February 22, 2016

Balancing Goals and Survival in the Backcountry with Donny Roth


Donny Roth is an experienced mountain athlete and ski guide. We are lucky enough to have him and many other professionals here in our valley.  He gave a similar version of this talk to the CB community back in December at the CBAC Avalanche Awareness Night.  We think this is a really poignant discussion on managing your risk in the backcountry. Thanks for letting us repost this, Donny! This article originally appeared on

Words by Donny Roth

The idea behind this is that our emotions blind us from making rational decisions, and we are emotional beings. There is no escaping that; we are not robots. We can’t make purely rational decisions. And recognizing that is really essential to making good decisions in the mountains, because we have to balance those emotions with rational processes as well.

The textbook and the easiest example, and something I talk a lot about in my avalanche course, is that we actually make most of our decisions while we are warm, dry, well fed, and therefore rational.  I know where I am going before we leave the house, before we leave town. And then it is just a matter of data collection and confirming the factors I had a very good idea of in the first place. I don’t get sucked into looking at terrain I had ruled out that morning, because it was so good, or whatever the reason may have been. Even though the temptation is always there, we go out with a plan ahead of time.

That’s sort of the classic example. The flip side, and what my presentation talks a lot about, is knowing what drives us and knowing what our weaknesses are—if we can call it weakness. Why are we out there? What are we out there to do? And knowing the answers to those questions really helps prevent heuristic traps.

So what my presentation relates to, and why I think so many people found it to be compelling, is that I talk a lot about what skiing has meant to me for my entire life. It isn’t just this thing that I happen to be lucky enough to do and to have been introduced to as a kid—which is all true—but I talk about how, when I was younger, I struggled with depression and how skiing was my outlet. It was the place where I could control my life, but it was also where I placed my hopes and dreams. Once I started filming and started being part of the production of ski movies, these pressures collided. I had the opportunity to make my dreams come true, and at the same time, there were times when it was very clear that it wasn’t the right time to do that. I was presented with conflicting information.

So I relate my personal experience, but I also talk about how I came to a lot of conclusions—there was a moment of clarity and a spot that I came to when JP Auclair, Liz Daley, Andreas Fransson, and Andrea Zambaldi and Sebastian Haag—five professional athletes—died in one week’s time in September. I was in Chile when all of those accidents happened; three were in South America.

I got a lot of phone calls from professionals, from people in the ski industry—avalanche educators and forecasters—asking me what was happening with the snow. And honestly I said nothing weird is happening with the snow. If we were to do an investigation, we would see clear signs of instabilities. The snow doesn’t sneak up on us; something causes us to not see the signs. And that’s the case with every accident. There are always clear signs and we always miss them somehow. Sometimes, it’s complete ignorance. It’s the guy who goes out of bounds and doesn’t know any better, he was skiing powder all day in the resorts, it got chewed up, he ducks the rope. And that’s unfortunate, obviously, he just doesn’t know any better.

But then you get into things like where five very experienced ski mountaineers and skiers died in one week’s time and they had tons of knowledge, tons of experience, and you wonder, how? How did they miss it? They have the information, they have the knowledge. So how do they miss it? I think it’s because we’re blinded, because we want something so badly. And I don’t think it’s this rational, conscious decision of, I’m willing to risk my life today, I’m willing to die. I think it’s a pursuit of something deeper. I talk about how in other sports we see this happen. We see people take these risks that seem otherworldly, it leaves you wondering, how in the world can they dig that deep? How do they have the courage to risk everything? And it’s really cool. The problem we have as skiers is when we decide to do that, when we decide today is the day that I’m going to give everything that I’ve got to accomplish this thing, whatever it is, there’s a very real possibility that we can die doing it. And that doesn’t happen with figure skaters, or whatever. They can fail, and they get criticized, but they don’t die. In the backcountry, we run that risk. And it’s a real risk.

I originally wrote my talk for college kids. I wanted them to realize that life is long. This sport can be something we can do for a long time and that it is a human endeavor. They can learn so much about snow, avalanches, mountains and weather and all of these things, but if they don’t know themselves and understand who they are as people, they’re going to get in trouble.

To learn more about Donny Roth, visit

About the Author

2. Will Dujardin
Will Dujardin is our content editor at West Elk Project. He competes in big mountain competitions and coaches the Crested Butte Mountain Sports Team. Skiing is his life and he likes to mix it with other fun things like DH mountain biking and traveling.