What is intended to be the solution to avalanche incidents is education of the mountaineering public. Making them aware of pre-trip planning, weather and avalanche forecasts and human behavioural issues. Cognitive thinking traps using the popular acronym FACETS is one example of softer "thinking" skills now used as part of the education package.
Parties traveling in familiar terrain made riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. This effect was especially pronounced for parties with substantial experience and training.
Group members want to be accepted by members of their parties. “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.”
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. 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 more skilled. Novices were more likely to follow the leader into dangerous situations than when novice groups made decisions by consensus.
Parties took more risks when they were racing a closing window of opportunity, such as competing with another group for first tracks.
When skilled parties meet other people in the backcountry, they are more likely to take risks than parties that are less skilled. This effect was most pronounced in groups with the highest levels of training.
Most of the education to mountaineers is based on avalanche avoidance, a very sound proposition, but every year dozens of avalanche incidents are reported with victims buried, missing for long periods before recovery dead. Despite superb forecasting and reliable weather data its “plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose” same old same old.
Q.Is there a tendency for avalanche trained folks to have more avalanche accidents not less?
Could it be that certainty is being implied via processes, to an environment where no such thing is possible – ever! Facilitated by educators such as instructors, guides, and others? Folk leave training courses more educated feeling they have more knowledge and have travel in avalanche terrain a bit more dialled, when in fact it is a false sense of more certainty where none exists?
Q. Is there ever certainty in steep snow covered terrain?
Educators spend a lot of time on bells and whistles during training to imply gaining some degree of certainty when it is quite the reverse that needs reinforcing. I understand the need for bulking out a course to paying guests with the commonly taught bells and whistles of rutsch blocks, column tests and snowpack study, and other investigative stuff. But its not avalanche forecasters they are teaching, its recreational mountaineers and skiers. Most value in these “tests” is a group stopped and talking, communicating concerns and making collective decisions. This pause is often when individual concerns are aired, and leader decisions can be challenged. As the proverb goes “in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. Some knowledge can be better than none in the right head, but ask yourself if it’s the one leading your group, are you being listened to and do you feel happy with where your all at.
That bad feeling from someone in a group can save lives. Speak to any individual survivors of an avalanche incident and a precognition feeling will have occurred to them but often been ignored or supressed. I think it was Reinhold Messner in “The 7th Grade” who said ignoring these precognition feelings is folly. Its been 35 years since I read the book but this comment stuck as it resonated with events in my own life even then as a survivor of a couple of near misses to me that took friends, although not on the mountains.
Q. Do avalanche safety tools, like the three essentials (beacon, shovel, probe) ABS and Avalung increase risk acceptance?
We humans fail – period. Only when we have checklists and procedures that compensate for our proneness to error can we (to some extent) either prevent the failure or mitigate failures consequences. Safety tools are an essential part of that. If we cannot predictably and 100% reduce the risk, we can at least reduce some of the consequences. Carrying the tools to reduce the consequences should not allow us to increase the risk, but it does. Wearing a helmet skiing you just go faster, having an ABS folk push the envelope and ski sketchier terrain which up to a point they might get away with on a clean runout, but not if there is a terrain trap. Risk appetites go up.
I listened to a good podcast from Silverton Avalanche school in the San Juans Colorado a few days ago on this. This is an area where we have family connections as my wife’s brother lived there until recently before moving further down the pass to Durango, his wife was secretary to Ouray SAR at one time. The guy from the avalanche school there (it’s the oldest in the USA) gave an example of going to the top of a 32 deg slope with a group e and getting them to dump their beacons, shovels and probes and any ABS within the group, then asking them to ski it. They all threw their teddys out the cot, and yet it should have made no difference. Its either safe to ski or its not. No grey areas.
And for fecks sake, who in their right mind skis a slope in the knowledge that they might need a mouth piece from an Avalung in their thrapple in case their entombed and literally have to breath from the crack of their arse!
Q.What do we know before we go, and what should we do while we are going?
- The worst folk to be with are consciously incompetent, or reckless and impulsive. The next worst are ignorant and unconsciously incompetent
- The best folk such are UIAGM Guides or other mountain professionals who have both an unconscious and conscious competence.
- For the amateur gaining experience is a process towards the same level of competence as the professionals.
Among the winter mountains we ditch certainty and embrace uncertainty and act accordingly.
To survive until pensionable age a high level of respect for the mountains while their guest and letting them tell you if your welcome or not that day. Heed what they tell you.
We do not conquer the mountains we
travel among them, and when we get avalanched its on us for not listening and
not seeing. An avalanche course may be an important tool along the way, but so
is understanding your Johari window