Safety First | Which Way to Go in Snow: Winter Decision-Making

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, leader Peter Clitherow discusses the different factors that can increase our risk levels in the outdoors, and what steps we can take to mitigate them.
Peter Clitherow Peter Clitherow
Mountaineers Safety Committee, Climb, Snowshoe and Scramble Leader
April 29, 2019

My friend Roger Rosenblatt and I had arranged to meet early one Saturday morning in April some years ago to go skiing in the Snoqualmie pass backcountry. Neither of us were especially good skiers, so our normal trips involved going up a logging road, and then branching off to find a lake or view rewarding ridge line.

This particular Saturday had followed a typical early spring week with scattered snow in the mountains, and dreary clouds in the city. However as we looked at the weather and avalanche forecasts, things didn’t look so promising. Early morning showers developing into increasing rain in the afternoon and avalanche hazard becoming high. Reluctantly, we both realized that our plans were not going to work out at all, but we substituted a nice hike to a close in lake in the North Bend area, below the snow line.

That evening, we heard on the news, a group of snowshoers at Snoqualmie Pass area had been caught in an avalanche high on Red Mountain earlier in the day. One person was killed, and several others buried either partially or fully; their group perhaps had their heart set on snowshoeing somewhere (the news wasn’t clear on that point). We felt sad for that situation, but relieved that we could go to the pass on another trip in safer conditions.

Well-prepared winter enthusiasts understand the potential risks of travel in avalanche terrain and will have undertaken some formal training. However, there is a paradox — several studies have shown that merely taking the courses really doesn’t alter the odds of being an avalanche casualty — in fact around half the victims have had such training.

How could this be? In short, human factors. Poor decision-making can arise from the interaction of one or more factors such as summit fever, the expert halo, risk creep and risk homeostasis. It’s worth exploring these in more detail, so they can be recognized at the time, or ideally, ahead of time.

Summit Fever

We all recognize this: it happens in other circumstances besides winter travel. A number of Everest climbers have succumbed to poor decisions, driven in part by the emotional and financial investment they’ve made in preparing for Everest: they really, really wanted to get to the summit. So they let those emotions overrule a rational turn-around choice.

Closer to home, in March of 2016, a party of out-of-state mountaineers set out for the summit of Rainier despite a very poor weather forecast, in part because this was their only window of opportunity to climb the mountain while they were here. This decision cost one of the climbers his life.

In the scope of winter adventures, the last ski run of the day frequently brings out a desire to try an untracked bowl, usually later in the afternoon under warming conditions. For climbers who are a little less at risk from avalanches, since they prefer consolidated snow to climb on, sometimes it’s only a little further to the summit and ‘hopefully this cornice will hold.’

Expert Halo and Acceptance

Participants who consider themselves less experienced might not speak up about a concern when following along. Groups do help in many situations, and it is safer in general to travel in a group rather than alone in the winter backcountry. However, in groups with an official leader (often the most experienced backcountry traveler), new participants might feel their concerns are not worth mentioning, or defer to the greater experience of the leader. Leaders are not infallible, and sometimes they might not even have noticed a dicey situation. In larger groups without a formal leader, experienced participants might not raise the alarm for fear of being thought a wimp, or spoiling the party.

Risk Creep

This is the insidious tendency for our minds to internalize the message that, nothing happened on the last trip we did, let’s up the ante a little. We see this everyday on the highway, as speeds creep gradually higher and higher and riskier behaviors proliferate. A climb leader on a winter trip might think, ‘I did this trip in similar conditions last year without incident, so nothing to worry about.’ In reality though, with some decisions we roll the dice and even the best avalanche predictions cannot be all-knowing for every slope aspect and condition.

Risk Homeostasis

(A fancy term for the way folk adjust their behavior based on the perceived risk.)

Back in the early 90s, air-bags were introduced en-mass in new cars. At the time, the auto insurance industry gave discounts to drivers whose cars had air-bags because of the protection against bodily injury they afforded and hence the lower claims that were paid out by the insurers. Over the course of the next decade however, insurers noticed an interesting thing: drivers of air-bag equipped cars were involved in more accidents than their prevalence in the auto fleet would suggest. Drivers were driving more aggressively because they believed the air-bags would protect them. The same potential for increased risk taking exists in the outdoors: a skier might choose a steeper chute in the belief that if an avalanche happens, an avalung or other technology will come to the rescue. Of course, safety equipment may indeed save your life — think of climbing helmets and rockfall; but if it causes you or your group to alter your decision-making, it should raise flags.

Antidotes

How to guard against all these psychological factors? Training, practice and perhaps courage. Training is of course vital, since if you don’t recognize hazardous conditions, you’re much less likely to make appropriate decisions.

Practice means getting out there and gaining experience, either in a controlled field trip situation, or with more experienced leaders. Courage will be needed to raise concerns before or during a trip, and the fortitude to cancel a trip, substitute another destination, or perhaps go hiking below the snow line rather than risk an incident attempting a favorite destination. One additional items that should be considered: the brief/ debrief talk. Before a trip gets underway, a leader could talk about the expected conditions and hazards. After the trip is completed, reviewing what was actually found will probably help determine if there was risk-creep, summit fever or other questionable decision making.

Avalanche Classes

Professional training may not save you from an avalanche, but knowing how to evaluate the risks and what steps to take are invaluable in helping to navigate avalanche terrain. The Mountaineers offers the AIARE Level 1 – Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain courses. They’re open to all and highly recommended. AIARE classes are particularly useful since they focus on decision making in realistic group-based settings that apply to situations well outside avalanche safety.


This article originally appeared in our Winter 2017 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


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Brian Booth
Brian Booth says:
Mon, Apr 29, 2019 9:18 PM

Excellent article Peter.

I was also out on the day of the Red Mtn avalanche. I was on a scramble of Townsend Mtn. Pretty close to Red Mtn as the crow flies, same aspect & about same slope angle. (I do not recall that there was any avalanche forecast available.)

As we ascended above Eagle Creek, we encountered snow that behaved oddly. With some steps, a thin disc of surface snow would break away completely from the snowpack and slowly slide a few feet down. About 2 feet in diameter and 2 inches thick, like a garbage can lid.

Never having recalled learning of whether "garbage can lids" were a red flag, we puzzled about what to do. Ultimately the consensus was we had snow conditions that we did not understand, so we turned back.

It was not a particularly easy decision, and immediately thereafter we had no confirmation whatsoever whether it was warranted.

Shortly after arriving home, we received a call from our trip leader that there had been the avalanche on Red Mtn. It gave me shivers; so glad we made the decision we did.

My lessons were that hazards do not always show up as "Clear & Present Danger" - thinking & group discussion can be vital. And with deciding to turn back, you do not always get rewarded with clear feedback that it was the "correct" decision; you may just need to find a way to be content with turning back.