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Wider Preparedness Lessons from a Stunning Snowboarder Rescue
This post is about basic principles for building resilient communities and staying alive when the worst happens
This post is not about skiing or snowboarding. It’s about how to build a resilient, cohesive and safer community, wherever you are and whatever hazards you face.
Try to watch this heroic snowy rescue on Mount Baker in the North Cascades of Washington State without getting a tight feeling in your chest. I couldn’t, nor could many others as the story went viral.
Francis Zuber, a professional photographer who’s also a passionate and highly trained back-country skier, captured this moment in March on the 10,000-foot mountain, which has been blanketed in up to 10 feet of snow like much of the Mountain West this year.
“I was skiing a zone with a partner when I passed by a snowboarder upside down and buried in a tree well,” Zuber wrote on YouTube. “I only caught a glimpse of his board but it was enough to get my attention.”
Attention is one thing. Effective action is another.
The snowboarder, Ian Steger, had fallen into what’s called a “tree well.” These are deep and dangerous sub-surface areas of soft snow that form in the protective space beneath evergreens. They are responsible for as much as 20 percent of all skiing deaths, according to snow safety organizations and research.
I’ve written here about growing avalanche risk in a warming world with increasingly populous mountain slopes. But I hadn’t thought about tree wells before.
What’s critical to absorb, whether you’re a mountain skier or not (my brother is; I am not!), is the wider lesson offered when Zuber paused while frantically digging by hand - once he’d exposed Steger’s buried face and determined he was alive and could breath. He paused to get a folding “avy shovel” (avy short for avalanche) out of his small backpack.
I connected with Zuber via Instagram and asked him about the shovel:
“I've skied with an avy shovel since 2016,” he replied. “I always carry it in avalanche terrain and on deep days at the resort. Anyone planning on skiing that type of terrain should carry one.”
Tools matter, but training matters as much, or more.
As Zuber explained in his Instagram feed:
“[T]he mountains don't care how much skill or experience you have. They don't even care if you and your ski partners are doing everything right. Take an Avy 1 course [avalanche safety], and get trained on what to do if you find yourself in this situation. I'm thankful I knew just enough to scrape by and perform a successful rescue. And always look out for each other out there.”
Without running the drill, all the plans and tools in the world hold little impact, whether on a snowy mountain or in the White House planning for the next pandemic. That insight came on Sustain What three years ago from Alice Hill, a former National Security Council official in the Obama administration focused on biosecurity and climate.
Being watchful matters.
It’s a miracle Zuber spotted Steger’s snowboard amid the trees and while keeping track of his own path through the trees. But he did, and acted.
Peripheral vision saves lives
The same goes facing extreme heat, or cold. Who down the block from you is vulnerable to climate extremes? How can you help identify those vulnerabilities, and spread resilience? As climate/health scientist Kristie Ebi has stressed repeatedly, “Nobody needs to die in a heat wave.”
These themes all are explored more deeply in this post on ways to foster community connectedness and responsiveness with resilience in mind:
Here’s one last hat tip to Francis Zuber for sharing his experience, spreading awareness of risk within his commuhity - along with paths to resilience - not simply going with the viral nature of the moment.
I like what Zuber says on his photography website:
My goal for myself is to live the fullest life I can and use my camera as vehicle to achieve this. I believe we should want to be challenged physically and philosophically. I want others to step out of their comfort zones and thrive from it.
My photos are how I express my thoughts and relive my actions. They show my ideal vision of how we could look at each other, ourselves, and the world around us.
I recommend that you watch my 2020 Sustain What conversation on Rethinking Readiness Amid a Pandemic and Climate Crisis for more.
This solutions brainstorm featured Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and author of "Rethinking Readiness”; Judith Matloff, a veteran journalist, Columbia Journalism School professor and author of "How to Drag a Body”; Rod Schoonover, former Director of Environment and Natural Resources at the National Intelligence Council; and Alice Hill, mentioned above, who’s fellow for climate change policy, Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of "Building a Resilient Tomorrow."
Finally, here’s my pre-Substack post about lessons from the deadly avalanche in the Italian Dolomites in 2022, in which I explain that the dramatic collapse of an enormous slab of ice at a popular mountain destination is just part of a widespread alpine unraveling:
Francis Zuber reminds me of Marika Favé, the Dolomites mountain guide I interviewed after that calamity. Watch and share this conversation when you have time.
I forgot to thank Jeff Nesbit, whose tweet directed me to the snow rescue and stimulated me to dig in and write this post.