The Human Factors and Avalanche Avoidance
With a weekend just behind us with at least two reports of avalanches with full burials, I have to admit that I am left scratching my head. Oddly enough, both incidents I am speaking of happened in areas known locally as Avalanche Alley, but these events happened in two separate areas on the same day at close to the same time. Almost every area has an “Avalanche Alley”, and each piece of terrain has its own reason for the insulting name, but most are glaringly obvious.
The two most recent near misses that I know of happened on the same day, approximately the same time, same aspect, close to the same elevation and likely involved the same failure plane, and neither of them were reported to Avalanche Canada. Why?! I wish I could delve further into these events, but I don’t have any details because neither of them were reported to Avalanche Canada in a formal manner.
Often we tend to shame victims of avalanche accidents and this needs to stop. We all make mistakes but we desperately need the opportunity to learn from these mistakes or they really were nothing but a close call nearly costing us our lives or that of a friend or loved one. Reporting these events to Avalanche Canada is essential to get the word out and help to make a more open and informed mountain sledder community. INFORMED is Key!
In these most recent incidents, both parties involved stated that they knew of the hazards, were aware of the potential for a fatal avalanche and knew that their decisions were not wise. And yet both parties continued forward into the belly of the dragon.
So often, incidents are not caused from advanced level mistakes or complex decision making. The majority of avalanche accidents that have been happening this season are from entry-level mistakes made reading terrain or conditions. From my perspective, these mistakes are mentally-based and often the result of egos and ignorance. I’m not trying to use these as derogatory statements, but rather be honest about the factors that can cause a human to make obviously life threatening decisions.
The Human Factors
We call these mental traps that riders often fall into “The Human Factors”. This is not a new concept. Years of research by avalanche professionals such as Ian McAmmon, Bruce Tremper, Manuel Genswein etc. have been focused on the idea that sometimes shortcuts in our decision making that serve to keep us safe in some simple everyday scenarios, can actually become traps and work against us when dealing with avalanche hazard in the backcountry.
As a mountain sledder who loves riding and is also fiercely dedicated to avalanche education, I am absolutely intrigued as to why mountain sledders make the decisions they do, and what we can do to ensure everyone comes home at the end of the day. Manuel Genswein—a lifelong avalanche researcher and educator— said, “what better than an exciting life but an exciting and long life!”
I hope to pique your interest in the Human Factors, and how being aware of them can keep us riding for years to come. It’s not controversial, I’ll try not to swear, I will try not to shame, there is no “gear girl”, and I’m not going to teach you how to hit sweet jumps. BUT I hope to try to explain our most common issues we have as humans that cause us to make some pretty bad decisions.
The acronym F.A.C.E.T.S. is used to describe the six key factors most likely to influence our decision making in the backcountry. Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity and Social Facilitation (Ian McCammon 2004 ISSW). The definitions below are from McCammon’s paper, but I have also put my own thoughts and examples into them. For the full unmolested research paper, please see the article from the 2004 International Snow Science Workshop by following this link.
Travelling in familiar terrain leads to riskier decisions, especially for those with substantial experience and training.
Think of how many times you have ridden your favorite area (Boulder, Allen, Renshaw, Eagles, etc). Have you ever thought that your familiarity and experience with the area could lead you into making bad decisions? Experience with one specific piece of terrain may leads riders (especially less experienced riders) to make bad decisions based on a false sense of confidence. How many times have you heard “I’ve never seen that slide before”. If it is avalanche terrain, just because you have never personally seen it doesn’t mean it can’t happen! All we need is the correct recipe and this could be today. Don’t get me wrong, experience with local terrain can be a very good thing as long as we are aware of the fact that it could also negatively affect our decision making and we take steps to ensure that this will not happen.
The tendency to engage in activities we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect, or by people who we want to like or respect us.
I actually see this happen a lot. Think about it, you have been hearing those guys from work talk about their epic sledding trips for years and you finally got the invite. You tag along and quickly realize you are in over your head. This may be related to skill level, risk tolerance, or experience. Either way, you are now uncomfortable and it is very likely that you are afraid to bring up your uneasiness with your group and you keep quite and keep going even though your gut is telling you to turn back.
There is also strong evidence that men may expose themselves or their groups to a greater risk if there are females present (check out the growing trend on Instagram of bikinis on while sledding and you may agree this goes both ways… lol), but I’ll leave this one to your imagination as we have all seen some guy do something very stupid to impress a pretty girl. Guilty.
Having made a decision about something, it‘s easier to remain consistent with and stick with that decision instead of exploring other options, even if safer alternatives may exist.
Now the straightforward explanation above is often true and worth noting, I address this one a bit differently. While I completely agree with the idea for example, once you have it in your head to get to the 9th bowl in the back of Unicorn Heaven and you’ve laid it out to your buds, it is hard to change your mind, even if conditions are telling you to turn around. But there’s a different slant to this factor that’s worth exploring
Many of us have developed bad habits over the years due to the fact that we have simply been lucky. We have pushed the limits of terrain during a considerable or higher rating, hit a 35°+ slope that we knew had a persistent slab problem, enjoyed the delights of a freshly loaded, cold northerly aspect without due process, climbed above our buddy just to come down and lend a helping hand while they were stuck on a slope—you get my drift. Many of us have been consistently making terrible choices over the years and have gotten away with it, simply because we have been lucky.
