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The Times They Are A Changing

Neil McNab on attitudes to backcountry safety

As we approach another winter, and the familiar dangers start to reappear, it’s worth revisiting this article written by backcountry expert Neil McNab

Within the last six months at least five prominent figures pushing the sport of big mountain riding on both skis and snowboards have died in freeride related incidents.

All were experienced mountain users at the top of their sport. They had the knowledge to err on the right side of caution and they knew how to read the signs. But conditions in the mountains are somewhat unpredictable, and accidents happen!

So are these latest unfortunate incidents simply a product of the law of averages? Does more people in the backcountry – on steep and exposed terrain – mean more accidents will occur? Or are attitudes towards safety in the mountains changing?

“Are attitudes towards safety in the mountains changing?”

Getting into the mountains is quicker than ever – and with new knowledge we can pinpoint exactly where to be the day after the storm hits. But are we taking too many risks along the way?

The rule of the mountains used to be: ‘leave them for a day or two following a big storm, let the mountain have its day’, and it makes me wonder if today something is missing, forgotten or maybe brushed aside in the race to get there first to score the steepest lines and get the freshest tracks…

McNab snowboarding in action. Photo: mcnabsnowboarding.com
McNab snowboarding in action. Photo: mcnabsnowboarding.com

I started climbing at an early age and grew up under the tutelage of those that had gone before. I learned from those that had more experience than me and those that had earned respect for the environment in which they played.

There was no deviation – that was just the way things were done! I learned the old fashioned rules, and whatever changes I still try to follow them everyday.

“Today’s newcomers expect to tick off the steep linesthat they have read about or watched in their first season in the valley”

But today with all the media and movies, people start their backcountry journey with greatly elevated expectations. Today’s newcomers expect to tick off the steep lines that they have read about or watched in their first season in the valley.

It doesn’t matter to them that these lines might have changed since they were first ridden, or how long the first protagonists waited for them to come into condition… And the fact is that our environment is changing too – temperatures fluctuate, exits from couloirs or glacier lines change every year, and yet the guide books still list them…

I lost one of my best friends in an avalanche some years back. It was a difficult time as we went through the whole ‘well at least he died doing something he loved’ routine to justify the loss. I often think about what life would be like if he were still around, but sadly our world that would be better with him in it, goes on with out him.

Without a doubt, the most insane line of the year, maybe of all time. Travis Rice riding 'The Crack' for his new film So Far Gone. Photo: Scott Serfas/Red Bull Media House
Travis Rice riding ‘The Crack’ – previously impossible, but now rideable due to a low tide. Photo: Scott Serfas/Red Bull Media House

Unfortunately one of the things that made him who he was, his over-enthusiastic drive to get out there and do things, was also his downfall in the end. Hindsight is a terrible thing, and things that have happened can’t be undone – but I like to think in his passing a valuable lesson was passed on to a future generation of mountain enthusiasts…

“Even now, I am by no means an expert in all of this”

Yesterday then, as I took the cable car up towards the Helbronner on one of the first truly beautiful days of the season, an abundance of deep fresh everywhere, on my way to guide my group down Glacier Toule, were the warning signs not also there for us to follow?

We know that the snowpack this season has been very bad so far.

We also know that much of the snowfall has come with gale force winds up high in the mountains…

Wind slabs loading onto sheltered unstable slopes should also start warning bells ringing.

Add heavy snowfall, warming temperatures and steep terrain into the mix and surely the scales are well and truly tipped in an unfavourable balance?

Not everyone can (or should) ride lines like Xavier De La Rue. Photo: Christoffer Sjostrom
Not everyone can (or should) ride lines like Xavier De La Rue. Photo: Christoffer Sjostrom

Even now, I am by no means an expert in all of this. I studied to be a guide and have lived, climbed and ridden in the mountains for over 30 years – I have worked as a mountain professional for 20 of these years and yet, everyday, I feel like I am starting afresh.

But the love is always there – for the feeling of the pull of gravity, the drop into the fall line, the acceleration, the speed. Surfing the mountain, carving the banks, snapping the lip and cutting back through the white curtain of powder that you have released from gravities’ grip.

Snowboarding feels the best when the mountain is a blank untouched canvas on which to create our art. With no tracks to follow it becomes a form of expression, an addictive progression and before you know it, suddenly it is no longer just about the ride.

Hiking lines in Kashmir. More photos at mcnabsnowboarding.com
Hiking lines in Kashmir. More photos at mcnabsnowboarding.com

But those fresh lines don’t come easy anymore. Now if you were to ‘let the mountain have its day after the storm’ you’d be riding tracked out faces, listening to the stories and looking at the photos of how good it was yesterday, when ‘you should have been there’!

If you’re there, someone else will be getting your lines – the pressure to get out first is stronger than ever!

Like in every sport, the guys at the upper limits are the driving force behind everything… They are out there setting the standards for others to follow, making the new rules and pushing the boundaries of what is possible – and then the doors are open for those that follow… even if they had been left closed for good reasons.

Victor Daviet sits amongst the avalanche remains – thankfully unscathed. Photo: Scott Serfas

This is progression – and the progression is rapid despite the margin for error getting slimmer and slimmer. New and more extreme lines are being pushed, and yet the conditions in the mountains, in general, are deteriorating.

The steep North faces are no longer plastered in deep ice. Where once you could ride through the narrows, you now need ice axes, ropes and crampons. The last snowfall melts fast and slides quickly as the temperatures rise.

I think back to last Friday – the first or second real bluebird powder day of the season. 40cm of fresh on the Italian side that for once fell without wind, and thanks to a cloudy Thursday remains fairly untracked. The game is on!

Fredrik Evensen calls first dibs in Kamchatka. Photo: Daniel Tengs
Fredrik Evensen calls first dibs in Kamchatka. Photo: Daniel Tengs

But the warning signs are there too. We already know the snowpack is dangerous. Gale force winds have built dangerous layers cover by fresh snow up top – and we can feel the temperature rising.

As I headed around to do one run on the Glacier Toule before the temperatures reach unsafe levels, I watched the groups of experienced skiers and snowboarders heading towards the steep exposed slopes of Glacier Marbree.
Had I not been working, might I have been a part of this raid?

Would I too have been drawn by the tracks and confidence of others? Even with the warning signs?

“The progression is rapid despite the margin for error getting slimmer and slimmer”

Maybe in my younger days I might, but my circumstances are different now…

I have a loving family, and more responsibility! I have more mountain knowledge than ever and the more I learn the more cautious I become. I have less ambition to push the limits, and yet I enjoy the ride more than ever before!

I’m not trying to say that we are becoming reckless and I’m not trying to say that I am the knowledge on any of this, I’m just trying to say that we should waver to the side of caution… maybe even a little more than before.

The times they are a changing. I’m not judging… but I am questioning.

Neil McNab is Britain’s only UIAGM qualified Backountry Snowboard and Splitboard Guide. This is an abridged version of a post originally published on McNabSnowboarding.com. Follow all of Neil’s backcountry activities on his Facebook page.

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