Human Factors

92% of avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. 

Don’t get caught out and have to dig up a friend

As we have already learned from our last blog post there are 5 red flags that give us warnings that avalanches are likely. We have also discussed that our terrain choices help us avoid avalanche activity and yet we still have the haunting statistic that skiers, riders and climbers are responsible for 92% of triggerings. So why is that?

Which part of the brain is working here?

Let’s think about some neuroscience for a bit. Paul McLean, an American neuroscientist, came up with a theory that the brain operates in three layers: our reptilian brain (fight or flight response), our mammalian/limbic brain (emotions and feelings) and our neo-cortex (our logical thinking brain). Now, in theory we should be able to rationalize and logically think about our decisions. “I shouldn’t ski that slope as it is obviously windloaded.” However our limbic brain is very good at bringing emotions into the problem, “but the snow looks really good on that slope and we travelled all this way to ski it.” In the Backcountry, we talk about “human factors” which are 6 common traps that our mammalian brain throws up to convince us a slope is okay to travel on.

Which Human Factor is working here? After a long car drive from Colorado to Canada followed by 2 days of storm during which the pass was closed.

FACETS (an angular weak snow grain) is an acronym that might help people remember the human traps.

Familiarity – “We have skied this slope 100s of times it never slides.”

Acceptance – “I don’t think this slope is safe, but I don’t want these new ski buddies to think I can’t ski.”

Commitment – “Well, we have climbed this far up the gully and it’s just a short way to the top. I bet we can cross this last wind loaded slope.”

Expert Halo – “ We are here with Dave and he knows what he is doing so we must be okay.” Does Dave really know what is going on?

Tracks/Scarcity – “Quick let’s get across this slope to the route before this other group gets there.”

Social Proof – “There are ski tracks on the slope it must be okay.”

So how do we deal with these feelings and emotions that affect our logical brain?

Would you want to ski/climb a committing route with this group of partners? Too many people?

The first step is acknowledging these traps exist and realising which traps you are most susceptible to. Do you only get to Scotland for one weekend every winter, maybe you have some scarcity. Do you always ski a certain off piste ski run every holiday, maybe some familiarity going on. 

Secondly, come up with a good plan. The most important thing about your planning is to give yourself lots of good options. If you plan for just one route then you are much more likely to fall into one of these traps. So give yourself a plan A, B, C and D, therefore if things do not align for plan A or B you can fall back to plan C.

Good ski partner or avalanche clown?

Thirdly, choose your group carefully. Having partners who you trust and can rely on is important. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing an observation with partners or they blindly keep going with a plan because it is what they want to do, then this is not a good partnership. When going out with new people for the first time consider building up your partnership overtime. It would not be good to be halfway up a major north face and discover your new partner and you are not compatible. Also how many people is too many? 3-5 is a pretty good group size for skiing.