Nothing Happens … most of the time
Off-piste skiing and touring can be surprisingly safe, about the same risk as driving a car for one hour, if we regularly apply the risk reduction measures we learn in avalanche training. If we do not apply these measures, it can be surprisingly dangerous according to renowned avalanche expert, Bruce Tremper.
At HAT we emphasize that learning and knowing is only half the battle. The application of knowledge and experience is just as important if you want to avoid an accident. It’s not just research that shows this, as my story here describes.
Over the years I’ve noticed that most people, most of the time, do not apply basic risk reduction methods when they go off-piste even though they are aware that the consequences can be very high… like death. This means that most of us are being more dangerous than we would normally be comfortable with. I’ve observed this over three decades of delivering avalanche awareness talks and courses throughout Europe. My conclusion: even if we think we know all about the danger and how to manage the risk off-piste, we probably don’t.
Why wouldn’t we apply simple risk reduction measures in high consequence risk contexts like that of off-piste skiing in the Alps? Because nothing happens most of the time when we don’t apply them. Observation and research show that even if we ski on hundreds, even thousands, of steep off-piste slopes without applying risk reduction measures, nothing happens most of the time.
When nothing happens over and over again and the probability of something bad happening seems remote, we tend to treat the outcome as impossible – according to Daniel Kahneman, expert on the psychology of judgment and decision-making and Nobel Prize Laureate. As a result, our impulses take over – and these impulses don’t take into consideration obvious signs of potential danger. Rather than asking ourselves “Should we ski this steep slope?” (which faces North, like a number of other slopes that have avalanched following last night’s snowfall… and there’s a big terrain trap at the bottom of the slope), we are easily distracted into thinking, “Let’s get there before the powder’s tracked out!”. Meanwhile, in the back of our minds, we’re reassuring ourselves: “Well, other people are around. There are tracks on the slopes. It looks OK”.
I let myself get distracted just like this and I got caught on video setting a big avalanche off. As you can see, it made it to National Geographic, much to the embarrassment of this so-called avalanche expert and educator… who, after this incident, became known simply as ‘The Avalanche Maker’!
In brief, I was very lucky not to be killed by this avalanche. I was also very embarrassed – especially that it had been caught on film. However, what this clearly shows is that, no matter who you are, if you don’t apply all the risk reduction measures you learn in avalanche training, things can get dangerous very quickly.
Notice there are lots of tracks already on the slope. “Don’t take tracks seriously!” says renowned avalanche expert Bruce Jamieson in his video and paper on the Odds of Triggering.. a potentially deadly avalanche (see below).
A framework as a solution.
To help you apply basic risk reduction measures, we’ve devised this simple framework solution. Here we’ve tried to create a foundation in line with what experts suggest for people engaging in high-consequence, low-feedback environments, such as avalanche terrain. Simple, easily-applied decision tools such as this can compete with distractions from those ‘human factor traps’ that often lure even experienced people into accident scenarios where there was ‘ample evidence of danger’ previous to the event. Luckily, such tools don’t need to be perfect to save lives… they just need to be simple, easily-applied decision tools that can compete with the mental traps described here (McCammon 2004). Look for our own HAT risk reduction product – produced in this spirit, coming soon.
Further to how low probability outcomes lead us astray, our solution involves recognizing that avalanche terrain is a low-feedback (low probability) and high-consequence environment. In his recent book, Bruce Kay confirms that this as an environment where we have a really hard time keeping risk-vigilant. Our mind starts to wander, leaving us open to human factor ‘traps’, the impulses that lead us to overlook clues pointing to dangers and the application of simple risk reduction measures.
A simple illustration from everyday life is that were we to drive on the wrong side of a motorway, we’d receive instant feedback “WRONG PLACE TO BE” (being in a high-feedback, high-consequence environment). However, for a similarly high consequence scenario in avalanche terrain, we don’t get that feedback. We let our minds coax us into very dangerous places on the slopes as nothing happens, and we don’t get feedback, most of the time. That’s when ’risky behaviour’ becomes a habit, without us even knowing it.
