Operational Risk Management

Hakuba MountainLife Blog

Operational Risk Management

We are a backcountry guiding operation, and safety comes first, always. In this blog we describe some of our daily risk management routine. This has been daily habit for several years now, whether we are guiding that day or not. This is what we believe to be the minimum required professional standard of care owed to paying guided customers. Do not assume everyone does this.

The day usually starts before dawn, particularly in the depths of winter. We have a standard snow and weather study plot outside and 10 minutes after getting out of bed I am in the snow with a head torch on, paying attention to what happened over the last 12 and 24 hours. Numerous measurements all get written into a notebook and are taken inside. I then have breakfast and start my morning avalanche hazard analysis and plan for the day. I know of no better way to start a day in the mountains than going outside to look around before doing anything else. Dark starts are normal.

The morning hazard analysis and avalanche forecast is quite detailed. On many days, it is too detailed. But we stick with the discipline because it is best to do certain things even when you don't need to do them, so one day when it really counts, you are really good at doing them. A long list of information gets put into a form, and a picture builds of what to expect that day. Relevant information includes: weather over the last 24 hours with significant changes noted, our own recent snow and avalanche observations, other people's observations from an info sharing network, the weather forecast for that day, information about known weak layers etc etc. For each of these many data points we note what impact it will have on the snow stability trend.

With this info, specific avalanche problems are anticipated: what type of avalanches might be expected, their size, their distribution, their sensitivity, and the likelihood of triggering them. After this an estimate of avalanche danger is formed for each elevation band. These forecasts and estimates are assigned a level of confidence. Low confidence/high uncertainty is noted.

^That's a 290cm snowpack outside our front door. The sticks are for measuring snow accumulation over different periods of time.

In addition to avalanche danger, we list other likely dangers that day, and things which might reduce happiness or comfort. Did you know there are places we won't ski on days when a rescue helicopter can't fly due to weather? The morning work is completed by forming a plan for the day, considering avalanche conditions, weather, the group of customer's fitness, experience and expectations. We come up with where we are going to ski, how we are going to move around in the area, and what we are going to avoid. An important part of this is determining our overall mindset for the day. For example, are we stepping back from risk, stepping out into bigger terrain, continuing to do what worked yesterday, or going into a new area with limited info.

We then clear some snow in the carpark, warm up the engine, and load the van with skis, boots and backpacks. If there is a good sunrise, I usually try to get a few pictures and stop to take it all in for a peaceful moment. My deepest feeling of purpose in winter is when I walk outside with my backpack, boots and skis and load the van knowing that I have a good plan. That moment is my most important daily tradition in backcountry skiing. I then drive away and pick up our customers for the day. It is probably a little after 7am.

Once in the mountains, we climb, ski, climb, ski. Have fun. Ski the best snow possible, focus on more turns than chatter. Basically get it done, and giv'er when it's good. And note down everything that matters over the day - avalanche events, shooting cracks, snowfall accumulation, wind transport, sun effect etc etc. So many things, it can be different every day. I keep in mind the terrain features I wanted to avoid and add to that list if I find any new info, or surprises. In Hakuba and most of Japan, snow stability surprises are infrequent, though when they happen, they can be large. We don't dig a lot of pits, given our snowpack. Setting a fresh skin track all day and the act skiing itself tells me a lot about stability. Probably paramount is being in the snow everyday and adapting to the changes as they happen. Building a rolling history in my head. Sometimes there is cause for more detail, for example, if there is a crust of some type in upper snowpack. I am interested in that and will take a moment to study it during the day to track how it is changing over space and time.

A key part of our hazard management is getting our people out of the hills without rushing, and with daylight to spare. If we come out late, we have screwed up, or something went wrong. We pride ourselves on our time management. Never finish late is one of our rules (unless it was an intentional and well communicated part of a very big day).

In the evening we somewhat repeat the morning paperwork routine and write out an afternoon avalanche hazard assessment based on everything we learned during the day. This will form the foundation for the next morning's analysis, hence the importance of significant overnight weather changes. Probably the most vital risk management process is the end of day reflection: I note down what we got wrong that day, where my customers were at the greatest risk, was it acceptable? What did we do well? Then, information sharing with other guides in the valley. Drinking a beer and sitting by the fire is a given... while contemplating what might be a good plan for the next day as it snows outside.


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Previous articles...

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Mount Steele, Yukon, Canada


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