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This Could Save Your Life

Author: Charlotte Austin

February 13, 2017

Have you had that moment of terror in the mountains? Maybe the snow shifted abruptly under your skis, creaking with a groan that sent goosebumps down your spine. Ice fell too close to you, shattering into oblivion while you choked with fear. Or maybe you looked down and saw that a carabineer wasn't locked, then secretly screwed it shut while your partner was on lead.

Those moments aren't okay—but if you spend enough time in the backcountry, they're going to happen. We face a million risks in the mountains: rockfall, icefall, crevasse fall. Hypothermia. Avalanches. Equipment failure. Injury, or worse.

If you're reading this, you've survived those moments. And that's okay. But here's the thing: if you don't learn from the time you've spent pushing your limits, you're underutilizing an incredible opportunity. “Debriefing is one of the important things we do,” says Dallas Glass, Seattle-based avalanche educator and international mountain guide. “Mistakes often go unnoticed when people are climbing or skiing, and it's okay to be lucky. But it's not okay to get lucky and not learn from the experience, and the only way to know the difference is to debrief the day.”

His suggestion? Make it a habit to deliberately evaluate every day you spend in the backcountry. It's common practice for the pros: mountain guides debrief at the end of expeditions, big mountain skiers talk through big lines, and alpine climbers often rehash every step of routes they've climbed to look for ways they can improve. “It completes the risk management loop,” says Glass. “It's rare that we get specific feedback about having made the right or wrong decision. Climbers and skiers have a lifelong apprenticeship to the mountains, and talking through those moments with your team is the single most effective way to get better.”

While it's often most natural to debrief over a microbrew at the bar after dark, it isn't mandatory that the conversation is at the end of the day. A quick check-in can happen on the fly after you ski a sketchy slope, make a decision you aren't stoked about, or any time your spider senses go into overdrive. “When the hair on the back of your neck stands up, there's usually a reason—even if you can't verbalize it,” says mountain guide Max Lurie. “If you feel like you're in danger, you probably are, even if you can't figure out why until later. Sometimes it's appropriate to re-assess your systems in the moment. Other times it's best discussed over a beer at the end of the day.”

Want to make it a habit? At the end of your next trip into the hills, try asking yourself and your partners questions like these:

- What were the strengths and shortcomings of today's plan?

- When and where were we most at risk? Why didn't we choose to reduce our exposure to that risk?

- When and where were we the least confident about the choices we made?

- How could we improve our plan? If we were to climb the same route or ski the same terrain tomorrow under the exact same conditions, what would we do differently?

- Did we bring the right gear? Were our technical skills proficiencies for the objective? Are there skills I want to improve?

- When was I the most scared? What is my risk tolerance level, and how does it compare to the rest of my team?
 

To make the conversation most effective, take notes. Drink an extra beer, ask an extra question. Linger. Learn from the hard parts of the conversation. And when you bump into uncertainty, consider third-party involvement: look for a mentor, seek out a coach, or hire a guide. Qualified instructors will help with risk management by providing feedback, giving external input on your risk management process, and helping you calibrate your internal judgment. “If you're just out there on your own,” says Glass, “you never know if you just got lucky. This isn't a touchy-feely process. It's a concrete way to get better.”

Lurie agrees. “I debrief at the end of every day of climbing, even if it's just in my own head,” he says. “I'm an active participant in my own adventure. I encourage climbers to take ownership over their decisions. Ask questions. Question everything. Learn from everything. Be deliberate, and it's inevitable: you're going to be a better, safer, stronger climber.”

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Photos by Krystle Wright.

Charlotte Austin

Charlotte Austin is a writer, climber, and mountain enthusiast who lives in Seattle, Washington. She works at International Mountain Guides, where she’s a senior lead guide. When she’s not in the mountains getting a sunglasses tan, she’s hanging out with Huckleberry, her dog. Read more of her work at www.charlotteaustin.com.