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BD Athlete Antte Lauhamaa Shares His Top 10 Lessons Learned from a Life of Avalanche Study

Friday, March 6, 2020
BD Athlete Antte Lauhamaa has spent a lifetime skiing in the backcountry. It’s fitting that now he’s an avalanche forecaster in his native Finland. During his time in snow, he has come to deeply respect the “white lion” and knows that snow science is far from exact. But after years of study, Lauhamaa follows a list of 10 commandments that he tries to remember every time he heads into the backcountry. Check out his top 10 lessons learned.
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Antte Lauhamaa 2
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Photos: Courtesy of Antte Lauhamaa

Snow is not just a white, cold blanket of fluffy material laying on top of the ground. It’s very much comparable to living creatures as it’s changing constantly after its birth in the atmosphere. I’ve lived with the snow every winter since my childhood and the older I get the more I respect this sleeping white lion. On a good day it brings us smiles and memories for life, but when it’s having a bad day, it has the potential to destroy everything valuable to us in a matter of seconds.

In a perfect world we would be able to know snow so well in every condition that we could be 100% certain in making our decisions when moving in the snow-covered mountains. We could make calculations about current snow conditions like mathematicians and then get an exact equation that would tell us if it is safe to enter a snowy slope or not. This is easy to dream since we humans like to get easy and exact answers about things that can influence our life.

Unfortunately, there are so many variables having effect on a snowflake when it has fallen to the ground that it’s impossible to make an exact calculation about how it’s going to behave when we lay our skis or feet on top of it. So, we have to learn to live with uncertainty and this brings us into the world of risk and how to manage it.

Human decision making is the most important thing when evaluating avalanche accidents and managing the risk. A relatively simple way to understand how to avoid mistakes is by looking at the mistakes done and try not to repeat them.

Todd Guyn introduced a list of 10 errors for avalanche professionals in 2016. The list was based on professional settings, but it is very valuable for all who deal with avalanche terrain. I have simplified the original list a bit for recreational use and I want to share it with you for the next time you make big decisions:

COMMON ERRORS PEOPLE DO WHEN DEALING WITH AVALANCHE Terrain

  1. Fail to adjust the location to meet the hazard at the time. Choose your terrain by the avalanche hazard. Usually you can check the hazard from the local avalanche bulletin.
  2. Being impatient with the conditions. Snow is usual cranky after the storm, so don’t head out in the steepest terrain right after the storm. Guide proverb to remember—If you are in doubt, wait at least 24 hours!
  3.  Trying to seek a way around the problem in any means. If the avalanche problem is there, the simplest way to deal it is to find right terrain for the problem. This can also mean that heading back home can sometimes be the wisest option.
  4. Acting too much on emotion. Your brain works in two ways: the rational part that gathers information to help you to make an informed decision and the emotional part that’s basically lazy and trying to have a good time. Embrace the emotion but don’t be controlled by it. You need to make informed decisions in high risk environments.
  5. Information overload. In the world of networks, the amount of information can easily be overloading. This is a tough one for every one of us, but you’ll learn to filter necessary information, for example, in certified avalanche courses.
  6. Not being sensitive to changes in environment. The weather and the snowpack are closely related, and subtle changes can have a big effect. Keep your senses open and note the sudden temperature rise or the change in wind direction and speed.
  7. Letting familiarity influence on your mindset. Just because you’ve been there every winter since 1976 does not make it safe. Remember that it’s all about the prevailing conditions and terrain.
  8. Underestimating consequences. It is very easy to get the dimensions or scale wrong so it is easy to underestimate the destructive size the terrain and snowpack can produce.
  9. Lack of communication. Seek ways to facilitate open and meaningful dialogue toward the essential tasks at hand.  
  10. Underplaying of uncertainty. We overestimate what we think we know due to past success in our field which can lead to overconfidence. Overconfidence can lead to faulty decisions based on incorrect premises.

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About the Author:

BD Athlete Antte Lauhamaa is a father, skier and CAA AOL 2 certified avalanche forecaster. Antte lives in Finnish Lapland and operates most of the time in the Northern Scandinavian mountains like Lyngen and Finnmark in Norway and Lapland of Sweden and Finland.


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