THE BLOG

Death by Familiarity

02/27/2012 12:19 pm 12:19:33 | Updated Apr 28, 2012

There is an old adage, which says "Familiarity breeds contempt." I've always taken that to mean that the more you know a thing, the more you take it for granted. Another way to say it might be, "same old, same old." The more familiar you are, the more you think you know it and the less you pay attention to it. A group of skiers in Washington State last week probably should have paid more attention. Three of them are dead.

Reported in the Seattle Times, a group at Stevens Pass, a popular ski area in the Cascades outside of Seattle, was in the back country, in an "ungroomed, out of bounds area." Elyse Saugstad, a professional skier, said this group did everything right following protocol. They were taking precautions, traveling with a buddy and crossing slopes individually. According to Megan Michelson, who was also part of the group, they'd done this many times before. These were experienced, familiar, skiers, including Michelson -- who is a freeskiing editor for ESPN -- Saugstad, Chris Rudolph -- marketing director for the Stevens Pass resort -- and Jim Jack -- a freeskiing judge. Rudolph and Jack didn't make it; they died along with a third skier, John Brenan. Saugstad, the fourth skier directly swept up in the avalanche, apparently survived due to deploying an ABS (an inflatable air bag) which kept her riding the crest of the snow wave. Still, she fell by her estimation 2,000 feet, "tumbling and turning and tossing the entire way." She stopped encased in snow, but with her head exposed so she could breathe. The familiar, the ordinary, the done-it-before, turned into something else on Sunday.

Michelson, who was waiting at the top of the slope to ski down watched as a three-foot gash opened up in the snow due to the passage of another skier. She said, "It didn't look that bad from our perspective." What didn't look bad from the top turned into a crushing wall of snow racing down the mountain with a depth of 20 feet and twice the width of a football field. Familiarity breeds contempt but I think it can also rob you of perspective. When things are familiar you tend to view them as you always have, until they change into something else.

This was a group of experienced, capable people and yet three of them still died. I had to ask myself, was their experience level a help or a hindrance? Did all of their outdoor experience alert them to the inherent dangers or did that familiarity breed just the smallest amount of fatal contempt? Why does it seem the more experience we have, the more apt we are to say "yes" instead of "no"? The news I saw and read said the avalanche danger in the area was reported as high. I have to assume this group of skiers knew because they took precautions; they were skiing smart and it still wasn't enough. Saugstad said of the avalanche, "We didn't anticipate it, but when we saw it happening, we knew exactly what was happening." Didn't anticipate it? She was wearing an Avalanche Airbag Backpack (AAB). You plan for the possibility of bad things but don't anticipate them actually happening to you.

Yes, Elyse Saugstad had to go through a traumatic ordeal. I doubt she'll ever look at those pristine, sparkling slopes the same way again. Her perspective changed on Sunday and, hopefully, she'll anticipate how fatal it can be when you get too familiar with the power of nature. Experience, familiarity, lulls you into focusing on your own power, losing sight of the power of other things. "It's nature. I don't want to make it seem trite, but sometimes nature is bigger than we are," said Katie Larson from the King County Sheriff's Office.

Trite is another word for familiar.