Everyone has a vote. Remember this the next time you take part in an outdoor activity with a group of people. Whether you’re going on an outing with friends, family, a club or strangers from a ‘meet up’ event, please ensure you’re travelling with a group who understands that each person has a say as to what happens during your outing and, moreover, respects the fact that if one person votes ‘no’ on a certain course of action, the group will willingly re-assess the current plan.

All too often folks (of all ages) find themselves in a position where they are afraid to speak up and ‘rock the boat’, because they don’t want to spoil the fun or seem like they’re not up to the challenge. When it comes to outdoor activities, particularly ones with a degree of risk, it’s necessary for people to be totally honest about their concerns, fears and observations. Making others aware of those thoughts may be the difference between a great day out and never returning home at all.

While a simple ‘you good?’ might be sufficient for some, there are more effective ways of ensuring thorough planning and communication before setting off on an outdoor adventure. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) have a group communications checklist and, while it is geared towards those heading into avalanche terrain, if you insert a ‘general gear check’ where the transceiver is referred to, it can apply to nearly any outdoor activity. There are many opportunities to take stock of the group’s situation and assess if going forward makes sense; continued communication and observation are key to safe travels.

So, what happens when someone doesn’t voice their concerns? Sometimes nothing, which makes it easier to not say anything the next time too. Sometimes, however, the outcome is deadly. One of the most dramatic examples of failed group dynamics is the Tunnel Creek avalanche which happened in February of 2012 at Stevens Pass, Washington State, USA.

Sixteen incredibly experienced (some professional) snow-sport men and women, between the ages of 29 and 53, met up to do a run on Tunnel Creek on the back of Cowboy Mountain. Though it would seem that a group of this composition could surely do no wrong, poor communications, assumptions and un-aired concerns sadly resulted in the deaths of three participants. John Branch of The New York Times did an amazing multi-media feature on the incident, and a few excerpts from the piece are noted below. It was a true tragedy on many levels, but also an incident that we can all learn from.

Group dynamics can be a complex issue but at the heart it is a simple one. Travel with people you trust, be honest about your skills and abilities, make a commitment to open communication and speak up. Should you find yourself in a situation where you’ve aired your concerns but the group opts to continue on their current course, don’t fall victim to peer pressure if your gut is saying ‘no’. Some days you might not make it to the summit, but if you make it home, then it was still a pretty great day.

Special thanks to CSAR member Jack for his input, summary work and resource links for this write-up!

The following are brief excerpts from The New York Times’ multi-media feature ‘Snow Fall; The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek’ (2012), written by John Branch…

“The top of Cowboy Mountain, about 75 miles east of Seattle, rises to 5,853 feet — about half the height of the tallest Cascades, but higher than its nearest neighbors, enough to provide 360-degree views. It feels more like a long fin than a summit, a few feet wide in parts. Locals call it Cowboy Ridge.

To one side, down steep chutes, is Stevens Pass ski area, which receives about 400,000 visitors each winter. To the other, outside the ski area’s boundary to what is considered the back of Cowboy Mountain, is an unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a “powder stash,”. ”

“It features nearly 3,000 vertical feet — a rarely matched descent — of open meadows framed by thick stands of trees. Steep gullies drain each spring’s runoff to the valley floor and into a small, short gorge called Tunnel Creek.”

“Many of the most experienced locals view Tunnel Creek with a mix of awe and fear.

“I’ve always been a naysayer of Tunnel Creek,” the snowboarder Tim Wesley said. “I’ve seen a big avalanche back there before. It has about 2,600 vertical feet. Not typical. The snow changes a lot in that distance. That’s the reason I always have a second thought about Tunnel Creek.”

“Avalanche Transceiver Check Station . . .  you walk by and it goes beep, beep,”

“One member of the party did not elicit a beep: Erin Dessert, a 35-year-old snowboarder who was early for her afternoon shift as a Stevens Pass lift operator. Wesley invited her along. She thought everyone was riding off the front side of Cowboy Mountain, back into the ski area.”

“There were 16 people, although no one thought to count at the time. Their ages ranged from 29 to 53.

“This was a crew that seemed like it was assembled by some higher force,” ”

Castillo glanced around at the others . . . “I was thinking, wow, what a bunch of heavies”

“Wesley laughed, and his two friends followed him left and over a small rise.

Rudolph headed straight down the mountain.

“I remember looking back at where he was going and being confused,” Wesley said. “Like, ‘Where is he going?’””

“At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.”

(paraphrasing Elyse Saugstad)

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