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The complexities and paradoxes inherent in man and mountains

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In the Path of an Avalanche, by Vivien Bowers; Greystone Books

Reviewed by G.D. Maxwell

"It ain’t rocket science," goes the smartass answer to simple questions. But when you get over the almost-universal mathematiphobia gripping large swaths of the population, rocket science is a piece of cake.

So many rockets have been launched successfully at their targets that people have more or less lost interest. The final Apollo launches drew less viewers than reruns of Gomer Pyle. Rocket goes up, rocket reaches target. Ho-hum.

If you want to turn your mind to something really baffling, really beyond your grasp and infinitely complex, try snow science. Try understanding the living, breathing, indifferent elephant in the parlour we casually call snowpack. Try understanding why one snowpack slides and why another, seemingly identical snowpack on an adjacent slope, doesn’t. And if you study long and hard and trick yourself into thinking you have a grip on ‘Why’, let your mind wander to the question of ‘When’ and glimpse true humility, Grasshopper.

And if ever you imagine you can mount an answer to those questions, spice the question up by tossing in the manifold vagaries of the human psyche… then Möbius that unfathomable black hole into the even more vague dynamics of group behaviour.

Only then will you begin to unravel the mysteries of why smart, skilled, rational people get swept away by avalanches.

To her credit, Vivien Bowers tries to tackle all those questions in her book, In the Path of an Avalanche, just published by Greystone Books in Vancouver. To illustrate her point, Ms. Bowers, a writer and backcountry skier from Nelson, B.C., has chosen the January 2, 1998 slide in Kokanee Provincial Park that killed six skiers, including our own Lumpy Leidal.

The book’s a bit of a paradox – a fascinating paradox. It’s suspenseful, which is no small trick considering the outcome is well known. It’s educational without being pedantic, preachy or insufferably dull. It’s multidisciplinary in its attempt to explain what happened, how it might have happened and even takes a crack at shedding light on why it happened.

Best of all, Ms. Bowers avoids the trap of linear storytelling. The book meanders like a bloodhound on the trail of a drunken fox, giving the reader more than a passing look into the mechanics of search and rescue, avalanche forecasting, route selection and snowpack formation. It dissects the anatomy of a media feeding frenzy – in a chapter titled If it Bleeds, It Leads – and the impact a descending swarm of largely urban, sensation-seeking, insensitive louts can have on a tightknit community.

But mostly, as befitting a writer who finds solace and inspiration in British Columbia’s backcountry, the book comes close to capturing the lyrical lure of the mountains. There is no attempt to directly answer the question "Why do they go there?" because the author understands that question can’t be answered to the satisfaction of anyone who doesn’t already know.

For those who understand though, she brings the spirit of backcountry travel and the lure of big mountains to the forefront of her story. It seeps into the bones of the reader as unannounced as it infects those who don the gear and head out for a ski. That she tells her story at the same slow, methodical pace one employs skinning uphill makes it all the more infectious.

In a passage tucked into a wandering chapter called The Pursuit of Powder, Bowers cites Queen’s University psychologist Gerald Wilde’s grafting of risk homeostasis onto the issue of avalanche tragedy to help explain why people find themselves in places where questionable judgement leads to bad consequences.

"The theory assumes that each person accepts a certain level of subjectively estimated risk when he or she participates in an activity such as backcountry skiing. If the risk is lower than what they find acceptable, they will respond by increasing it – choosing steeper, more exposed slopes, for example. In other words, people continually adjust their actions to increase or reduce risk in order to maximize the benefits they get from the activity."

The point is one that bedevils avalanche experts. Its implications undercut the very raison d’être of their quest. It suggests people with more training, more experience and more backcountry smarts will be the ones likelier to push the envelope, traverse riskier slopes and ski tougher lines.

In the Path of an Avalanche is exactly the kind of book you want to hunker down with while awaiting the new season’s snowfall. It takes your mind to places you want to go this season and places you want to avoid. Its author is a woman of heightened sensibilities. There’s no sensationalism here, no blood and guts, no recriminations. The narrative is respectful of those who perished and their families, laudatory of those who risked their own safety to recover the victims’ bodies and empathetic of the friends left behind to wrestle with the knowledge it could have been any one of them.

You or me, for example.

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