Cold Feet, Hot Tea and Decision Making in the Backcountry

It is hard not to be overwhelmed with decision making in the backcountry. I mean, I get overwhelmed in the ice cream isle at the grocery store. Imagine this quandary in a backcountry setting, where decisions become tenfold, more challenging and important then whether to choose Rocky Road or Mint Chip. Making decisions in the backcountry dictate the level of fun, the safety of a group and the outcome of the day. No, this not a “how to guide” but more a skier voicing her own concerns of clouded judgement, and intuition in the chance it may help someone else who struggles with my own dilemmas.

I am a skier, and I am human, which means my decision making is often veiled in a myriad of factors. Seriously… if my feet are cold, if it’s a pow day, if I’m hungry, the overall energy of the group, you name it. The main thing is that I have learned to recognize that I am easily swayed by things like cold feet and the promise of hot tea. Recognizing my clouded judgement means that I know my faults and I am able to remember them when making a decision, hopefully reducing my overall risk. If I fail to realize that I am impatient based on my own personal “needs” I would likely put myself and my partners in a potentially bad situation.  

I have also come to discover that intuition is a master. (Disclaimer; this may not be the case for everyone) Realizing what I’m good at, what I totally suck at helps me figure out how and why I make decisions. Maybe someone is a pessimist or a crazy positive optimist, It doesn’t really matter what qualities you possess, just so long as you recognize them. In a group situation I like to cover all the bases and stock my team with an intuition wizard, a factual thinker, a pessimist and optimist. It’s like a superhero decision making team where all aspects of decision making are covered.

Earlier this season a group of friends and I skied one of the Sierra Nevada  classic lines ,the “Bloody Couloir”. The Bloody is a 3,000 vertical feet, a beautiful steep couloir that looms high above the 395 corridor. Fueled by early season amperage we started to steadily make our way up the chute. As we climbed higher, the narrower and the steeper it became. Nearing the top of the accent we clearly entered a hanging snow field riddled with faceted-sugary snow topped with a substantial crust layer. We quickly realized we were entering a potential trigger zone but we were not yet at the top of the line, which meant if we turned around it was going to be a tricky zone to get ready for our decent. We were faced with the options of continuing to climb up in the potential trigger zone, climbing back down which was quickly becoming not an option, or   beginning our decent. With the top of the climb brimming only a couple hundred feet away we momentarily pressed on because how nice would it be to get ready on the peak and not on a sketchy slope?

Hazel competing in FWT. Photographer: D Carlier.

Here enters my issue, a creature of comfort I was ready to put myself in a potentially dangerous situation for the sake of a nice view and easy gear changeover. Luckily I am learning about my weaknesses and my strengths. The group talked it over and the pessimist, the optimist, the intuition wizard and the factual thinker collectively decided to turn around. While it was totally sketchy to change over our gear at the top of a gnarly chute it was safer than hiking up through a faceted hanging snowfield.

Would the outcome of the decision have been the same had I been oblivious to my personal weaknesses? Probably not. Simply put, learning that I personally make decisions based on comfort and intuition helps me know when I’m blowing it, so that I can fix it.

As it is also early in the season, my “mind muscles”  are rusty when it comes to risk, reward and skiing. So as I  look forward to the rest of this amazing El Nino winter I will endeavor to remember that I can use my cold feet and hot tea to help me enjoy many more beautiful days in the backcountry.


Words by Hazel Birnbaum.  Follow Hazel on the Freeride World Tour here

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