagued with the arrogance dragon do not invite more information, especially from people we perceive as having less experience or who are lower on the totem pole. This can and does lead to information gaps in the decision making process. I have lived this situation.
Self-Deprecation. If self-deprecation is our dragon we do not feel worthy. We suffer from a lack of self-confidence and feel that our contribution is not of value, so we do not speak up and share what we know. If we have this dragon and are paired with an individual with the arrogance dragon, watch out. If the arrogance sets up an unhealthy hierarchy, a person who suffers from self-deprecation reinforces it. Self-deprecation is a lack of confidence to the point that we forfeit our voice in the decision making process. We may possess the most relevant piece of information, but we are too afraid to share it because we feel we carry no value in our perceptions. If we consider that all parties exposed to the hazard of an avalanche are risking the same thing - their life - then from an ethical perspective, each person deserves a voice. If self-deprecation is our dragon, we need to become aware of it, gather our courage and speak up. Fear is what feeds all dragons, and it is up to us with the self-deprecation dragon to master social courage.
Impatience. Impatience is characterized by needing to have something now and the phrase "Don't get in the way" depicts how single minded we can be when consumed by this dragon. People with the impatience dragon are stricken with the fear that if things are not happening quickly, something bad will happen. However, being in a hurry can lead to a failure to take the required time to do a task safely and efficiently. In the mountains, speed is most often equated with safety. However, faster does not always mean safer. There are many times when going more slowly can help us maintain a higher level of diligence and therefore safety. There are situations when the only way to manage the risk is to go slowly. Implementing any safety measure will take time, yet the dividends can be worth a great deal. Think of crossing an avalanche slope one at a time. It is uncomfortable to travel slowly sometimes. With the impatience dragon on our back, we fear worsening conditions with time, but only time will tell if the conditions worsen. If time is a real issue, explore other options and terrain choices rather than rush through a critical piece of terrain.
Martyrdom. Martyrs believe we are the "victims" of a situation and see ourselves as oppressed. As a victim, we feel like we have no choice in a situation; that others are deciding things for us and that we have no other option but to heed the directives of others. It is different from self-deprecation in that we feel that we have good ideas, but they are not heard or heeded by our colleagues or friends. The emphasis is on a sense of powerlessness, not that our ideas are bad. Following others onto a suspect avalanche slope with martyrdom as our dragon can be deadly to us and to others. There is a chance that other people will die when we choose not to share a key piece of information: a difficult consequence to live with. As a martyr, we abdicate the decisions to others and take a "woe is me" attitude. We say "Oh, I don't think this is okay, but they want to go there, so I guess I'll go with the flow, I don't want to make waves." The interesting thing about martyring oneself while backcountry skiing is that death in this arena is not for an important social cause, like freedom from oppression or for peace. Again, fear is the cause, fear of standing in one's truth and living it to the full, regardless of social fallout.
Greed. Greed is an easy dragon to understand, especially on a powder day when the sun is shining. The statistical fact that more avalanche tragedies happen on sunny days with new snow underpins the concept of greed. The phrase, "There are no friends on a powder day" is funny, but illuminates the effect of greed. Greed is the fear of "not enough". We fear that we will not get our quota of powder turns as it compares to other groups. After a long period without any snow it becomes more likely that we may undermine our own ability to make rational decisions when there eventually is snow, making "going for it" easier, and escalating our tolerance for risk. Our greed dragon also comes into play when we race ahead of other groups in order to get first tracks. Our focus on the "race" and fear of not getting our share of the untracked snow can erode good decision-making.
Self-Destruction. When we have self-destruction as our dragon we lack the ability to care for and nurture our own best interest. Self-destruction may be fuelled by a general propensity for self-hate, depression, or a sense of despair. This is not a sought-after ingredient for making good decisions in avalanche terrain. It brings a "devil may care" attitude to an activity that requires great care and diligence to make good choices for the well-being of self and others. If self-destruction is our dragon, we look for drama in our lives and find ways to make bad things happen to us, often unconsciously. Our fear is a fear of success and the responsibility that it brings. This dragon may fuel a long list of successes in the mountains but the question is, from what place are they coming?
Stubbornness. When afflicted by the stubbornness dragon, we refuse to cooperate. It may be that we are afraid to be wrong about the choices we have in mind, and will not adopt other suggestions. Or we are so fixed on the objective of the day that we can't shake ourselves from achieving the goal. Single mindedness can be a required strength in hazardous environments but the game is about seeking the best solution to the challenges we face. There is a story about three skiers who abandoned a fourth in a remote place in the Selkirk Mountains because the fourth did not feel that a slope, on a part of a high level ski traverse, was safe to ski. The three left the fourth all alone in the middle of nowhere to fend for himself and his own retreat. It would seem that the three were afraid of not completing the objective and were fixated on it. Stubborn, and perhaps greedy, but make no mistake... this is profoundly unethical behaviour in the mountains. The fourth skier called in to Parks Canada and was flown out, so it ended well, but at the risk of another party, the park wardens.
Arrogance, self-deprecation, impatience, martyrdom, greed, self-destruction, and stubbornness are all fueled by fear. Respectively the fear; of being found out as being not as good as we claim, our own self-efficacy, not enough time, taking personal responsibility for our actions, not having enough, being happy and healthy, and of being wrong. These are all a hazard to the backcountry skier, or to a human being traversing through life. I think I have been gripped by all of these dragons at one time or another. However, mostly I have tripped on being a victim to others: martyrdom. Now it is all in awareness, which is all I can do to remedy the fear that fuels the dragon.
Love conquers the fear that fuels the dragons. It nurtures the opposites: meekness, self-approval, composure, contentment, generosity, self-creation, and flexibility. There is a place for fear in the backcountry skiing game. Fear keeps us on our toes and brings focus to hazardous situations... but that is all the credence we should lend to fear. As far as improving ourselves in the game of backcountry skiing, ultimately the easy thing is to point out other people's dragons, but the real task is to come to know our own. That is the birth-place of courage and self-knowledge. This is where we will make a leap forward in terms of fewer tragedies; when we become conscious of our behaviour out there. All of life seeks this very evolution: the evolution of consciousness.