Monday, December 12, 2016

Back in the flow. Zach Guy, CBAC Director

The Western U.S. is coming out of a long drought and the atmospheric snow guns have finally replaced the artificial ones that were building our ski area’s snow base. With snow comes avalanches. There were two avalanche fatalities in the West over the weekend: a skier in closed terrain in Mt Rose Ski Tahoe on Saturday, and a backcountry skier near Cooke City, MT on Sunday. We send our sincere condolences to all of those affected by these tragedies.  Here in Colorado, there has been a stroke of divine luck, with a number of multi-party burials that resulted in profound learning lessons, rather than fatalities. A trio of skiers in Butler Gulch, near Berthoud Pass, were all caught and buried on Saturday. Two of them were only partially buried and were able to rescue the third. On Sunday, a skier was caught in a slide near Red Mountain Pass and two snowmobilers were fully buried but rescued by their group near Steamboat. On Monday, a snowmobiler was buried near Crested Butte.  Needless to say, avalanche season is upon us.

The search area for the avalanche victim at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe. Photo courtesy of Washoe County Search and Rescue.

The Elk Mountains have been in a favorable zonal flow pattern since December 6th. CBMR reported 18” of snow in the past week, and some of our backcountry areas have picked up almost twice that. More is on the way this weekend. Anytime we have periods of dry weather, especially early season, our snowpack develops weak layers. Once we start getting back into the storm track, those weak layers get loaded and stressed, creating avalanche concerns. Sometimes these avalanches can act in surprising or unique ways, like being triggered from long distances away or from flat terrain. This video demonstrates the challenging nature of persistent slab avalanche problems, where there is a cohesive slab over a persistent weak layer.

A group of 3 skiers were buried in this slide in Butler Gulch, CO on Saturday. Photo courtesy of CAIC.

It is easy to get caught up in the powder frenzy this time of year. We’ve all been itching to arc those graceful turns down powder filled slopes or throttle through deep pillows and faceshots. But we need to draw a line and stay behind it. One of my mentors up in Montana recently discussed how taking one step back from the line is insufficient. “To ensure a lifetime in the mountains, it is a matter of taking three or four steps back.” The CBAC got an observation yesterday, reporting signs of instability, which concluded with: “Suspect a successful tour could have been had with proper navigation today, but the instabilities spooked us, especially while navigating unfamiliar terrain. We opted to head home.” I applaud that kind of decision making. There isn’t any kind of steep or deep powder run that exceeds the reward of returning home safe at the end of the day.

Snow profile showing unstable results near Crested Butte. 12/11/16

If you are new to the area or visiting, make sure you tune into our avalanche advisories at Our forecast team has been in frenzy the last couple weeks to keep tabs on the state of the snowpack. On Sunday, after a big pulse of moisture plowed through the night before, we had all three of our forecast staff up three prominent drainages surrounding our town digging into and documenting the snowpack to help aid in your backcountry decision making. Use our website and observations page as a resource! Give those guys a pat on the back for their often stressful and sleep deprived work during the holiday season. You can just sense the anxiety in Havlick's voice in this video, and I bet the poor guy hasn't done his laundry in 2 weeks now. And thank our ski patrollers at CBMR and respect roped off or closed terrain. Those guys and gals are working hard to mitigate avalanche hazards to get terrain open.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thanksgiving and avalanches

Thanksgiving and avalanches. By Zach Guy

Shooting cracks are a sign that the snowpack might have taken a few too many scoops of mashed potatoes and stuffing.

It has been a wonderfully warm and dry fall, which is hard to complain about. But if we can be brutally honest with the weather gods, fall really was starting to wear out its welcome, and we are happy to open the door to winter. There's nothing quite like surfing over powder, so it's time to dust off those skis, find your beacon, shovel, and probe, and start tuning into our daily avalanche reports.

Early season skiing and riding comes with some challenges and risks. The snow coverage is still quite shallow, so striking rocks and logs are tough to avoid and they can end your season pretty quickly. My strategies include getting on the fattest skis I can find, riding like a gaper in the backseat, and using releasable bindings in case my tips dive under a log or rock. I've seen a few too many broken tib-fibs from early season riding. And of course, we all want to go to where the snowpack is deepest, which can open the doors to another scary threat: avalanches. This time of year, the slopes holding deep and continuous coverage often carry the greatest risk of triggering an avalanche. It is almost impossible to go through fall without a shallow, crusty, and faceting foundation forming on the ground. Then once we start building a deeper snowpack, it creates a persistent slab avalanche problem above these layers.

