How has covid affected our decision making in the backcountry?


When I read the latest Avalanche Canada newsletter and saw the words ‘risk management fatigue’ a light went off. I thought “this is it!”. This explains the entire season. The big question we have been asking and exploring of how covid has affected the backcountry, well there it is.


Living in a small town we are, for the most part, living our normal daily lives. We were hermits to begin with and the mountains are made for physical distancing. We love to brag that our lives haven’t changed much and we are really not that affected by covid.


Now let’s get real. Many guides are out of work, tourism numbers are down, and with the high unemployment / work from home ratio we are seeing more people than ever flood the backcountry. The zones we once knew as secret or would only see our buddies in are now overrun with people we have never met. This is pushing us into new zones & new terrain at a time when information is sparse & our decision-making skills are far from one hundred percent.


After reading that one line in the newsletter I started to reflect on my own winter and decision making. How is risk management burnout affecting me and my partners? Looking back on the last couple months I can definitely say motivation levels have been low. I am not eager to find new zones or spend days staring at google earth in hopes of finding a road that no one else has been up. I honestly just feel done. I would say exhausted and over it all mixed with a bit of depression would sum up the current mental health status for most of us. Our communication has certainly been poor this season. The constant daily stress has led to reactive responses instead of listening to one another & respectful discussion.


Risk management is what we do, this is our jam. We spend our lives doing our best to make informed decisions that will result in us not getting caught in an avalanche and coming home at the end of the day. But how do we manage a global pandemic? How do we factor in the exhaustion we feel from simply just going to the grocery store now? Constantly living in the state of fight or flight is exhausting us and in turn our decision making and communication are suffering.


Now let’s focus a bit more on the communication side of things. Our bubble has been reduced to our immediate household and now we are supposed to go into the mountains with said bubble and have good communication… This could be literally the only person you have talked to this entire year. Are you annoyed or feel that you are so in sync you don’t have to talk anymore? It seems like most of us have hit auto pilot where we are simply just going through the motions, a deadly space to be in.


We have lost a lot of experienced people to the mountains this winter. This should be a wake up call for us to take a step back and look at our decision making. Have we been following the same process we did in previous years? Are we putting in the pre trip planning work and taking into account our newest human factor of a worldwide pandemic? How is this correlating to our group communication? Are we aware of conditions and able to anchor & adjust as we move through terrain? Where is our risk tolerance level? Are we making riskier decisions in the backcountry just to simply get away from other groups or to feel something?


The past year has been tough. Stress of work, money, health, loved one’s health… the list goes on. The mountains are our sanctuary, they are the place we run to when things are good but also when they are bad. We respect them and have dedicated our lives to learning how to live with them.


Risk management burnout is real. I am thankful to Avalanche Canada for helping me put a label on it. It is another human factor we need to add to our list & check in with one another during our morning chat. I don’t know about you but trying to avoid a virus that is seemingly everywhere takes its toll. Play safe, respect one another and walk away when it doesn’t feel right. We are strong & resilient, be honest with yourself & take care of your mind & body.