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Decision Making in the Backcountry: Biases

By Chris Pew on

 This is a guest post 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. 

I discovered the world of biases in decision making during my career as a medevac medic. Early in my tenure, I was on call as I learned about a disastrous crash that ended the life of four of my colleagues in Canada. The crash was a result of controlled flight into terrain. While there were many complicating factors, the crash investigators attributed  the major issue was pilot error and lack of situational awareness. The pilots did not recognize their slow descent into a forested area shortly away from their home base; they believed they were well above the ground, flying steady and level. This example of confirmation bias shows that the pilots confirmed their belief that they were flying above dangerous terrain despite their altitude indicator showing they were dangerously low. While it is easy to sit back and pick apart after action reports and crash analysis, this example highlights how dangerous biases can be when faced with potentially fatal consequences. 

Backcountry helicopter

All humans use biases to inform their decisions. There is too much information presented at all times to perform bayesian analysis on every decision. We will discuss the most common biases and how they apply to backcountry decision making. While these biases can be useful to sift through the information presented by the system, understanding why you are making a decision and correcting your path may keep you from calamity. 

Confirmation bias is forming information into the outcome you see as most plausible. In the backcountry this manifests as having a goal of a certain peak or zone in mind for the day and interpreting feedback such as pit analysis, recent snowpack, and hand pits into why the area you have in mind is safe to ride or travel in for the day. When we start down the path of confirmation bias, all information feeds into creative solutions to accomplish the goal rather than selecting a different zone or pulling out for the day. This is one of the most dangerous biases because we always want that pillow zone after a big storm or a steep face with 30cm of fresh, and we can be quite creative in making up reasons why it is safe. One way I have mitigated confirmation bias is never setting my goal for the day at a 100% success rate. Always have a plan B, that way you can use the confirmation bias to feed into why you should take the second option that you know is safe rather than the more risky Plan A. 

skinning in the backcountry

Conformity bias or “group think” is another bias that we all have to deal with in the backcountry. We rarely travel solo and with an exploding user base, several areas are being accessed on a daily basis. On a ridgeline approach, you may see tracks in a steep bowl that is prone to wind loading and that may make you think: well it appears stable as there are tracks on top of that fresh snow. What you might miss is the fluctuation in temperature, new settling of slabs, and poor bonding that the previous user did not have to deal with even hours before you arrived. Just because one area has been tracked or you have “beta” from another person saying the area is stable, don’t get sucked into the conformity bias. Keep your mind clear from distraction and always perform your own analysis of the situation. 

Lastly, the anchoring bias is when you have a piece of information early in the decision making process that you anchor the rest of your decisions on. Say I dig a pit on the approach to a line, 300 meters below the crest; I see great stability and bonding with no potentiation in the snow pack. I could have the tendency to get tunnel vision on why this line is safe despite new information at the top, anchoring my decisions on my initial assessment. This is especially dangerous to the backcountry traveler as we like to perform pits and snowpack analysis in easy locations that may not be fully representative of the slope that we want to ride. Never hang your hat on one piece of information and stay active in looking for reasons to discredit initial findings. 

powder at sunset

Now that you have an idea on some of the most common biases we face as backcountry riders, you need ways to mitigate them. Staying active in your decision making, bringing in outside opinions, and always having a plan B can go a long ways in avoiding unstable areas. But the most valuable way I have learned to identify and address biases is looking at past situations in my own decision making that have been flawed. Doing mini after action reports with your crew or on your own can help identify weak areas and where biases have affected you in the past. 

Next month, in our final discussion on decision making in the backcountry, I will discuss the balance of intuitive decision making, biases, and how to further your study of why we all make the decisions we do. Until then, stay aware and make better decisions. 

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