In this post let’s take a look at a recent article entitled “Avalanche Awareness for Rock Climbers and Hikers", just published on May 8, 2021. There is no attribution as to who the author may be.

About the same time a post appeared on Facebook for an "AI Powered Copywriter" which does "all the boring repetitive work of writing" for you. So you can now post hundreds of blog entries a day, send even more marketing emails, and even script videos.

While we don't know who wrote this avalanche article it may be a sign of things to come as more of the "mundane" work of writing copy for Google and Facebook in order to sell ads or products becomes predominant. There is nothing original in this article and in fact it appears to be a collection of material that is commonly touted, mostly through winter. Much of it does not apply in spring at all. And as far as rock climbers go - well, the avalanche center databaseOpens in New Window does not have a single fatality of a rock climber from anywhere in the world in the collection of over 2000 files over a 25 year period.

As we move to a paradigm where computers write copy for other computers, for the primary purpose of selling advertising, will the internet be reaching the right demographics with the most useful actionable content? Or will it simply consist of bits and pieces scraped from different existing content and reorganized by another computer to the satisfaction of Google?

Let's consider the points made ...

They start out with: "The avalanche deaths in the U.S.A. from 1960 to 2016: 54 hikers, 182 climbers (technical or semi-technical mountaineers), 249 snowmobilers, 260 ski tourers." This means that about 7% of fatalities were hikers, about 1 per season on average. In some cases these "hikers" were in alpine terrain and could arguably be categorized as climbers. Looking at only spring and summer US incidentsOpens in New Window in the avalanche center database (fatal and non, after April 15) turns up four hiking incidents, two of which had one fatality each. This is not currently a complete dataset but it is representative. The total in the search is 62 fatalities in 56 incidents. So hikers are about 7% of the incidents and 3.2% of the fatalities. (A list covering the northern hemisphereOpens in New Window and not only the US is also available.) There do not appear to be any rock climbers.

"Tip: Let it Settle" - This is not bad advice for anyone heading into avalanche terrain with fresh snow at any time of year. However, in spring new snow sometimes waits to avalanche until the first day with direct warm sunshine. Especially in early spring. Our Climbers Avalanche CourseOpens in New Window has several case studies in which recent snow stayed in place a week or longer only to go through an avalanche cycle on the first sunny day. Of course as spring goes on hikers are less likely to be in areas with significant new snow anyway as the snow level rises to higher alpine elevations. So "Let it Settle" is good advice but not always adequate on its own.

"Myth: Avoiding Slopes Means Safety" - Here they mention avalanches running out long distances as well as the snowpack all being "connected". They mention the possibility of triggering an avalanche from below. These are winter tips. In spring there may be a cycle of old deep instabilities failing with enough extended warming or heavy rain, but these are not frequent and the conditions leading to this are usually obvious. The remote triggering of avalanches is almost always due to a persistent weak layer in the snowpack, and even in winter this occurs mostly in certain snowpack climate regions. Spring avalanches rarely run particularly far for the path or terrain as the wet snow has high friction. Avoiding slopes between 25 and 45 degrees is never a bad idea and really the main approach to avoiding avalanche slopes entirely. So the advice given here is mostly inapplicable in spring and would have been better replaced with simple slope angle information.

"Tip: Watch the Trees" - This is a short commentary on flag trees and young forests indicating the extent of the runout zone for large avalanches. These large avalanches and avalanches in forested terrain are not common spring phenomena. It is very rare for reports involving hikers in this kind of terrain to show up. Avalanches generally run much further in mid winter and that is when areas of younger forest may be created. Most spring avalanche incidents occur above treeline or in clear open avalanche areas anyway. So this tip is largely irrelevant in the spring season.

"Myth: Being Above the Slope is Safer" - Here they talk about cornices, which is worthwhile advice at any time. The large ones formed over the course of a winter do soften as spring progresses into summer. There are cases of hikers getting, unexpectedly, too close to them and falling. These also pose a threat and a challenge to alpine climbers ascending routes below them. But rock climbers are generally safe from these! In a relative sense it is generally safer to be above a slope than below it, cornice collapses aside. So the advice about cornices is appropriate since we do see reports of such problems in spring. Although in general it could have been phrased better than calling it a myth that being above a slope is safer.

