Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: In the Avalanche Patch

A book review of “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: In the Avalanche Patch by Bruce Kay”.

It could be hard to believe for a group of people like us “cool mountain folk” that we are slaves to culture, but it seems to be true. We are a group who values freedom from the confining rules of the larger society, and we go to the mountains to find liberation. We even named our textbook after the deliverance we experience in the mountains, so how can we be shackled by anything? This is one of many compelling ideas in Bruce Kay’s recent publication Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: In the Avalanche Patch. Kay has the courage to say outright “As much as we might think otherwise, our (mountain) culture often holds the levers of influence over us rather than the other way around.” In this statement he makes clear at least one of the unseen pressures on our decision-making in the high stakes game of backcountry skiing and riding, our culture.


Kay distils the work of other noted thinkers and academics and pours a “shot ski” filled with the latest research on intuition, bias, thinking, heuristics, culture, and his own hard won wealth of human observation as an avalanche professional. His work helps us to better understand human factors as they relate to avoiding pain-filled involvements with avalanches. He takes a diligent unapologetic look at our behaviour and motivations for sometimes inappropriately dropping into consequential mountain terrain in winter. In so doing, he casts a steady illumination on a large part of the problem of avalanches, ourselves.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose is a refreshing antidote to the trance I see backcountry riders in. Kay holds up a mirror and we can see the pinwheels swirling around in our eyes, providing us with a profound awareness of who we are and the issues we share. We place ourselves in the cast of his riveting stories because he uses the fact that history repeats itself to profound affect. His remedy is a pragmatic and reasoned tool-box for overcoming our flawed approach to our pursuit of powder; like how to use human behaviour to get the most benefit as opposed to focusing on the problems posed.

It is hard to know the meaning of consequence unless we have lived them personally, but where wisdom resides is to learn the lessons from others or before the sting of profound ramification. Kay helps us with this task, and ultimately, if we would like to preserve our freedom from regulation, we will embrace and put into practice his message and take more responsibility out there for ourselves, because with responsibility comes the freedom we seek.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose is a must read and study for those who travel in avalanche terrain in the mountains in winter. Bruce Kay has taken a personal risk to be critical about what we are doing as a mountain community. His critique of us is purposeful, to help us all get better at what we do by seeking the book’s title as expressed goals for how we operate in the high risk environment of backcountry skiing and riding.

By Ken Wylie