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The Human Element in Avalanche Education

By Chris Pew on

READ THIS: What I Learned in Avalanche School

Published this year in the New York Times Magazine,  "What I Learned in Avalanche School" by Heidi Julavits, is an excellent read. Even with several noteworthy articles about backcountry skiing this year in major news publications, like the New York Times, I'm always a little thrilled and surprised to see the spotlight shine on backcountry skiing. Inevitably, besides a few travel pieces and gear reviews, most of these articles wrestle with the close relationship between backcountry skiing and avalanches.

The increased popularity and attention on backcountry skiing in the last decade has also brought due focus on the deaths of skiers and snowboarders caused by avalanches every year. To the informed backcountry skiing community, reading about tragic avalanches that result in serious injury or death is an unavoidable part of our season. We seek out these reports to learn: to remind ourselves about the risks and to study the circumstances of avalanches so we might understand how to avoid them.  

Usually, these reports are detailed, objective findings from regional avalanche centers, or compiled into educational collections like the Snowy Torrents series. If you haven't read it yet, perhaps the best example of this type of reporting, also from the New York Times, is the story of the Tunnel Creek avalanche: "Snow Fall". Full of first-hand accounts from the survivors and analysis from professionals, this lengthy, multimedia piece of reporting will draw you in and change the way you think about the mountains. A lot of people in the snow industry and here in the Northwest's backcountry skiing community know someone directly or indirectly affected by the Tunnel Creek avalanche. Branch's reporting reads like a first-hand account from a trusted friend but provides a deep context and rich detail. 

Julavits' excellent article focuses on the human element. Perhaps the least understood but most dangerous factor in the human-caused avalanche equation. Most of the reporting is centered around the author's reactions to a Level 1 avalanche course, but intertwined with her first-person accounts are deep observations about the human factor in avalanches, complete with scholarly articles and books sited for further reading. 

Near the beginning of her article, she delivers an observation that stuck with me for months:

"By entering the storefront two hours earlier, by taking an avalanche-safety course, we had statistically increased our chances of being killed in an avalanche. We were more likely to die now than we were at 8 a.m."

Avalanches kill more experienced and educated backcountry skiers than they do beginners. Many more. In fact, it would be an anomaly to read about a group of beginner skiers venturing into the backcountry and finding themselves in harm's way. It takes a certain amount of experience and know-how to set off into the wilderness to look for fresh turns. That is not to say that all backcountry skiers are experts, but it would be hard to imagine not having at least one person in a group with prior experience, education, and, most importantly, confidence. Which brings us to Julacits' introduction to Ian McCammon's "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications." 

In many avalanche-related educational texts or reports, it is rare to find the human-factor of a given avalanche analyzed in detail or even discussed beyond the biographical details of the victims or survivors. McCammon's article provides the building blocks to inform such an analysis.  After reading McCammon's arguments, I was struck by the simple fact that no matter how much we learn, most of the time, we won't make the right decision. This bold truth should make you pause. 

Read McCammon's paper here. The "heuristic traps:"

1. Expert Halo - it's safe to trust the experts or it's safe to trust myself, I am an expert. 

2. Familiarity - the belief that our behavior is correct because we've done it before.

3. Social Proof - everybody's doing it so my behavior must be correct. 

4. Commitment - I've already made the decision and we are committed. 

5. Scarcity: "Powder-fever." Enough said. 

Julacits' article continues on to examine beacon operation, rescue scenarios, and more, real-life accounts of avalanches, with the thread of McCammon's "heuristic traps" resurfacing in every section. Out of everything discussed, this introduction to heuristic traps in avalanche scenarios is what I am most grateful for. 

In the field of avalanche education, the human-element feels like the next big, important focus. The biggest change in the backcountry in the last decade is the arrival of more people. With every great social trend comes immense social powers, playing themselves out in subtle ways in different individuals. Our sport is unique in that these social pressures can be dangerous and sometimes deadly. 

The human elements in the decision-making process are probably the last thing on a beginner backcountry skier or snowboarder's mind. But the cool thing about these findings is that they are so relatable and applicable to your everyday life. Becoming aware of the heuristic traps that affect your decision making can make you a safer backcountry skier, but also, probably, a wiser person in general. 


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