Everything in life has a craft—a way of doing things, specific skills, best practises, common errors and “traps” and moves that work well in those odd little situations.
Most professions have a system for instilling their crafts in novices. Degrees, apprenticeships, mentorships, recognition from your peers—somehow there is a system that says, “You know the craft and you are competent.” Engineers aren’t allowed to build bridges without a lengthy education first—but outdoor sports are different. Whenever we go out-the-door, we’re going into a pro-level environment. We’re building those bridges for ourselves.
The real hazards of avalanches, rockfall, storms on a big lake while canoeing or any other hazard are exactly the same for the novice as the trained professional. In climbing and skiing, the trained professionals are the certified guides. The hazards may be the same for novice and professional, but the certified guide has some real tools and professional craft to mitigate those hazards. But the vast majority of people heading into the mountains are massively under-trained to deal with such a professional environment. And some die. And some have enough near-misses to convince them to get some training.
I think the sheer accessibility and radical true self-responsibility of mountain sports is a huge part of what makes them so awesome. I can walk up to any mountain I want to and try to climb it. You can’t just walk onto the stadium floor and play against a pro team in a pro sport, but in the mountain sports arena, anyone is free to go broadly anywhere. Of course, in the mountains, if your opponent is the equivalent of LeBron James, then you may get your ass handed to you if you don’t have the training to be there.
When I was 20, my 17-year-old brother and I decided to climb the north face of Alberta’s Mount Athabasca, a major peak in the Columbia Icefields—in winter. I knew a little about avalanches from taking courses as a kid and being out in the mountains with my dad, but I had realistically zero chance of rationally evaluating the snowpack on the mountain. I did have enough mentorship to at least recognize dangerous conditions, but I didn’t have much in the way of mountain craft. I had a theoretical understanding of crevasse rescue and enough rope work to maybe get my brother out, but realistically very little competency or understanding of the craft. We scarcely had any extra clothing and we had no way to communicate if one of us was hurt and needed a rescue.
In short, we were novices relying on luck—and we were lucky. Had the snow conditions been dangerous or had we fallen into a crevasse, we would have lacked the craft to resolve the situation. Some of this ignorance was the era, but it was also because we placed an emphasis on our general mountain understanding and less on acquiring true knowledge. We were willfully ignorant and arrogant about our own skills, and that is the root of many mountain accidents.
There is a flipside to acquiring an education, however. Some people may assume they know everything and are good to go—which is one reason so many avalanche forecasters have died in avalanches. But in total, knowing the craft of mountain sports is crucial to surviving these sports long-term. A lot of what is learned through avalanche courses is real, critical information, but a lot more of the education is just being out in the mountains and seeing it with a “master’s eyes.” Learning about why rockfall happens and when and where just by being there; or watching snow blowing and then skiing on the soft slab and remembering that feeling when suddenly you find it on an alpine route where you weren’t expecting it. This is no different than a master woodworker being able to see the grain of a piece of wood before cutting it up. Anyone can run a saw, but knowing where to cut takes understanding of the craft.
I am immensely grateful to the people who ultimately taught me my mountain craft, for their knowledge is rare. Too many experienced outdoors-people are not interested in educating the next generation. A hatmaker needs an apprentice to make more hats, but a climber seldom needs an apprentice to climb more. That’s why I prefer the “hard” education programs, which lead to real certifications or at least offer steps in that direction; programs led by professionals that allow students to see the world through a master’s eyes. That’s where the, “You’re going to be doing this day-in day-out, better really understand it or it will kill you” thinking comes into play. (One such example is the Yamnuska Mountain Skills Semester Program, in Canmore, Alberta, which entails months of learning with real outdoor professionals.)
Even if you don’t plan to become a professional, working toward a pro-level of understanding and truly acquiring the craft will make the mountain arena a safer place.