The HAT checklist
But… since something does happen enough of the time, and since the consequences can be deadly… we need to keep ourselves regularly “in check”, by thinking and looking around us, and by validating our assumptions.
In summary, checklists are a good start, but they don’t work on their own – knowledge of human factors distractions and the importance of teamwork need to come into play. We need to recognize that these human factor traps are real and beware of their distractions. So not only do we need to learn the risk reduction measures, we also need to apply the risk reduction measures. We need to think about filtering our impulses by ‘checking out’ what’s going on around us, i.e. validating our quick assumptions.
The checklist can help by reminding us on what key points are important, but they have to be applied. This is where teamwork comes in. We need the people we are with to remind us when we’re falling into traps, and to get us all back onto applying the basic risk reduction measures. Indeed, teamwork is the fun part. My best off-piste and ski touring memories are of the people I’m with, as much as the snow and environment.
The HAT Framework pulls together these three key elements above: checklist + a recognition of human Factors + an opening to teamwork in order to help you have a successful and more enjoyable time out in the mountains.
References and acknowledgement.
The references below and the authors have contributed to this post and our mission of helping people to have a successful and enjoyable experience off-piste, in the snow. I paraphrased most of the authors – it’s well worth taking a look at their work!
- Duclos, A. 2016. Que veut dire être attentif sur la neige? & other articles. Hors-série Neige et Avalanche. Montagnes Magazine, Seyssinet-Pariset, France.
- Gawande, A. 2010. The Checklist Manifesto, how to get things right. Metropolitan Books of Henry Holt and Company LLC, New York, NY, USA. http://atulgawande.com/book/the-checklist-manifesto/
- Jamieson, B. 2009. Regional danger ratings and the odds of triggering a potentially fatal avalanche. Dept. of Civil Engineering, Dept. of Geoscience, University of Calgary, Canada. http://schulich.ucalgary.ca/asarc/files/asarc/TriggeringOdds_Tar_Jamieson.pdf
- Jamieson, B. J. Schweizer , C. Shea, Simple Calculations of Avalanche Risk for Backcountry Recreation. International Snow Science Workshop 2009, Davos Switzerland. http://schulich.ucalgary.ca/asarc/files/asarc/RiskCalc_Issw09_Jamieson.pdf and video presentation https://vimeo.com/50900661)
- Jarry, F. ; M. Gletty. 2015. Avalanches hors-piste et prevention :…. La revue Neige & Avalanches N° 149. L’ANENA, Grenoble, France.
- Kahneman, D. 2011 Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, USA.
- Kay, B. 2015. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in The Avalanche Patch. Library and Archive Cataloguing in Publication. Canada.
- McCammon, I. 2004. Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications. Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004. USA. http://www.sunrockice.com/docs/Heuristic%20traps%20IM%202004.pdf
- Moody, Dr. M. and H. Schniewind. 2017. (video) Patient Safety is Freedom 2017.
- NHS England Patient Safety Domain and the National Safety Standards for Invasive Procedures Group. 2015. National Safety Standards for Invasive Procedures (NatSSIPs). London, UK.
- O’Bannon, A. 2016. Book Review: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in The Avalanche Patch. The Avalanche Review, American Avalanche Association. Victor, Idaho, USA.
- Schniewind, H. 2017. ITV, Sky News & Other Broadcast Media Interviews . UK/Europe
- Tremper, B. 2013. Blog: What is the Risk of Riding in Avalanche Terrain? Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
- Henry’s Triggering video caught by Nikalas Alsteg of Downfilms. Thank you Nikalas.
Finally, credit goes to Dr. Graham Plant for providing me with the video in the first place along with many other short videos and encouragement that have helped me and the HAT Team communicate our message over the years. Graham had no idea that it was me in the video, his initial comments about the ignorance/foolishness of the ‘culprit’ have been the source of much humour and mocking over the years. You are sorely missed by all of us Graham.