The following article was re-printed with permission from Ian McCammon. Ian has a background in mechanical engineering, and has worked in the fields of robotics, Microsystems, and aerospace. He has also worked as a field instructor for several wilderness and avalanche programs and is the founder of SnowPit Technologies. His current research is focused on risk communication and decision making.
Randy & Lori shared stories with Ian at the 2010 ISSW in Lake Tahoe, CA this October. We are pleased to run Ian’s paper on F.A.C.E.T.S. as a series in our Newsletters this season!
In hindsight, in the comfort of a classroom or bar, it’s usually easy to see why an avalanche accident occurred. Perhaps the party chose to ski or ride a dangerously wind-loaded slope, enter a terrain trap during high avalanche danger, or continue climbing despite signs of recent avalanching. Working backward from a tragic outcome, the danger seems obvious to us and we wonder why anyone would take chances in such conditions. The easy answer is that the party must have been incompetent, arrogant, or just plain foolish. These answers help us feel better about ourselves since, after all, we wouldn’t act like that. But they don’t lead us to a better understanding of how we might be fooled into making the same mistakes.
To really understand human factors, we need to go back in the accident timeline. We need to imagine ourselves standing at the top of the slope, trying to decide if it is safe to ski or ride. Perhaps we’ve seen the signs of danger, but we also know that we have skied the slope many times before without incident. Or perhaps we know that another party is powering up behind us intent on skiing the same slope. Or perhaps we’ve waited all year for this vacation so we could highmark slopes just like this one.
Such knowledge tends to blur our judgment and tempt us into believing that it’s OK to take a chance on this slope today. These influences operate in the shadowy edges of our subconscious, and we are often oblivious to their effects on our behaviour.
Fortunately, there are predictable patterns in how these unconscious influences affect our decisions. It turns out that these same patterns appear whenever we face physical hazards such as driving, unsafe sex, taking drugs and, yes, dealing with avalanches. These patterns are well known in areas such as advertising and health psychology, but their lessons apply to decision making in avalanche terrain as well.
Parties traveling in familiar terrain made significantly riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. This effect was especially pronounced for parties with substantial experience and training.
Accident parties that included females made riskier decisions than parties of all males. The effect was most pronounced in parties with little avalanche training. It is notable that these were precisely the parties in which women were least likely to participate.Most avalanche accidents occured in popular areas on slopes that were familiar to the victims.
Parties that were highly committed to a goal – a summit, ski slope or an objective in deteriorating weather – made riskier decisions than parties just out for a day of skiing, climbing or sledding. This effect was most pronounced in parties of four or more.
Accident parties often contained a de facto leader – someone who was more experienced, older, or who had better skills. Remarkably, when this leader had poor avalanche skills, novice groups were more likely to follow their leader into dangerous situations than when novice groups made decisions by consensus.Check back in a couple weeks to learn what T. and S. stand for!
Human factors are part of being human. They are essential to efficiently navigating the complexities of everyday life. Try as we might, we can’t simply talk ourselves out of relying on them, but we may be able to recognize when we are most prone to their negative influences and stop a bad decision in its tracks.
In a common accident scenario, a party gets spread out in avalanche terrain, with no specific plan to re-group and re-assess conditions. The person out front makes their own route finding decisions and the group follows, often with increasing alarm about what they see around them. When the avalanche releases, the victims are often well aware of the risks they were taking.To avoid this situation, travel in parties that communicate about avalanche conditions. You don’t need a running commentary, just a friendly discussion at key points in the tour about what folks are seeing and experiencing. It helps to agree beforehand on where the key decision points are, and have a common language for discussing avalanche conditions and risk tolerance.
To catch an accident before it happens, try a pre mortem test: Ask yourself, if an accident occurs, what would I have missed? Imagine your buddies sitting in the bar after your accident, wondering how you made your decision to ski or highmark that slope. If you can enumerate more than two or three obvious signs of avalanche danger, you are probably taking significant risks. And your feeling that “everything will work out OK” will, in hindsight after an accident, look to them more like recklessness or worse.Good communication within your party is essential to recognizing changing avalanche conditions.
Need help figuring out how much risk you are actually taking? Werner Munter’s Reduction Method, the SnowCard, NivoTest or ALP TRUTh method can provide some quantitative insights. The AVALUATOR, developed by the Canadian Avalanche Centre, is another decision making tool that is handy for recreational travellers. CLICK HERE for more information on the AVALUATOR.
Check back next month for another suggestion to control our ‘irrational’ impulses.
What are your suggestions to counter the effects of CONSISTENCY/COMMITMENT and EXPERTS?
Share a story of a close call that was aggravated by these two Human Factors.