Most people reading this who venture into the backcountry will expose themselves to risk at some point whether here in Australia or overseas.
Obviously technical knowledge is paramount to staying safe. The more we know about the snowpack, weather, terrain and avalanche formation and release the better. But what about when human factors cloud our judgment? Avalanche awareness and training have historically been focused on the premise that by teaching people about technical factors like the snowpack and avalanche terrain, they would make the right decisions, but the stats were showing that this alone was not keeping people out of trouble. The ‘human factor’ was affecting people’s ability to make good decisions. One study by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center found that nearly 90% of accidents were primarily caused by human factors not avalanche factors such as terrain or snowpack. Always challenge what you think you know and ask yourself, “How might I be wrong? Can I tolerate the evaluated risk level today?” Investigations into avalanche accidents has found that the victim either didn’t notice the danger or overestimated their ability to deal with it.
Planning and decision making – which involve the human factors - are at least as important as technical knowledge. Experienced BC tourers and professionals counter the influence of human factors by being systematic in their approach to evaluating risk. Training, check lists, procedures, practice, all contribute to a system aimed at aiding the decision-making process essential to staying safe. Equal to getting educated on the technical aspects of mountain safety, we have to become more aware of our own foibles and recognize our ability to make mistakes, then factor this into our decision-making.
Mental shortcuts or ‘heuristics” that we use to get us through the day-to-day complexities of life can adversely impact our decision-making in the backcountry. We tend to take more risks when we use some of these shortcuts like:
FAMILIARITY: We feel more comfortable with the familiar and can be complacent and take more risks as a result. “I’ve been here before.”
ACCEPTANCE: Peer group pressure. Seeking acceptance by others. Not speaking up when maybe we should. No one wants to kill the party!
COMMITMENT: Summit fever. Committed to a goal. “I have hiked all day and I am damn well going to ski it.” Sometimes you have to be able to say, today is not the day!
EXPERT HALO: Following an expert who really isn’t one. “He knows what he is doing, doesn’t he?” As the saying goes “a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous”!
SCARCITY: Powder panic. Competition for fresh tracks. Competition and danger go hand in hand.
SOCIAL PROOF: The herding instinct. Blindly following someone else’s tracks. Most people will agree they are bolder in a group than alone. People also believe their action is correct because other people are doing it.
To learn more about “Human Factors” and everything to do with avalanches, do youself a favour and get a copy of Bruce Tremper’s “ Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”. Absolutely a must-read for those who like to go beyond the resort boundaries.
Two more extremely important resources. One is an online award-winning article from the New York Times “The Avalanche At Tunnel Creek”, and “Rescue at Cherry Bowl” is another online story that must be told. Google them.
And for those that love a statistic.
1: 47% of avalanche deaths occur when conditions are reported as “Considerable”.
2: 74% of all human triggered slides occur on slopes between 34 and 45 degrees.
3: Terminal velocity of an avalanche reaches over 150km/h.
4: Wind can deposit snow 10 times faster than snowfall from a storm.
5: Over 150 avalanche related deaths globally each year. Average annual deaths in the US 27. There were 75 deaths in Europe in Dec/Jan 2016.
6: In Utah it is estimated that three out of four avalanche victims did not consult the avalanche advisory before heading out and two out of three were not wearing beacons.
7: Most people trigger the avalanche they are caught in.
Note: In Australia we now have an avalanche advisory website in the form of “Mountain Sports Collective” http://mountainsportscollective.org/
Have a look and support this volunteer service. KNOW BEFORE YOU GO!
- Dave Herring