Normally we relate experience with a level of proficiency. The more experience one has, the better qualified they are to make the right decisions. It is proven that humans make decisions more readily if they have made similar decisions beforehand. As we recognize patterns through firsthand experiences we see which decisions lead to favorable outcomes and which ones do not; we develop intuition for future actions. In relation to making decisions in avalanche terrain then, how reliable is one’s intuition if they make poor decisions and receive positive feedback?
Let me elaborate, as there are a few common cases where we can be positively rewarded in avalanche terrain when we shouldn’t necessarily be. First, lets say a group of skiers have a great ski run, powder flies and smiles run for miles. The group regroups at the bottom of the slope and its high fives all around. Pretty great right? Well, the backstory is that they all skied the slope at the same time, they all had beacons on but no one had ever practiced with one and none of skiers had had shovels of probes. Two weeks later the same group of skiers returns to the same slope with 50” of new snow with the same plan to ski, this time loaded with the experience of the great ski run prior. It’s not all the time that slopes avalanche so a safety pan isn’t always of benefit to a ski group on every run. This group didn’t need a safety plan to have a great run in the past and that experience, if anything, only further lead them to believe that travelling conservatively in avalanche terrain was an unnecessary formality.
The second common scenario where flawed experience may be dealt is when a persistent weak layer is deeply buried in the snowpack. Run after run may be taken on a slope with, potentially, dozens of happy skiers. Yet, one skier happens to hit a shallower portion on the snow slope and more easily affects a buried weakness causing the entire slope to avalanche. All of the preexisting tracks are erased from the mountainside but all the other skiers left the area prior, never knowing that they just happened to not hit the wrong spot on the slope with their own tracks. Later that season the group returns to a similar slope with similar conditions with a robust intuition fostered from many unknowingly bold decisions in the mountains. They ski the slope without hesitation. Perhaps there is an accident, perhaps not. Both scenarios will add to the groups overall experience but one experience will help make good future decisions and one will do just the opposite.
If we look at the amount of risk one takes in the course of a few weeks of an average winter it would be fairly easy statistically for someone to come away unscathed and smiling, even after rash displays. However, if the same type of decisions are made over a longer time frame, the chance of a meltdown quickly become much more likely. Maybe it takes a couple years, or possibly ten, but with risky behavior the house will eventually win by finally either giving appropriate feedback in the case of a close call or perhaps it just ends the game altogether.
It is important for backcountry travellers to be honest with themselves about the outcomes of the decisions they make. It is possible that great ski runs may only be a ticket for future trouble if the backstory is not understood. Not all experience, is good experience and just because someone has ten years of impeccable Instagram material doesn’t mean they aren’t a disaster waiting to happen.