The Performer: Mountain guide John Buffery

On learning from your mistakes, precision and surviving an avalanche.

(See also this video of Buffery explaining his work.)

John Buffery has spent the better part of three decades teaching avalanche safety and escorting professional and amateur skiers, snowboarders, filmmakers and vacationers into some of the most awe-inspiring and dangerous terrain on earth. The longtime Nelson, B.C., resident is one of the world’s most respected backcountry mountain guides, and he’s parlayed his intimacy with the province’s mountain ranges into a role as a senior avalanche officer for the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer.

The life of a backcountry guide

Days he spends in the backcountry each year: ‘Well over 100.’

Skis or snowboard: ‘95% snowboard.’

The highest summit he’s snowboarded: ‘Just over 13,000 feet above sea level, outside of Iran’s Dizan ski area. We got shot at as we passed the Shah’s old palace. They had never seen backcountry tourists and thought we must be spies.’

His favourite place to snowboard: ‘A secret backcountry area in the Japanese Alps where you end the day at natural hot springs the samurai used to soak in.’

A surreal guiding experience: ‘While doing mountain safety and rigging on the Discovery Channel’s Eco Challenge in Fiji’s mountain rainforests, I rescued the Playboy Bunny team from hypothermia.’

In backcountry guiding, you’re tasked with providing a fun, memorable experience in an environment that’s full of life-and-death situations. How do you mentally prepare for that?
The product you’re giving your guest is one of joy and euphoria through an experience they’ve never had before. The other side of that coin is the stress of all the preparation and analysis, and then applying it to the terrain, taking it into the mountains and balancing it with the ability of your guests, who are placing their lives in your hands. It is really tricky and really tough. But the thing is to be clear — don’t add any confusion — and be precise with what you’re thinking and how you’re communicating, so they understand what it is we’re dealing with.

Does managing that stress get easier over time?
There’s an old adage, “A guide is only as good as his last run.” But yeah, certainly you get better at it. Over the years, I’ve been continually challenged, first as a ski guide, then by taking up snowboarding and guiding snowboarders, then by guiding snowboard companies and pro riders for filming [movies]. I consistently found myself getting into harder, steeper, more remote terrain. I don’t know if it really gets so much easier, but you have to just believe in your process. Not in an airy-fairy sort of way, but by being technical and precise. You just have to have confidence that your process will work, and in doing that, you’re not making fear-based decisions, which makes a huge difference. You’re more open to engage, observe and absorb your surroundings because you have no fear, and you understand and believe that the process of taking that data and applying it to your formula will work. But when you’re wrong, it’s also about stepping back and honestly assessing why it went wrong.

How does that translate to your work as an avalanche officer?
In the guiding world, if I’m with a group and I don’t really like the terrain or the snow that’s laid upon it, I can deviate. I can go around it. With highways, you don’t have that luxury. You have to figure out when you can close it, when [a controlled avalanche] will come down and [how fast] you can clear it. The road doesn’t move, so you’ve got to deal with it. That’s a really unique difference between the two jobs.

For the more static situation, your decision-making needs to be a bit more clearly outlined. The details of understanding your tolerances — looking at your data, your weather, how much snow one slope will take — you have to be really detailed so that if you get to a critical point, you will be able to shut it down and stand by your decision. When it’s been snowing so hard you can’t even fly, and it’s been coming down overnight and a day, and the executives above you are wondering why it’s been two days that the road’s been closed, you have to be able to say, “Well, because it’s not safe.” But in making that decision, you have to have all your ducks in a row with precise detail, and you have to be able to stick with it. It helps when you have a reputation for good decision-making. Then they can look at your track record from the last number of years and see it’s all worked out, and when you have made a mistake, you’ve owned up to it, and that there were lessons learned. If you can’t do that, you won’t last.

In 2007, you narrowly survived a Size 4 avalanche (on the Canadian Avalanche Association’s scale of 5) in British Columbia’s Coastal Mountains that almost swallowed your helicopter and crew. How did that affect you and your approach to the job?
In life, we have these pivotal points. It started on a yacht in one of the fjords off the coast of British Columbia with a helicopter poised on the bow and a pilot I knew, about to go into terrain that I had visited two decades prior. I felt really good about it, and about the group I was with. Then, a mega-mistake [on the mountain] — I don’t know how we all got away alive from it. The guy who broke the cornice [the dangerous snowy overhang that can form on the crest of a mountain], he should have died. The girl who went off that cornice into the massive maw of an eight-metre fracture line, she should’ve died. Me, outside the helicopter as all this was rushing down at us, should’ve died. The pilot and everyone else in the helicopter should’ve passed away, but none of us did. That experience scared me, to the point where I stepped back and came out of that experience being realistic. You can make good decisions, but if you slip a bit and something beyond your control can happen — like the guy [on the peak] who stepped out on that cornice, and I’m at the bottom of the bowl, not up there to show him exactly where to step. Maybe, had I been right there with him, it wouldn’t have happened — but it did. I look back and, well, in setting yourself up for success, there’s also a balance with statistics that says you’re bound to make mistakes. That was when I decided to find a job that uses my mind more, as a senior avalanche officer, and not so much my body, and to set myself up for better longevity. It’s a great job, and it’s a good succession for me in terms of applying my knowledge in a new way, instead of being a snowboard guide 100% of the time.

What is it about working in the mountains and backcountry that’s kept you involved and motivated for so long?
If you’re a new skier or snowboarder and you’re just figuring things out, your head’s down — trying to figure out your bindings, getting your board pointed in the right direction. As a guide, or just a rider who has lots of miles under their belt, you have your head up a lot more. After years of doing it, your head is increasingly up, and you can see more. The more you do it, the more you see and the more you’re engaged with what nature is giving you. It just gets bigger and bigger, and better and better the more miles you have in it. It’s pretty awesome.