Friday, November 16, 2018

The Safety Series Part 2: The Mom Principle

I'm closing in on thirty years old (yikes!). And yet, "what would I tell Mom?" is still my guiding principle. Allow me to explain.

As discussed last time, there are a multitude of "brain traps" we can fall into when out in the backcountry. Recent avalanche avoidance research has identified a pile of them. Bottom line: our brains aren't that good at identifying and assessing risk, much less when we're actually in the backcountry. So as a safeguard against letting my lizard brain take over, I ask myself this question:

Could I, with a clean conscience, tell my mom about what I'm poised to do?

I ask myself this question because it brings to front of mind any latent, lingering doubts that I'm trying to suppress. Are there any warning signs I'm missing, that I should have seen? Am I 100% confident that I can do this safely?

In my backpacking career, there's really only been one decision I've made that violated the Mom Principle (though, it was before I had developed the Mom Principle). In 2014, I traversed a snowy, sketchy sidehill in Grand Teton National Park. If I had slipped on the hard, icy snow, I would have taken a very fast ride down some very steep terrain, interspersed with sharp boulders. I had not brought microspikes.
It quickly became apparent that Paintbrush was every bit as challenging as they said. From Lake Solitude, the trail ascended the side of a ridge. Theoretically, at least. In reality, there was no trail in many spots, and I had to traverse several steep snowfields, going sideways across a 50-60 degree slope. The ice axe became a necessity. I chopped steps in the icy snow where necessary. It took me perhaps 10 minutes to go 50 yards in the most treacherous spots.
Setting aside the fact that there's no way it was actually 50 degrees, let alone 60 (I'd now say it was about 40-45 degrees at its steepest), this was just a flat-out bad decision. I couldn't tell Mom about it without feeling guilty. It was a dumb risk to take. I didn't have the experience using an ice axe. I didn't have traction devices for my feet. If I had waited several hours for the snow to warm up and soften, it would have been easy. But given the current conditions, my traverse of that slope was simply unsafe.

I aim never to be in that position again.

Note, however, that the Mom Principle is not dependent on whether my mom (or anybody else) actually agrees with my decisions. It's about whether I am confident in my decision. If the worst happened, and I were badly injured, would I regret undertaking that traverse to begin with? Would I feel ashamed? Or would I imply acknowledge that bad stuff sometimes happens out there and that I just got "unlucky"?

Since the development of the Mom Principle, I've backed down on at least two occasions from routes that exceeded the accceptable level of risk. I was confident I could make it safely, but not 100% confident. Not confident enough to tell my family about with a clean conscience. So I turned around, went another way, and lived to fight another day. I turned around in the moment, but really, I had made those decisions months or years in advance. And I can tell my mom about them without the slightest twinge of guilt.


A special note on solo travel. I do quite a bit of solo backpacking, some of it off-trail. I've done the entirety of the Hayduke Trail alone, as well as off-trail routes in the Uintas, Absarokas, and Beartooths, among others. I wish I could find the study, but the research apparently indicates that solo travelers in the backcountry actually make more conservative decisions than those traveling in a group. If anything, I'm less likely to get myself into a dangerous situation when I'm solo.

Solo and off-trail. Worth it.

But I freely admit that the stakes are higher alone. Take, for example, a simple case of food poisoning in the desert. If I'm too physically weak to hike, my partner can easily hike to the next water source, fill up ever container we have, hike back, and wait for me to recover with plenty to drink. If I'm alone and unable to get to that next water source? I'm dying of dehydration in the hot desert sun. There's nobody coming past to see my plight and lend me a hand.

Therefore, my corollary to the Mom Principle, regarding solo, off-trail travel: If 1) I am both alone and off-trail, or 2) not being able to move forward will kill me in short order, then I will bring my Personal Locator Beacon. 

My PLB is designed to do one thing and one thing only: to summon a helicopter. I won't push it unless my life literally depends on it. It's not a way of bailing myself out of sticky situations, nor is it a tool that allows me to take greater risks while still having a safety net. I intentionally bought one with limited functionality so that I'll never be tempted the make riskier decisions just because I have a PLB as a backup. 

There you have it. The Mom Principle. A useful way of checking whether I'm really, really sure about the decision I'm about to make. Next time? Decision points.

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