"Myth: Moderate Avalanche Forecast Means No Worries" - This is a bit of a mantra for some people in winter. And yes, fatalities have even happened during a Low forecast. This is good to keep in mind in winter but the problem in spring is that most agencies have packed up their skis, stopped skiing, and no longer issue forecasts. In the case of a potential cycle of deep wet slides an announcement may be forthcoming, but don't expect regular forecasts or danger ratings. Some forecasts that extend into spring, primarily in Europe, also use different icons and messaging to convey the point that the danger changes dramatically during the diurnal snow cycle. But this is not hard to understand or anticipate for anyone who has taken a spring oriented class. So this "myth" is largely irrelevant in spring.

"Tip: Stay Alert" - Good advice any time of year, for any outdoor activity. In our classes we emphasize listening to what nature is telling you, based on what you see around you. Their specifics are a bit of a mixed bag though. "Cracking and whumpfing" is extremely rare in spring. But they are right to mention pinwheels and ankle deep slush as things to be alert for. So this tip is a good one although the specifics could be better tailored to spring.

"Myth: Avalanches Aren’t Bad in Spring and Summer" - Of course they can be bad at any time, but the majority of spring avalanches are surface slides entraining wet snow. These can grow large enough to be dangerous, they can run into terrain traps, and they can knock a person off their feet. Following enough new snow there can be larger avalanches at the high elevations and alpine climbers have been caught in these. Overall, "bad" could be a fair enough adjective. So it's fair to call this a myth accurate.

"Tip: Choose Like-minded Partners" - This is a good tip and something we cover in all of our courses. In the spring climbing course this is especially emphasized since climbers must move efficiently, agree on acceptable and perceived risk, and on the objective. For hikers these things are not as relevant but there are still plenty of reasons to plan for the group or else choose the group for the plan. This is a good tip for any activity at any time of year, and especially good for any goal oriented activity such as climbing.

"Myth: Rock Climbers Don’t Need to Worry" - A bit of awareness never hurts, but there is little reason for rock climbers to worry much about avalanches. We just don't see reports of incidents involving rock climbers very often if at all. So this is misplaced, with all the things to worry about and prepare for when rock climbing avalanches are at or near the bottom of the list.

All of these tidbits could easily be collected from existing content and reassembled into new copy. But most have limited relevance to spring. This is the kind of thing AI should be good for. Although as stated at the beginning there is no indication of who did actually write this, and a person could also write copy like this. If they don't mind the "boring repetitive work of writing" for Google. [2022 addition: Course creation seems to be the latest get rich scheme, and after the growth in creators a boom in "coaches" followed. Their advice is that you don't need expertise to create a course, you just need to know a bit more than the student. And if you need help even at that low bar you can just scrape a bunch of relevant stuff from the internet.]

So what should be addressed for spring? While very few hikers and even less rock climbers show up in avalanche statistics there are quite a few climbers that do. Alpine mountaineering climbers. As well as spring ski tourers and ski mountaineers. Once we get well into spring the factors are not the same as what people are taught in traditional winter courses, which is why we developed a Climbers Avalanche CourseOpens in New Window. The need for this was recognized a long time ago by the professional community but nobody else has ever acted on it.

We cover spring weather, especially the diurnal energy balance during clear periods. We cover melt-freeze metamorphism and new snow on top of the freeze layer. Observations used to listen to nature are specific to spring. Climbing factors such as timing, lack of alternatives once committed, partner or group compatibility, etc are included. And the grand finale is putting this all together to plan a safe climb or trip in advance. Because once committed to a steep route it's a bit late to dig snowpits, consider alternate routes, etc.

For hikers and rock climbers this really may be overkill, and more than they need. An article such as the one discussed here could be appropriate, but it would be best written by a knowledgeable person and contain information specific to spring. But what would Google and Facebook say about that?

The article in question is:

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