Four Questions

Our daily trip plan; part of prudent backcountry skiing

Over President’s weekend, I spent 4 days with friends and family deep in the backcountry at an AIARE I Avalanche safety course with our friends at Payette Powder Guides. Split between classroom time in the Yurt and field work while backcountry skiing in the Payette National Forest, it was incredibly enlightening and I recommend the class for anyone faced with decision making in avalanche terrain. It was fascinating to learn so much about avalanches and the snow science behind them. We spent a great deal of time focused on good decision making as well as how to use beacons and work as a team to locate and extract an avalanche victim. We filled out pre-excursion trip reports over breakfast and field reports both during and after. We dug hand pits and a full blown 6 foot snow pits to examine the different layers of the snowpack and assess changing conditions.

One of my biggest takeaways from the experience was learning that 95% of the time, snow in the mountains is relatively stable. It’s the other 5% of the time that you have to plan for in order to avoid catastrophe. It’s simply risk management. We were presented with so much information during our class that our heads started to swirl. Our guides shared with us that when making decisions in avalanche terrain, you can really boil it down to four questions. When we heard this, my good friend Sue leaned over to me and said “sounds a lot like your business.”

  1. What’s the problem? (ex. – Wind slab? Visibility? Weather? Terrain trap?)
  2. Where is it? (ex. – NE facing slopes? All aspects?)
  3. What’s the likelihood? (ex. – low, we’re skiing SW facing, low angle slopes)
  4. What are the consequences?

The idea isn’t to talk yourself out of a great ski day. Even on days when you wake up and there’s significant avalanche danger, there’s ways to ski safely in the backcountry. The idea is to keep yourself and your group away from the danger. That could mean a change in what or where you planned to tour that day.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how little time most companies spend on risk management. Most startups I’ve been involved in have had one or more near-death experiences emerge from out of the blue. The notion isn’t to take your foot of the gas and spend all your time on what-if scenarios; but to know where the danger is lurking and what you’ll do if it appears. Most of the time, management teams are heads down and focused on moving the ball forward and very little time is spent thinking about existential threats. I’m planning on bringing this up with the boards I’m on as a regular (even if brief) discussion point at our board meetings.

What other questions do you think would be helpful for management teams to regularly ask themselves in order to practice good risk management?

Showing 7 comments
  • Kelly

    Years ago I was caught in a big slide on Berthoud Pass. My brother and I were on day 2 of a weekend avy class where the group was navigating terrain and making decisions. It was decided to traverse this huge bowl, something I would never had done. I didn’t speak up as I was stupidly assuming the “group” knew what they were doing. I was the fourth person to go, halfway across the whole thing ripped, a 6-7 ft crown if I remember correctly. I managed to stay on top of the slide and rode the thing for a few hundred yards before I was cemented from my chest down but had my arms and head above the snow. It was the scariest moment of my life.

    I often draw parallels to the bc and work. Group dynamics, over-complication, bad decisions are all around us. The trick is to see them and trust your own path, no matter what the “group” says.

    Great post Mark.

    Btw – my brother without hesitation skied behind the slide straightlining the slide path chasing after me. When the whole thing came to a stop, he was standing over me about 2 seconds later.

    • Mark Solon

      Whoa Kelly, never heard that story from you! Your comment’s spot on. So easy to defer to the “expert” in the group. Fantastic advice pal.

    • David Mandell

      Damn. Never knew that, Kelly. Glad your’e ok. And Mark, awesome post!

  • Casey Ames

    I love a good, simple framework for working on decisions. Good post and translation from one domain to another.

    I feel like Porter’s 5 Forces are good to go over quarterly. It can help work on risk management from certain market forces. Are we too reliant on suppliers and/or powerful consumers? What’s our QA up and down the supply chain?

    As well as, what would happen if everything 10x’d tomorrow? How are our systems built out?

    • Mark Solon

      High class problem to contemplate 10x tomorrow, but a problem nonetheless. Good one!

  • Campbell

    Ya, you can do a PhD in snow science and still not really know what is going to happen.

    Biggest investment returns:
    1) Energy management: Enough food & Sleep. People are warm.
    2) Group management: who’s in charge when there is a slide, coordinating the group? Who does what?

    • Mark Solon

      That’s right, being an expert doesn’t preclude you from danger.

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