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Backcountry Education: Decision Making in the Backcountry #2

This is the second in a series of posts from Nic Hall from Bend, OR. A passionate outdoorsmen, backcountry skier, and medical professional. Nic is currently a faculty member at the School of Medicine OHSU with a research focus on decision making in high stakes environments. This is the second in a series of blogs with Nic that will dive deep into decision making for backcountry skiers. If a sharp mind is the most important thing to bring with you into the mountains, think of these cognitive tools as an edge-file for your backcountry brain.  

In the 56th short story of the Sherlock Holms, Silver Blaze,  Dr. Watson and Holmes investigate the disappearance of a prized racehorse and death of its trainer. Despite several pieces of damning evidence pinning the murder on the prime suspect of the police, Holmes notices that the guard dog at the stable failed to bark or notice the intruder the night of the murder. Holmes concludes that the murder must be familiar to the dog, as it did not bark at a stranger. Eventually it is revealed that a stable hand was responsible for the murder and rules out the falsely planted evidence. I tell you this story to show the importance of noticing a missing event. Experts are able to walk into any situation and instantly apply past experiences to current circumstances. They see events happening in real time through the lens of previous lessons and are able to apply their experience without weighing options. Experts intuitively know how the system is working and actively listening to feedback to adjust their plan. 

Being an expert in the backcountry

So how can novices gain the insight to both pick up on missing events and integrate feedback from a system they are unfamiliar with? The first step is to have a functioning knowledge of the system. In the backcountry travel, that would start with an Avy 1 course, carrying the proper tools, and having enough information on weather to understand recent snowpack. The second step to see through an expert’s eyes has been well described in cognitive behavioral science research through the shadow box method. 

In 2008, Gary Klein established the shadow box method while working with novice military recruits to pass experienced warfighter’s perspectives in the shortest time possible. While the back country community does not have thorough research on what constitutes an expert’s perspective, we can glean information from those in the community that have learned the hard lessons and spent years of time studying the small details that let them rapidly assess their situation. In practical application, finding a mentor that can take you under their wing will significantly decrease your learning curve. 

Find a mentor in the backcountry

The third and likely most important step to seeing through an expert’s eyes is knowing your personal limitations to knowledge and situational awareness. Klein describes in his work that the majority of errors in his studies can be attributed to lack of experience, lack of information, and minimizing relevant information. We are all novices in some aspect of backcountry travel, knowing your personal lack of knowledge can give you time to assess for more data points, consulting expert opinion, or choosing to turn around for the day. 

To summarize, if you want to see the backcountry through the eyes of an expert, there is no substitution for education and time in the field. But, there are several ways to keep you from making fatal mistakes. Take an avy course, have the right tools, find a mentor, and know your limitations. I like to stay,  I have a 30% chance of success for any given mission and a 70% chance of a change in plans. We are only as good as the decisions we make and we often miss important information. Be ready to adjust your plans accordingly and never be 100% set on plan A. 

In the next installment, we will talk about decision making biases and tools to actively identify them and mitigate their effects. Until then, stay safe and stay informed. 

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