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If you don't know...
Feb 21, 2022
7 minutes read

EDIT (1/10/24): This post was written on this date, and then languished in a broken build system for two years until I finally got around to updating a bunch of things.

When I was skiing in Jackson Hole last week, I was reminded of an important lesson in preparedness. Jackson Hole has a 4000’ Gondola (from a ~6k MSL base to a 10k MSL peak). At the top of the gondola, the operator gives a quick speech about venturing off piste:

Always have the proper:

  • Knowledge
  • Equipment
  • Partner
  • Plan

The speech would end with the admonition, “If you don’t know, don’t go!"[1]

Putting this into practice

Yesterday, as per tradition, I took my Christmas tree to a favorite forest service road outside Boulder to ritually cremate it. About a half mile down the road, I encountered three vehicles stuck in the snow.

The first car was a Jeep (with road tires) full of college students that got high centered. Two full sized pickups (also with road tires) showed up after them and both got stuck trying to recover the Jeep (and then the first pickup). Recovery gear consisted of a few rachet straps and the truck floor mats.

This highlights an important first lesson in responding to emergencies: whatever you do, don’t become part of the emergency yourself! Especially in non-life threatening situations like this, it’s better to make yourself useful by getting additional equipment or fetching trained responders.

Enter me: I’ve driven this road a half dozen times, in different seasons. I knew the capabilities of my vehicle and my driving. I’ve spent some amount of time reading TacomaWorld posts on recovery, and have done some lightweight recovery in the past, but I’ve never encountered someone fully blocking my path.

Equipment wise I was in a Tacoma Off Road with all terrain tires, carrying recovery ramps and a shovel. And a Christmas tree.

I had scheduled drinks after, so someone knew where I was in case I didn’t show up.

As for the plan: I parked a hundred yards away from where folks were stuck (see the point above about not becoming part of the problem) and walked over with traction boards and the shovel. For the second trip, I also grabbed some firewood and Christmas tree limbs to put under the wheels–use everything available to you to aid in recovery!

At that point, we had the right tools and an idea of the plan: back everyone out the way they came until they got to the turn around point where I had parked.

The next 90 minutes consisted of executing that plan. Digging wheels out, putting down traction boards and firewood, building momentum, and eventually getting one car after another unstuck. Once the first truck was unstuck, we were able to rachet strap recover the second (seriously, don’t use rachet straps, wasn’t my idea and I moved very far away from this), and then focus on the Jeep. Since they were high centered, we spent most of our time breaking up the snow under them, and digging a path for the diff behind them. Add traction boards and a bit of pushing and they were able to get themselves unstuck after 15 minutes or so.

Blameless postmortem culture

Once folks were moving, I pulled ahead of them (I didn’t want to get myself stuck behing them) and found a camp site with a fire ring to dispose of the remainder of the Christmas tree. This also gave me see time to reflect on what happened and how I could improve in the future.

Let’s use the framework the gondola operator mentioned to see what I could have done better: “knowledge, equipment, partner, and plan”.

Knowledge: this was actually my first real recovery! I’d spent some amount of time on TacomaWorld reading threads on recovery gear (equipment, solo), and it was nice being able to put that to the test. Reading online forums is great prep, but nothing is quite the same as having an actual situation to handle. Definitely learned a lot, but at the same time, felt like I knew enough to be useful in this type of situation.

Equipment: being a total gear whore, this one is easy. A shackle hitch receiver, a recovery strap or two, some leather work gloves. I have a ham radio with APRS sitting on my desk that I need to wire in. And generally, keeping a fully stocked ten essentials kit in the truck at all times (I’m at about 50%). In this situation, a six pack or bottle of whiskey would have been a nice celebratory touch, but alas.

A quick note on equipment: it’s easy to go overboard here. Should I buy a winch (which requires a new bumper, which probably requires a new suspension)? That’s a quick way to burn $5k! $200 of traction boards and a $50 shovel managed to do the same thing at 5% the cost (though probably 2-5x the effort).

The key here is “rightsizing” your equipment: never buy more than what you need to get the job done. Ideally you have the minimum required to successfully recover, and get an idea of a few tools that might help in the future, without immediately going to the extreme.

Additionally, there are a few “cheap hacks” you can use, such as attaching a yard or two of 1” fluro streamer to your traction boards to keep track of them when they inevitably get thrown deep into the snow. While these aren’t “make or break” things, they are cheap 5-10% improvements that can make the experience much easier.

Partner: this one is a bit harder to work with, but ideally I’d have someone else in a similarly equipped vehicle traveling with me to help formulate a plan as well as aid in recovery. If that’s not feasible, having them be a radio call away would be the next best thing. I’ve never had to use them, but Colorado 4x4 Rescue and Recovey is a great resource (for those of you in CO) if you need recovery. If you can, consider donating to them before you need their services.

Plan: again, this one is situation dependent, but my ideal plan would have a little more focus on the people, in addition to just grinding through digging people out. We got very lucky in that it was still light out and the temps were in the high 30’s (~4C for the metric crowd), but there was a baby in one of the trucks and most folks were wearing jeans and cotton sweatshirts. Having some emergency blankets (foil, fleece, or down) might have been good here (I did have everything for a fire, but that felt a bit excessive at the time). Food and drink would have been nice as well, since morale is surprisingly important when progress is measured in inches.

If you don’t know, YOLO

I’m not going to tell you to not do things that are risky; personally I find “safe” boring and “dangerous” insane, so I spend a lot of time trying to find the right balance of “unsafe, in the safest way possible.” If you’re like me, spend your time building the skills and knowledge to get yourself out of situations you should never find yourself in. If you have the resources, investing in tools (or other equipment) can help here as well.

What does this mean for your professional life? There are plenty of situations that you might find yourself in where you’re “over your head” and find the need for additional knowledge, equipment, a partner, or a plan. Prepardness in all of these situations (by having made early investments in knowledge, or the ability to call a mentor to go over a plan) can help alleviate the uncertainty and feat associated with feeling stuck.

So, if you don’t know, reach out!

I’m always available at or @asciimike if you want to chat about emergency prepardness, off roading, or product management (there are a surprising number of parallels).

[1] This was usually done as a “call and response” where the gondola operator would say “if you don’t know…” and everyone else would respond “don’t go!” I started responding with various quips such as “YOLO!”, “buy insurance”, and “feign ignorance”. If this post doesn’t convince you that these are all terrible ideas, I suggest reading it again.

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