Backcountry skiers and snowboarders ride slopes that – under the right circumstances – can avalanche. Knowledge of avalanche hazards is important, but in most cases the science of avalanches isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s the science of the human brain. We want to be on a given slope. We want to ride that slope. And that desire can override rational thought.
A heuristic is a method by which we solve a problem or make a decision. In avalanche terrain, our desire to ride a certain line can lead us into heuristic traps. In other words, our objective thinking is corrupted by cognitive biases that undermine our ability to think rationally.
The examples at the opening of this article represent a handful of these types of traps. They are by no means the only heuristic traps that exist out there, but they are some of the most common. Let’s tear these examples down and see where they can get us into trouble.
You’ve skied this slope a hundred times and nothing’s ever happened before.
Two types of cognitive biases exist within this statement. The first is a non-event feedback loop. This is the idea that since nothing has happened in the past, nothing is going to happen in the future. Non-event feedback loops can give one the impression that they are doing everything the right way.
If you ski a slope in certain conditions and it doesn’t slide, is that because you made a good choice, or because you got lucky? If you hear whumpfing or see signs of unstable snow but ski the slope anyway, and get away with it, you might think you could do that in the future.
The second heuristic trap that exists in this line is familiarity. When we go to the same place a lot, we become complacent. One could argue that the most dangerous backcountry slope in the world is the one you ski the most.
The line isn’t what you thought, but, hey, you’re here. You may as well stick to it.
This is called commitment bias. It often feels harder to correct an error than it feels to commit to it. You know you made a mistake, but instead of fixing it, you figure that it will be easier to ride it out. The problem, of course, with this line of thinking, is that you might not get down the slope intact.
In wilderness risk management, we often talk about cascade effects. Most accidents don’t happen because of one bad decision. They often happen when one thing goes wrong, or there’s one poor decision, that is followed by several more. A bias toward commitment can easily lead to a cascade of additional problems that could ultimately lead to an accident.
You know you’re a badass. You can ski anything. You know all about avalanche terrain. You’ll be fine!
Avalanche knowledge is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum there are those that know just enough to get into trouble, and on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who become complacent in their deep knowledge base.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where an individual believes they have more knowledge and skill than they actually do. The people most deeply corrupted by this bias are often even arrogant about their skillset. They might even believe that they are superior to others in their knowledge. Commonly, but not always, these are younger people who have a little bit of avalanche training, but see themselves as backcountry masters. Clearly, this is a demographic that is at risk in the backcountry.
On the other end of the spectrum are those that hold an expert halo. These are individuals with years of backcountry experience. They might be instructors, or trip leaders; they might be ski patrollers or guides; or they might even be avalanche forecasters. Regardless, they are the people that others look to for guidance in avalanche terrain.
Experts are at risk in two ways. First, they can become complacent in their knowledge and make assumptions without confirming them. And second, others may not question an expert’s decision-making because they don’t see themselves as equal in avalanche knowledge. Either thing – or both – can lead to catastrophic results.
We want to ride on the snow, and that desire alone is dangerous.
It’s a beautiful day. Nothing could possibly go wrong!
The blue-sky syndrome is the belief that the weather, or lack thereof, will protect you from hazards. People often take risks on beautiful days that they wouldn’t have taken if there were whiteout conditions and it was windy. And indeed, in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most hazardous times is right after a storm, often on a beautiful day.
It doesn’t matter what the report said. Nothing’s happened all day, there’s no avalanche debris, you can ski this last steep run. The snow is solid!
In this example, we can see a non-event feedback loop in action again. However, there is a second trap here. It’s the “back-to-the-barn” trap.
In mountaineering and alpine climbing, it’s well known that accidents often happen on the way down. Similarly, in resort skiing, the final run of the day is often the one where an individual gets hurt. This isn’t because the climbing route or the ski run became more dangerous. Instead, it’s because internally we believe that our day is over, that nothing bad is going to happen at the end. And while we yell at the protagonist at the conclusion of a horror movie that the monster isn’t actually dead, we often ignore the potential monster on our last run, while racing to get done with the day.
Heuristic traps exist throughout the outdoor adventure world, but they are particularly dangerous in avalanche terrain. We want to ride on the snow, and that desire alone is dangerous. Knowledge of human factors that go into that desire will not eliminate them. But that same knowledge may help us to identify them before a poor decision turns into an accident.
Jason D. Martin is the executive director at the American Alpine Institute, a mountain guide and a widely published outdoor writer. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two kids.