Living in a mountain town that is separated from the nearest major metropolis by two high mountain passes, road conditions tend to be a hot topic during any snowstorm. Plowing, driveway shoveling, and the debate whether Colorado uses Mag Chloride on the roads or not (they do when the pavement is above 16F, check CDOT’s website) always seem to be great conversation starters when standing in line at your favorite Starbucks. Yet the one claim that everyone seems to make, no matter how dangerous the conditions are, is that they are more scared of the “other people” on the road. This leads us to understand that the person you are speaking with believes in their own driving abilities. We as drivers also understand that we alone are responsible for our own safety on the roads.
These solo drivers admit that there is danger behind the wheel, yet are confident in their abilities to safely navigate a dangerous road…bearing in mind that other drivers don’t cause any other sort of infringement on their skills. In Colorado, when it snows, we drive. Granted, we have a great transportation department and usually clear skies immediately after the storms that help us get through this. Yet, no one questions each other when we say we have to drive to a new destination. The risk is assumed and accepted, and usually the driver is rewarded with an arrival at their destination. We don’t rely on driving partners to navigate for us, to pat our backs when your windshield fluid goes out…we either drive or we don’t.
Why should backcountry riding not be similar? As a backcountry traveler, you should be comfortable making decisions on your own, not relying on a partner to guide you through every step of the process. You are responsible for acquiring the skills to keep you safe, whether it is terrain management, weather observations, or snow analysis. In some scenarios, your backcountry partner is a great wealth of information on these items. But really, you should be reading, taking classes, and using professionals to gain this type of knowledge and experience.
So what was the point of the long segway about driving and shoveling? Let’s think back to how many avalanche accidents have happened in the past few years. How many occurred with groups 3 or more, and how many occurred to solo travelers? Here, our devil’s advocate begins. Forecasters and avalanche professionals speak more and more to the point of group dynamics and the roles they play in decision making. Yet, when you are traveling by yourself, YOU are the dynamic. You are responsible for yourself and yourself alone, and this concept is usually a very vivid reality when you are in the backcountry. No one can save you, no one can help you if you blow your knee or break your binding. Your decisions keep you in line, and it is your knowledge and experience that keeps you alive. Generally, people who venture out alone are keeping conservative lines in tow, giving wide berths to dangerous zones, and keeping their approaches mellow since they are breaking trail on their own schedule. They also tend to know know their abilities, both physically and technically, just as the snow drivers mentioned before.
None of this is to say that there are not inherit dangers of solo travel. Tree wells, freak accidents, and gear failure all are huge factors when considering this concept. We are not necessarily advocating solo backcountry days, or telling you to go out and spend your life savings on training today. Rather, to treat group decisions as if you were solo. Do you really trust your partner with your life? Do you really think the decisions the group made will keep everyone safe, or are you just hoping that their are enough eyes on you to dig you out when you hot tub the landing and trigger that windslab CAIC keeps talking about? These are the questions that should be going through your head when planning your day. Who did you line up to link up at the trailhead? Do they know the area, and if they do, have they been there recently? Maybe you are going with someone who frequents the area almost too often and has a false sense of security because its been Green Flag for a week. None of these questions really have to be spoken, nor mulled over for hours on end.
As you get used to dialing in a crew for the day, this process may only take you a few seconds to really decide what the game plan could be. Yet, don’t be afraid to audible the plan when you see that your buddy who kills it in the park is a dope in the skin track. Overterraining a partner (whether on the up or down) can be even more dangerous than simply going alone. A partner is only safer than being alone when that person is exactly that, a partner. Not a crutch, not a leader, not a trailbreaker…a partner. Someone that you CAN rely on, but not someone that you ARE relying on. Not to say that you aren’t relying on that person if you are being belayed over a cornice, or spotted while you are making turns. Rather, you have an equal share in making the day happen. For group size, it seems that 3 may be the magic number where any more additions seem to really complicate things. Don’t be afraid to ask your crew to split into a few smaller groups either. If anyone is offended by that concept, then it is your job to educate them why you don’t feel comfortable with the size of the pack.
There is nothing wrong with being your own one man wolf pack if you can’t find the right pack to roll with. Sometimes being the savy solo shred allows you to assimilate into other groups that seem fitting, aka you are more approachable. But just remember to keep your wits up, and realize that help or rescue is in your hands. We all accept risks in everything we do, and it is often the risk that makes the reward much sweeter. At the same time, having a friend to share the memory with can be just as nice. Even if you are partnered up, if you make good decisions as if you were solo, you may already be ahead of the curve.