Pat yourselves on the back, American backcountry skiers and riders. It’s mid February and the total number of avalanche fatalities currently stands at four, less than half of the 14 deaths we had at this time last year.
There are numerous explanations for why the numbers are lower. First is snowpack, or lack of it. Anyone who’s been to avalanche.org over the past few weeks has seen a whole lot of green. With almost no snow in the Sierra and very low snow year in many other locations, the pack has been relatively cooperative. However, let’s not forget the early season danger that persisted for quite some time both in Montana and in Utah.
Another possible explanation for the decrease in U.S. avalanche deaths is the passing of high profile athletes JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, and Liz Daley. With the loss of three skiing heroes, perhaps the community as a whole took an unconscious step back to evaluate our collective decision-making processes. Powder’s dynamite The Human Factor also helped focus attention.
Of course, it’s always possible that the lower number of deaths is just due to dumb luck. Statistically speaking, avalanche deaths will never be completely linear. They are the result of very complex systems involving weather, mountains, and human psychology, which, when combined create a tremendous amount of statistical variation. It is entirely possible to have large pockets of time with no avalanche deaths simply due to this variation.
Which brings us to our next point: It’s time for a midseason gut check.
Fifty people have died so far in avalanches this year in the Alps. That’s 50 sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters whose families will never see them again. Looking at these accidents, we realize how easily this could have been one of us. We owe it to our European (and in some cases American) counterparts and our own families to look at our decision making process and ask some hard questions. What have we been getting away with so far this year? Poor planning? Ignoring obvious signs of instability? Skiing terrain that doesn’t match the conditions? Poor group dynamics? Remember, the backcountry is a wicked environment, which means that we are interacting with a system that rewards us for poor behavior. This creates a false-positive feedback loop that is often imperceptible to detect. Good guides and skiers guard against this trap by continually assessing what might have gone wrong, and where they were most at risk even if the day was a “success.” The fact of the matter is that all of us have, and will continue to make mistakes in the backcountry. The midpoint of the season is a good time for all of us to adopt reflective strategies, take an honest look at our behaviors, and make some adjustments to stay safe for the rest of the season.
1. Use a Decision-Making System Every Day
The human mind is highly prone to error and in backcountry terrain those errors can have deadly consequences. As the Utah Avalanche Center’s Bruce Tremper says, “Systems are the solution.” One easy to follow and effective system is the AIARE fieldbook. If you follow the checklists and the planning process in the field book every day you venture out into the backcountry, you are much more likely to make good decisions. Another system, created by Tremper and outlined in his book Avalanche Essentials, is the Avalanche Smart Card.
2. Remember Human Factors
Ninety-three percent of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. Consequently, we have to ask ourselves how and why we so frequently are the cause of our own accidents; the answer often brings us back to human factors. Ian McCammon’s acronym FACETS is a useful tool to help us remember the six most common cognitive variables that get us into trouble.
F = Familiarity – Parties traveling in familiar terrain often make significantly riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. In his book The Black Swan, uncertainty guru Nassim Taleb provides a useful way of understanding the dangers of familiarity in his graph of 1,001 days in the life of a Thanksgiving Turkey. For the turkey all experiences leading up to day 1,001 confirm that they are leading the good life, then unexpectedly, their world is drastically changed. Similarly, backcountry skiers who frequent the same zone or line over and over again can become lulled into turkey type thinking. A good way to guard against this trap is to keep in mind that the alpine ecosystem is complex, ever evolving, and sensitive to small changes (e.g. temperature fluctuations, added weight on a snowpack, change in wind speed/direction, etc.).
A = Acceptance – People want to be accepted by others in the group and don’t want to be seen as an outsider for saying “no” to a decision. These effects are often pronounced in mixed gender groups.
C = Commitment – Having a specific goal, such as reaching a summit – especially in bad weather -can adversely affect group decision making. “Well we’re already out here, we skinned this far, we might as well ski it.” In the financial sector this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, which manifests as individuals continue to invest in a losing proposition even though in the long run, disengaging from the system is a more lucrative alternative. Backcountry skiers often struggle with goal abandonment because of the physical effort it typically takes to reach a particular zone or line. We can all do a better job of reminding ourselves that the mountains will always be there.
E = Expert Halo – Many touring parties often have a de facto leader: someone perceived to have more skills and experience than the others. This heuristic trap occurs when one person’s decision making goes unchecked by other group members because of the leader’s perceived elevated social status. All of us consciously or unconsciously try and maintain our social positions even when we are uncomfortable with how a system is evolving. Employing thinking out loud techniques, frequent check-ins, and democratic decision-making processes are simple and effective ways to mitigate the pitfalls of the expert halo.
T = Tracks/Scarcity – When tracks are more scarce or there is a perception of scarcity, backcountry riders are often willing to take more risks.
S = Social Facilitation – “They did it and got away with it, so it must not be that dangerous”. The behavior of other groups greatly affects our perception of risk. Be aware of groups taking dangerous risks.
3. Look Out for the 5 Red Flags
New Snow. Collapsing or “whoompfing” snowpack. Rapid temperature rise. Signs of recent avalanche activity. Strong winds and blowing snow.
4. Know Your “Personal Disaster Factors”?
For example, “I am competitive, I quickly fixate on goals, and I struggle to walk away from yellow light terrain/conditions. I do a good job of using checklists before I begin my skin or climb but don’t like to stop once I get going; I’m always in a rush.” Tremper and McCammon suggest writing a list of the most common traps that we as individuals frequently fall victim to when in the backcountry. This is an effective risk-management tool to develop at the beginning of the season and then update at various times throughout the winter and spring.
As a community we have a responsibility to continue to find ways to stay safe when recreating in alpine environments. As individuals, friends and ski partners we have agreed to reflect on our experiences this winter to determine which behaviors have positively contributed to this season’s low rate of avalanche related incidents and which one’s simply haven’t caught up with us yet. We hope you will do the same. Have fun and ride safe!