Avalanche Safety | Making Safe Decisions in the Backcountry

In this piece from Mountaineer Magazine, decision-making, safety, and avalanche education are considered as more and more people venture into the backcountry.
Kristina Ciari Tursi Kristina Ciari Tursi
Membership & Communications Director
December 12, 2020
Avalanche Safety | Making Safe Decisions in the Backcountry

The snow rushes past in a swift river of movement. The slough was kicked off by my turns above, and the loose powder is now flowing through a natural gully in the snow, no more than six inches wide. That’s not so bad. I think. It looks like a little creek; totally manageable. Without further hesitation, I turn my skis to cross the stream.

I am swept immediately into its raging current. Knocked from my feet, I fall headfirst down the mountain, limbs flailing. One ski is ripped from my boot, but stays attached via its leash, and now I’m dragging a five and a half foot weapon down with me. It takes less than three seconds to realize the gravity of my poor choice.

Fighting the wave, I manage to right myself so that my boots are downhill. Using the ski that’s still attached, I lean hard to cut into the slope and traverse out of the river of moving snow. I come to rest a few yards from my friend Cori, who has been watching me and is already pulling out her shovel and probe. She’s the type of friend you want with you on a day like today.

Cori asks if I’m okay, to which I nod in the affirmative, but in truth I’m terrified. I’m not so much afraid of the experience I’ve just had in this very minor avalanche­ — which happened in-bounds at a local ski resort on a particularly bountiful powder day in December 2018 — but of my own hubris. I saw the moving snow, assessed it against my own skill as a skier, and judged it to be safe to cross. I fell victim to the classic heuristic traps of “familiarity” and “scarcity.” I know better. I can’t even look Cori in the eye.

Increase in users

Much like how we’re all navigating daily risk assessment during the COVID pandemic, making safe, conservative decisions in avalanche terrain is a matter of life or death. Backcountry travelers take precautions to mitigate risk to reduce the chance of being caught in an avalanche, but unfortunately with both COVID and avalanches, unless you choose to stay locked up in your house alone, your safety is never guaranteed.

Largely because of COVID, experts are predicting a significant increase in backcountry travelers this winter. “Similar to the amount of crowding that we saw this summer, we anticipate a spike in travelers concentrated to even fewer areas,” said Liz Riggs Meder, the Director of Rec Programs at American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) who also serves on the Board of Directors for the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC).

“All the resorts in Washington are catering to pass holders and requiring reservations at limited capacity,” said Ryan Kitchen, a Mountaineers Super Volunteer and AIARE instructor. “There's going to be fewer opportunities for people to ski at the controlled resorts, which is going to put more pressure on the backcountry.”


Snowflakes. Photo by Ryan Kitchen.

If early sales are any indication, these predictions will be frighteningly accurate. As of this writing, one retailer in Saskatoon, Canada, has already sold through a season’s worth of cross country skis, and then some. ProSki Seattle is experiencing similar traffic, grossing the highest September and October sales ever according to co-owner Mike Tracy. Liz reported that most of the AIARE-led avalanche courses are full through January, and our Mountaineers courses are nearly maxed out as well, in part due to the pandemic limiting capacity.

Avoid heuristic traps

When humans are involved in an avalanche, it’s estimated that ninety percent of them are human-triggered. The statistics resoundingly indicate that nature isn’t the problem; people are.  That’s why many backcountry travelers - whether you’re a skier, splitboarder, snowshoer, winter hiker, or snowmobiler - take an AIARE Level 1 class as an early step in risk management.

In the past, physical factors like snowpack, terrain features, slope angle, and aspect were the main focus of avalanche education. Today, the social/human parameters of decision making get equal, if not more, attention. AIARE 1 teaches a framework for repeatable decision making in backcountry terrain that, when applied correctly, helps travelers avoid the heuristic traps (mental shortcuts or rules of thumb) which can lead to avalanche accidents. These shortcuts shouldn’t be trusted in backcountry situations, and we must actively fight against them. Classic traps include assumptions like:

Expert Halo: That woman’s an expert she must know what she’s talking about.

Social Facilitation: There’s a bunch of tracks that way I’m sure it’s safe.

Familiarity: I did this last time and it went okay.

In talking about human factors, educators rely on an intentional communication process where everyone in the group states the decision and agrees to it. “Whether you’re the least experienced or the most experienced in a group, you need to have an opinion based on your personal observations,” said Ryan, the Mountaineeers AIARE instructor. “It’s your responsibility to add data to the discussion and have the group make a decision based on that.”