Skier triggered slides in Red Lady Bowl

I like analogies, so let's compare our current year's snowpack to your most recent Thanksgiving celebration. You probably avoided food all day, maybe even went for a turkey trot to work up an appetite in preparation for the big feast. A significant drought, indeed. That left you weak and frail, just like the lingering snowpack layers that survived our fall drought. Then once dinner time (i.e. winter time) rolled around, you started off at a decent pace. Snacked on some hor devoirs, some salad, maybe some of your Uncle's famous deviled eggs or your Grandma's bean dip. Our first few storms behaved in similar fashion, fairly small and steady loads, with a handful of isolated avalanches. Nothing too scary yet. Then it is dinner time: you go for the mash potatoes, stuffing, turkey, green bean casserole, and of course drown it all under gravy. Extra rolls? Why not? Whammo. That's a heavy load, just like our last storm, which dumped almost 2 feet in places. Both scenarios are dangerous. You could collapse on the couch just as easily as you could collapse those fragile weak layers near the ground. During and after the storm, we saw both natural and skier triggered avalanches, some quite large and surprisingly wide. As of Tuesday night, I'm expecting we'll see evidence of a lot more avalanche activity as we get better visibility over the next few days. So tread carefully out there, and check the avalanche report before you go out. So what's next for our snowpack? Does it reach for another plateful of mashed potatoes before slamming down some pumpkin pie and faceplanting onto the floor? Or does it slowly nibble at the leftover turkey and try to stay awake for family charades? Only the weather can dictate that one. But you can be the captain of your risks by making rational decisions and practicing your rescue skills. Is it a coincidence that this Friday night is our Annual Avalanche Awareness Night, with the theme "Human Factors and Decision Making"? Or that Saturday is our annual Beacon Brushup, a free and valuable opportunity to dial in your rescue skills for the winter? I think not. See you there!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Human Factors and Decision Making

Human Factors and Decision Making

By Zach Guy, CBAC Director

This year's theme to CBAC's Avalanche Awareness Night on December 2nd, 2016 is "Human Factors and Decision Making". Almost all avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or a member of their group. We are the ones who expose ourselves to avalanche risks, and often it is our own decision making that puts us into trouble.

Although humans have been pondering our methods of thinking and rationalizing for centuries, Ian McCammon has been instrumental in research in the avalanche industry. I was fortunate enough to have Ian as a course instructor and mentor for my AVPRO class about 7 years ago, and caught up with him to ask a few questions about human factors and decision making.

Ian McCammon. Photo courtesy of POWDER magazine.

Zach Guy: Ian, you have a PhD in mechanical engineering, and a Master's in Material Science. In the avalanche world, you are well known for your research on human decision making. What inspired your shift in focus from physics towards psychology?

Ian McCammon: My own journey started years ago when a friend of mine died in an avalanche. Using tools from my engineering background, I searched for statistical trends in hundreds of past accidents and found that the circumstances of my friend’s death followed a pattern that repeated itself again and again: risk perception for certain groups was distorted under certain conditions.

Zach: In 2002, you published a paper on heuristic traps and how these human factors affect our decision making and influence avalanche accidents. The acronym "FACETS" (Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity, and Social Facilitation) has been adopted by essentially every avalanche course around the country to introduce these human factors. My talk at Avalanche Awareness Night will dive into some of these factors and a close call that I had back in 2009. In your research or simply from personal experience since then, are there any other human factors that you think backcountry travelers should be aware of?

Ian: Fatigue is an important physiologic factor that influences our decision making. When you are tired, dehydrated, hungry, cold or just sucking air from a long ascent, it’s hard to judge hazards objectively. And just like the FACETS cognitive traps, fatigue is dangerous because people consistently underestimate how profoundly it can impair their judgement.

Zach: You developed some systematic tools to help backcountry travelers overcome our human biases, such as ALPTRUTH and Lemons. Do you have any other personal tips or strategies that you use in your ski tours for overcoming the inherent biases in the way our brains process information and make decisions?

Ian: ALPTRUTh was designed to do two things. First, it stops you at the cusp of a decision - it breaks the momentum that sometimes carries people into trouble. Second, it helps you see how your group’s decision will be viewed should an accident take place - a process called a pre-mortem. There are other ways to do this, and my hope is that new and better tools will emerge from research into this important area.
Another strategy in addition to APLTRUTh is to choose your partners wisely. Choose people with the wisdom to stop the group's momentum at the right times and reconsider evidence and the opinions of the group. If they can do that, it’s going to be less frustrating and more effective to manage risk as a group.

Zach: Social media has exploded since your original research 15 years ago. We have a presenter who will be touching on this subject at Avalanche Awareness Night. With Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, etc., the entire internet is watching what we do in the backcountry. What is your take on the impact of social media on our decision making, and do you suggest or have any strategies for handling its potential influences?

Ian: This is a fascinating and worthy topic for research. I am glad you have a presenter exploring this subject. Some folks are choosing to literally create their social identities in near-real time as their decisions and outcomes are posted and amplified across an audience of friends and potential critics. An important question for each of us is how much are we willing to allow that unseen audience to shape our critical decisions.

Zach: Any parting words for our Colorado audience that recreates in the deadliest snowpack in the country?

Ian: To paraphrase Baltasar Gracian: Know your major weakness. If you do not understand it, it will rule you like a tyrant.

Zach: Thank you Ian for sharing your wisdom, and for your contributions to the avalanche industry.

 Join us at CBAC's Avalanche Awareness Night for more great presentations on human factors and decision making.