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.