You analyze the avalanche hazard, you ski the slope, and everyone arrives at the bottom with big smiles.
You’ve made good decisions, right? Time to find a similar slope for the next run. Well ... right?
“The inherent flaw in that is that it’s a decision modification in the face of absent or misleading feedback,” says Iain Stewart-Patterson, an assistant professor of adventure studies at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. “The absence of a negative event is not the same as a positive event. And I think that’s where people get caught.”
Or look at it this way: Just because the bullets aren’t hitting you doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Statistics show that most people in the backcountry know the bullets are flying. They know the risks, yet they decide to take them. Why? Interviews with a smattering of experts, far and near, dug a little deeper into the psychology of risk-taking – the human factor that can trump expertise.
Five avalanches within the last two years in Colorado have killed Southwest Coloradans. The latest: 23-year-old Durango native Olivia Buchanan was killed Jan. 6 when she triggered an avalanche above Silverton, and the snow pushed her into trees. She died of multiple traumas.
For those trying to prevent such occurrences, each incident is “a belly blow,” says Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Each one causes us to reassess the risk and wonder: Could it be avoided in the future?
The human factor
The reality is that people are going to get out into dangerous terrain. Teaching them to analyze aspects and slope degree and snowpits certainly is helpful, but over the years, avalanche experts have come to recognize another crucial element.
“What we realized (is that) it was really the human factor that was getting people,” says Andy Gleason, a former Silverton avalanche forecaster who has taught snow science for 25 years. “It’s not the information given to them.”
Sarah Carpenter, owner of the Victor, Idaho-based American Avalanche Institute, says it’s often not the surprise, instability or freak wind-loading that kills people. It’s group dynamics, shortcuts in decision-making and poor communication.
“All of that seems to override our knowledge of the risks and contribute to a lot more accidents,” Carpenter says in an online training program called “Business of the Backcountry.”
One of the most-cited papers along these lines is a 2002 study by Ian McCammon called “Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents.” Heuristics are broadly defined as those types of decisions that become routine – such as what type of laundry detergent to purchase. When that simplified choice puts you into danger – say you’ve skied terrain safely in the past, and it appears basically the same – it can become a trap.
Examples of heuristic traps listed by McCammon are commitment (follow the plan), familiarity, group size, scarcity (good powder days are rare) and social proof (seeing other people doing it).
When climbing 8,000-meter peaks, it’s a lack of oxygen that clouds judgment. When kayaking spring runoff or skiing powder, it’s scarcity that gets you.
“We get lured in by the fresh snow,” says Stewart-Patterson, who has taught adventure studies for 23 years. The reward factor begins to outweigh the risk involved.
Curiously, he says, a high level of expertise doesn’t protect you. That scenario of skiing something and not triggering a slide can trap people of all abilities into making a mistake. People get information about avalanche conditions, form an opinion of the risk, choose terrain, ski it, and nothing bad happens.
“The idea of not getting feedback is the most challenging aspect of trying to make avalanche-related decisions,” says Stewart-Patterson, whose doctorate was called “The Role of Intuition in the Decision Process of Canadian Ski Guides.”
“The inherent feedback was: You were right. So that forms the basis for another run. ‘This was OK; let’s go steeper.’
“If we base future decisions on past decisions, then the absence of feedback is a tremendous trap.”
Education and technology
If you think it’s possible to teach people to simply avoid the risk, a quick look at the evolution of avalanche schools puts things into perspective.
Twenty-five years ago, avalanche schools taught people how to avoid dangerous terrain. “And then people stopped listening,” says Gleason, who now teaches at Fort Lewis College and instructs at several avalanche schools.
The next step was to teach them how to analyze snow and to avoid the dangerous terrain until it settled. That advice was ignored, too.
“Now it’s how do you manage avalanches in avalanche terrain,” Gleason says. “We know people are going out in avalanche terrain right away. We just try to show them what the risks are.”
A couple of factors have combined to put backcountry users in more dangerous terrain: technological improvements and videos.
From a technical perspective, Stewart-Patterson says, people are competent in managing steeper terrain. But they may be unaware of some of the dangers.
Extreme movies aren’t just for Warren Miller anymore. Anyone with a GoPro and access to the Internet can go worldwide. And the theme, particularly among snowmobilers, is “go big or go home.”
“Now there’s the potential to build your own GoPro movie and put it on YouTube, and you’re the hero,” Stewart-Patterson says.
If they don’t give you a false sense of security, some technology can save you. Examples: rescue beacons, which send a signal for others to find you and dig you out; air bags, which inflate with the pull of a trigger; and AvaLungs, which supply oxygen through a tube.
“I think any tool you have to help you stay on top of the snow is great,” Gleason says.
Old age, not avalanches
Inevitably, despite any educational efforts or technological advances, there will be more avalanche deaths. In the United States, they keep coming at about 28 per year.
Lazar, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, was part of the crew that investigated the latest Silverton accident.
“It certainly takes a toll emotionally,” he says. “It’s the worst part of the job. ... You hope your job will help save people’s lives and make them safer. That’s part of the motivation. It certainly isn’t the pay.”
Avalanche instructors and experts keep the faith that they’re helping. They hear about the deaths, but it’s impossible to count the lives they’ve saved.
“What we want to see is people die of old age and not avalanches,” says Jim Donovan, director of the Silverton Avalanche School. “And still ski ‘pow.’”
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. firstname.lastname@example.org