The kicker here is that we have not learned from our terrible mistakes due to the fact that making bad decisions in avalanche terrain often goes unpunished. The snowpack does not often give us warnings of our bad decision-making.
For example, you are driving down the highway and you reach over to grab your phone to check your latest Facebook update. You take your eyes off of the road for a minute, maybe swerve slightly into the other lane and now you see headlights coming straight at you, hear a loud horn and likely see a middle finger pointed in your direction. This SHOULD have taught you a lesson. You made a bad decision, were spanked for it and hopefully you chalk this up to experience and leave the phone alone. Well, in the backcountry, we often can get away with making terrible decisions for years without knowing it. The snowpack doesn’t warn of our bad decision making until it is too late. There’s no horn or warning of stupidity. But how long can we get away with this type of behavior?
The tendency not to question the decisions of the leader or others in the group who are perceived to be more experienced or knowledgeable, even if in fact they are not. The avalanche doesn’t care if you are an expert.
You know you have seen this happen and you have likely fallen victim to it yourself. Never been into Zipper Mouth Creek before? Well Timmy knows the way! Now you have a group of sheep following Timmy into a complex piece of terrain, but what experience does Timmy have?
It often amazes me at the amount of trust that even first-time clients have in me as a guide. I could drive off a cliff and I am sure some would follow.
In most recreational riding parties, there is a leader who is usually in the front of the pack, makes most of the travel decisions, and sets the pace for the group. This can be a good thing, as often this person has the most “experience” but this is where it can get tricky. How are we to measure experience or competence?
Is it the most years spent on a sled?
Most time spent in the area?
Or, is it years of actually making informed decisions as opposed to playing a backcountry game similar to Russian roulette?
Why do we feel that we cannot question those deemed more “experienced”? Is it because they are familiar with a certain piece of terrain? Is it easier to be consistent with the rest of the group members and play along? Are we afraid that if we question the expert we may not be accepted?
If the expert or leader of the group does possess the experience, competencies, and skills required to be a safe and effective leader of the group, that is all the more reason for group members to ask questions. YES! Group members should be encouraged to question decisions made and participate in the discussion and choices. A qualified leader should be a mentor and help others along the path to making informed decisions on hazard, terrain and risk.
Ask questions. Don’t be a sheep!
More than one person or group competing for the same slope or snow or even following an existing track if your knowledge of the area is lacking.
This could be rushing in to beat crowds to the pow and missing obvious clues. How many times have you left the staging area with a grip of full throttle and never really even looked around until you are at the bowl or destination you had in mind. This type of mindset can have us miss very obvious clues about the snowpack that mother nature is trying to give us such as recent avalanches, snowballing, fracture lines, wind affect etc. Often when we are in a hurry, we tend to let our guard down and may not be as cautious or observant as we typically are.
We have all followed the famous sucker track. Just like the Expert Halo, don’t let others make decisions for you. You have no idea who set those tracks or even if they had a clue what they are doing. I have also had to help many people out of scenarios where a sucker track lead them to a cold and lonely night in the “Alpine Hotel”. Not usually a fun experience or one they would like to do again!
Social Facilitation (showing off)
The tendency to take greater risks when others are watching. This is more pronounced in people who are confident of their skills than in those who lack confidence.
This one is quite obvious but generates a very strong emotion. In the day of Facebook, Instagram and GoPros, many people are riding in or on terrain beyond their skill levels. It has never been so easy to say, “hey look at me,” and the desire to get the latest and greatest picture or video clip is often pushing riders beyond their limits and into terrain that may not be suited to the day’s hazard or their level of skill and training.
As mountain sledders, we need to be continually assessing not only our environment, but also our mental state.
Be Aware and Open to Change
Just being aware that these mental traps can affect our decision making can help us make better choices in the backcountry. To truly avoid falling victim to the F.A.C.E.T.S, we need to be aware of what could be affecting our decision making, and be open to discussion and change.
Spending a bit of time on pre-trip planning can help us avoid these human factors affecting our decision making. If we make a trip and risk plan based on information gathered from bulletins, weather reports, discussion with peers, etc, we are less likely to fall victim to negative human factors affecting us in the field than when we are trying to make decision on the fly—these decisions tend to be based on reward and self-gratification rather than preservation.
Understanding the mental game of backcountry use is so important to our community. People are dying out there from beginner level mistakes. Mistakes that could easily be avoided if we made decisions based on information and evidence, not emotions.
You may get away with bad decisions during your trip, or maybe for the season, or maybe a couple of seasons but the longer we go with risky decision making the odds get much greater of us becoming a statistic.
Curtis Pawliuk is a Professional Member of the Canadian Avalanche Association, a certified Avalanche Skills Trainer and the owner/operator of Frozen Pirate Snow Services.