This decision making framework is meant to overcome the idea of social capital, which assigns different “value” to people based on any number of factors: perceived skill, education, race, age, size, physical ability, etc. In avalanche discussions, the goal is to break down these perceptions and make everyone equal —an idea that’s easier in concept than practice. For example, statistics show that all-women groups make safer decisions and have fewer accidents than all-men or mixed groups. Women are socialized to be deferential to men, who are socialized to communicate less and show less fear, and those factors play out in the backcountry just like in our everyday lives. Luckily, in the backcountry, every individual has veto power.

“If you see something that makes you uncomfortable and you don't say something about it, then it hurts the group,” said Ryan, who takes particular care to stress these dynamics in his teaching. “Regardless of any other factors or your education or identity, if you saw a shooting crack or noted the temperature rise or a change in the wind, you should be able to add that data to the group discussion and it should be accepted.”

If you’re someone to whom others defer in a group (i.e. you have high social capital), Ryan suggests you use that influence to facilitate discussion and consensus, both during the day and after the outing. You should always debrief even the best trip to discuss what could be improved. Identifying even small things like the desire for a longer snack break or the need for more layers will have down-stream benefits. Bottom line: people who engage in intentional communication make safer decisions in avalanche terrain.

Mountaineers programming practicing avalance education.jpg

Mountaineers practicing beacon search. Photo courtesy of The Mountaineers.

Prioritize safety

With COVID, it’s especially important that we be considerate to fellow winter travelers, both by taking proper health precautions and by being welcoming to everyone we meet. Recreation benefits our collective health, and experienced travelers should see it as our duty to be ambassadors to new enthusiasts. There’s no doubt that this influx of people will have a huge impact on the safety of everyone traveling in off-piste terrain. AIARE and The Mountaineers are preparing for another season of uncertainty by underlining that the best thing any of us can do is be very conservative.

“Everything this year is heightened,” said Liz, who works as a mountain guide in addition to her role at AIARE. “You take an already uncertain backcountry environment then overlay an uncertain global catastrophe, which leaves a lot more opportunity for the ‘butterfly effect’ where one thing causes a cascade of reactions.”

With so much potential for things to break down, Liz recommends that you look at your plans and anticipate where things can go wrong. “You are a risk manager in the winter, and all summer you’ve been a risk manager with COVID, giving us the added ability to apply what we’ve learned over the summer to our winter recreational activities.” This means you should constantly analyze the worst-case scenario and have a plan for it. “You can no longer just have Plan A and Plan B. You also need to have plans C-F, all of which need to realistically be something you would do.” As we saw this summer, sometimes the only tool you’ll have left is to go home.

“The simplest way to mitigate avalanche hazard is to avoid avalanche terrain altogether,” the AIARE 1 course manual advises. Of course, most of us won’t follow that advice, just like most of us haven’t remained completely locked away during the pandemic. But we can, and should, employ regular processes to check in with ourselves and others when it comes to making safe decisions. My choice to ski into the slough would have been different had I taken a second to slow down and apply a safety checklist. It’s always worth the extra time to keep yourself and others out of harm's way.

Heuristic Traps in
Backcountry Travel

Adapted from a report by Ian McCammon

Heuristics, or rules of thumb, guide most of our everyday decisions. While heuristics serve us well for routine risks such as driving, avalanches are a unique hazard rendering some heuristics irrelevant or even dangerously misleading. When a rule of thumb gives us a grossly inaccurate perception of a hazard, we fall into what is known as a heuristic trap.

Familiarity: The familiarity heuristic relies on past actions to guide behavior in familiar settings. Been here before? You’ll probably do what you did last time. Most of the time, the familiarity heuristic is reliable, but when the hazard changes and the setting remains familiar, this rule of thumb can become a trap.

Consistency: Once we have made an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are easier if we simply maintain consistency with that first decision. This strategy saves us time, but becomes a trap when our desire to be consistent overrules critical new information.

Acceptance: People have the tendency to engage in activities we think will get us noticed or accepted. We are socialized to this heuristic from a very young age, and because we are so vulnerable to it, it figures prominently among the heuristic traps.

The Expert Halo: An informal leader who ends up making critical decisions for the party often emerges in recreational groups. Sometimes their leadership is based on knowledge and experience, sometimes on being older, a better rider, or more assertive. The overall positive impression of the leader leads others to ascribe avalanche skills to that person that they may not have.

Social Facilitation: When a person or group is confident in their skills, they tend to take more risks using those skills when others are present. A practical example is the tendency for the best moguls to form directly under ski lifts; good skiers ski better when they think other people are watching.

Scarcity: The scarcity heuristic is the tendency to value things in proportion to the chance that you may lose them. Those familiar with “powder fever” have seen this heuristic in action, as individuals take seemingly disproportionate risks to be the first to access untracked snow.

For more information on how to enjoy the new season responsibly, check out the Top 5 Tips for Winter Recreation in the GoGuide on page 40.

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Main Photo: Theresa Sippel enjoys a bountiful backcountry powder day. Photo by Kristina Ciari.

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