Sometimes, all it takes is a 5-second pause to think clearly
Derek Mitchell’s 35th birthday was proving to be one of those perfect dream days. He was in Switzerland under clear, blue-skies with great snow conditions, awesome friends and run after run of glorious fun.
As the day wore on, and he continued to rack up thousands of vertical feet, Mitchell’s friends began to tire and leave the group or veer off on their own. Eventually Mitchell found himself alone at the top of an epic, untracked face.
He started to launch into the beckoning powder when he paused and considered the possible consequences.
“I was thinking about the fact that if something went dreadfully wrong, someone would have to call my dad and mom from Switzerland and let them know what happened,” re said.
In the end, Mitchell decided the risk was not worth the reward. He skied away and made his way to the bottom on a more conservative, but still fun run instead.
A few years later, Mitchell was with a group of friends taking an avalanche-safety class on Mount Shasta when his cautious approach to the backcountry was solidified.
“There was a big group of us, and the conditions had been great all day,” he recalled. “We’d been skiing run after run on this slope, and people were all very complacent and not the least bit concerned about avalanches — never even entered our minds. In fact, there was a big group of people sitting at the bottom of the hill having lunch in the run-out zone.”
As the day wore on, the temperature changed and the snow grew heavy. One of the guys in the group went up to make another run, cut across the top of the slope, dropped in and the whole ridge cracked and let go.
“I was on a hill across the valley and watched as suddenly things went insane with people screaming ‘avalanche’ and racing to get out of the way at the bottom,” Mitchell said. “We were super lucky because even though three people were partially buried, we were able to dig them out. But it was a huge wake-up call for me especially considering all the avalanche experts we had on hand that day.”
He thought again about the day he’d stood on the mountain in Switzerland on his 35th birthday weighing the risks of skiing the run before him alone.
“I wanted to ski that line in the worst way because I knew it could be epic. But I realized, I didn’t have a beacon, I was alone and if something did go wrong, what would be the real consequence?
“I have a daughter now and she is my daily reminder of how sweet life is way beyond what I would have felt for just one epic descent.”
“I guess as you get older it’s easier to stop and think about the consequences of our actions,” said Mitchell. “Sometimes ‘Just Do It’ can be ‘just stupid.’ I’ve lost too many of my friends over the years because they didn’t stop to consider anything but the chance to experience the thrill and maybe brag about it to their friends. Now they’re gone and I’m still out skiing on my birthday, enjoying life with my friends and my family.”
When looking at case studies of tragic, unintentional accidents, over and over the root cause comes down to the victim letting their desire to achieve a real or perceived goal override the potential risks.
Most of us are guilty at some point of being so focused on a goal that we fail to miss the potential pitfalls in our way. If we’re lucky, those pitfalls pass us by without consequence or we learn an important lesson and are fortunate enough to return another day. If we’re not so lucky, we come home in a body bag.
In 2006, that is exactly what happened to Richard Strick, Jr., from McGrath. He led a party through the Alaska Range to scout the trail for the Iditarod race and was buried under more than 10 feet of snow when a slope slid.
“It happens too often when people fail to look at the red-flag warnings,” explained Dorothy Adler, North American Outdoor Institute education director. “It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how much training you have or how much you gear you carry. If you don’t slow down, look around and remain aware of the weather, snow conditions and ever-changing environment, you risk eventually getting caught.
“I always tell students in my classes, the most important tool you have is your mind. The challenge is learning to really use it and pay attention to your environment. It’s always a struggle when we’re excited and having fun to take the time to slow down and make decisions based on facts and not the emotionally charged thrill of the moment.”
live another day
Before you set out for your day of fun this spring, learn to “Be Snow Smart” and live to ride or ski another day. The North American Outdoor Institute offers courses and events to help you learn more. Contact BeSnowSmart.org or 907-376-2898.