Knocking off the Rust Part III – the Animal Within
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field” – Niels Bohr
You’ve checked your gear, practiced with the beacon a few times, dusted up on your stability tests and finally the first real storms are arriving. As the mountains get whiter and the coverage continues to improve, our thoughts start turning to powder turns and face shots. Ski porn only gets your powder starved mind so far this time of year, as we anxiously anticipate those first turns. If my Instagram and Facebook friends are any indication, many of you have already ventured into the mountains at least once, and as I scan the various avalanche centers in the US, I see the first avalanches are upon us, including a near miss in Alaska – AK observation – that makes this the perfect time to remind ourselves that like it or not, we are human, and part of being human is making mistakes. A great way to avoid falling into these traps is to take a hard look at your individual habits and decision-making processes.
Let’s start with Heuristics. What the heck is that you ask? Heuristics are experienced based techniques for problem solving, learning and discovery – essentially short cuts in logic that we, as humans use all the time. The reason we use them all the time is that they tend to work. Think about the last time you drove to your neighborhood grocery store. How much do you actually remember about the drive? You probably drove there on auto-pilot – observing traffic laws, paying attention to the drivers around you, but you are so familiar with the route from home to the store and back, you probably didn’t even think about where you were going or how you got there. That’s a heuristic. A great way to look at heuristics is to use my friend Ian McCammon’s FACETS acronym (full article can be found here). Ian looked at common mistakes in avalanche accidents to identify and explain six common heuristic traps we fall into in the mountains. They are as follows:
If the terrain is familiar, we tend to do things we did before, despite changing risk factors, or, what I did the last fifty or one hundred times got me home safe, it will probably work for me this time. This is a trap that catches professionals and experienced backcountry users.
A tendency to engage in activities that will get us liked or accepted. Let’s not kid ourselves, we all like to be accepted and liked, but is social acceptance worth risking your life?
Focusing on an objective or goal to the exclusion of important hazard information. Ever had summit fever? One day off this week, with a goal or objective you’ve been planning for a while? The ability to change the plan or turn around when conditions dictate is an important one.
Placing decision-making and responsibility on a person perceived to be the most knowledgeable in the group even if the person isn’t a true expert. This one gets the experienced guy who thinks he knows it all and the less experienced guy who thinks his more experienced friend knows it all. Bottom line, never be afraid to voice an opinion or observation with your party while in the mountains, at the same time never be afraid to admit you’re over you’re head.
If fresh, untracked powder is scarce, it is perceived to have more value and be worth the potential risk. Here you go, powder fever. It happens to the best of us. Early season, mid season in a bad year, no tracks on a high hazard day… All these things lead to a feeling of we gotta get it now or it might not be there again. Conversely, a few tracks on a slope may lead to prematurely letting your guard down. Tracks on a slope simply mean someone skied it before you, it doesn’t add up to slope wide stability. This one catches the experienced and inexperienced alike, it’s possibly the scariest because it works contrary to personal safety; it is most influential when avalanche danger is high.
People who believe they have good avalanche skills are more likely to take risks in the presence of other people; people who feel less skilled take fewer risks. An innate need to prove we know as much or more than someone else? So we make poor, high-risk decisions to prove our skill level to people we may or may not know. A huge trap for the professional and experienced folks out there, we all want to impress our peers!
So what does this all mean? If this is something we are all subject to, what can I do about it? I think it’s time for serious introspection. Look for examples of your own heuristic behavior and see what assumptions you arrive at through their use. By knowing which traps you are most susceptible to, you are far more likely to identify and avoid them. But the trick is to be honest with yourself. You have to take a long hard look in the mirror and confront your demons if you wish to keep them at bay in the mountains.