How Quick Pits Improve Decision-Making

January 17th, 2019

There are lots of ways to dig snow pits. They don’t have to be hours long endeavors. Instead they can be a quick, 5-10 minute exercises. Consider digging a “quick pit”. The point is not to find all the answers but to improve our decision-making. 

Last week I was riding snow bikes on the Manti-Skyline. We climbed up Pleasant Creek where the settled powder was perfect for bikes. Our excitement grew for the great riding ahead. Once on the ridge, we began working south in the warm sunshine that backlit sparkling powder in the air behind our tracks. It was beautiful.

We stopped on a north-facing slope at the head of Potter’s Canyon to dig a quick pit. Overall it wasn’t a bad looking snowpack, but it wasn’t perfect either. Sugary facets at the ground were healing, but cold weather in mid to late December created a thin layer of facets in the middle of the snowpack. That layer was the problem. Five minutes later we were riding again.

We looked at recent avalanches. They were breaking on the layer we identified in our pit. We descended to Miller Flat Reservoir then turned north to go up Staker Canyon and found two slides triggered that day. One was fairly large. Again, the same layer. 

We decided to check out Rolfson Canyon. By now, my mind had finally shifted from riding sleds to bikes. I was feathering the clutch, twisting the throttle, tapping the brake, and shifting gears all at the right time without thinking. That’s the point. Whether sledding or biking, we work to build these actions into muscle memory because THERE ISN’T TIME TO THINK.

As we climbed into Rolfson Canyon from the bottom, I was absorbed in powder fever. I was finding my way through the trees. Soon enough we were separated, but I kept going because we were all headed to the same place. As I broke through dense trees, a super steep and wide open gully about 100 feet tall appeared. Perfect for bikes. All I had to do was let the bike slip downhill with gravity then hit the throttle of the KTM 450, and I would have been ripping powder across the steep creek bank – ALONE.

Emotions from looking at layers in the snowpack took over. INSTEAD of seeing a perfect, powder-choked gully, I saw a slope that could avalanche. I was all alone. Without thinking (because there isn’t time), emotions influenced my decision making and I turned the other way to find my partners. Digging a quick pit created emotions that saved my life. I was alone, and any avalanche in that creek would have been fatal.

Time is the problem when snowmobiling or biking. We make split second decisions. Thinking and analyzing situations takes time. Emotions come easy. There are lots of them and some can help us make good decisions, IF WE CHANGE OUR PERSPECTIVE.

Things that bring out strong emotions are: riding perfect powder, feeling the horsepower of a modern machine, riding with good friends, seeing weak faceted snow, seeing avalanches, feeling how heavy the snow is when digging, standing with our eyes level with the snow surface, and thinking about people we love.

Digging a quick pit changes our perspective which improves decision-making. Standing in my pit in Potter’s Canyon and others along the way gave me a new set of emotions to balances the ones I felt from great riding. When I reached the decision point at the top of the steep gully, I turned away from it and lived to ride another day.

Quick pits only take 5 minutes but can save your life. This simple action will make you smarter because you’ll learn more about yourself and the snow. If nothing else, they’re great rescue practice. The quick pit is the best, cheapest, and simplest decision-making tool available.

Photo caption: Mark Staples examines the snowpack in a quick snow pit in Potter’s Canyon. His eyes are level with the snow which gives him a new perspective and influences decisions in a positive way. We can still climb steep slopes, but your life is worth taking a few minutes to stand in the snow. Photo by Brett Kobernik

Mark Staples, DirectorForest Service Utah Avalanche Centerwww.utahavalanchecenter.org