The Human Factor

Recognizing the dangers of mental shortcuts

Avoid this situation and take a mental note of the human factor. PHOTO: Garrett Grove

Avoid this situation and take a mental note of the human factor. PHOTO: Garrett Grove

Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a full-time ski patrolman at Snowbird, an avalanche educator, and an Andean mountain guide. Check in on Tuesdays for resources and education that will help you have a safe and good season exploring terrain beyond the boundary line.

In Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents (2002), researcher and engineer Ian McCammon identified six different types of mental shortcuts that were present in a study of 600 different avalanche accidents in the United States. His findings indicated that people were more likely to take risks if they were operating under one or more of the following six shortcuts:

Familiarity: Unstable conditions exist regardless of whether the slope is in your own backyard or not. Being familiar with a certain area and thinking you know everything about a particular slope is common amongst many backcountry skiers. The reality is that you likely haven’t seen the area at its worst and you’ve gotten away with skiing it in the past. Areas adjacent to ski areas are notorious for luring in avalanche victims because familiar surroundings tend to make people feel safer.

Acceptance: In light of the prevalence of social media in our society and the pervasive nature of personal video equipment, being accepted by one’s peers has become extremely important. The thought of being the next YouTube sensation or POWDER magazine cover shot is exciting and it entices people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Trying to impress the members of your group is dangerous and ego should be left at the trailhead. You get a lot more respect in the mountains by making calculated decisions.

Commitment: Being a skier is more of an identity now than it has been in the past. The thought of going pro or scoring some free gear because of your backcountry exploits is quite powerful. It is important to understand that your skier status revolves around being alive. Backing off from an objective because conditions are sketchy shows restraint and professionalism. Plans are great, but contingencies are better. Feeling your way through the mountains and paying attention to the Indian signs is a good way to avoid escalation of commitment and come home to ski another day.

Expert Halo: There are plenty of people in the backcountry these days that claim to be experts. Some are, but most only talk a big game. Recognizing the dynamic of your group is important. A default leader is usually someone who is the oldest, coolest, most skilled skier, etc. But these people don’t necessarily have the avalanche smarts to get a group through the mountains safety. Often their risk tolerance is different then their teammates. At any rate, the mountains don’t care if you are an expert or not, they will strike you down if you make a mistake.

Scarcity: Better equipment and more publicizing of the awesomeness that is skiing has led to a crowded backcountry. Urban areas in close proximity to big terrain further add to the problem. Everyone wants to get their face shot and a chance to experience the incredible feeling of the perfect turn. However, this has led to a competition for resources and more people pushing the limits of safe terrain.

Social Proof: Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center, calls this the “herding instinct.” It boils down to people relying on safety in numbers. But as Tremper points out, more people on slope means more triggers and more people caught. People in larger groups are also more apt to take greater risks (risky shift). Remember that instability exists whether you are one person or twenty.

  Last week’s backcountry tip: Beacon Breakdown

Add a comment

  • framing god

    Great article. I’ve seen experienced guides get a client buried.

  • Travis

    I grew up on the ocean surfing, so now on the mainland I snowboard. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s easier to forget the power of nature on the mountain. Growing up, a common mantra is respect for the ocean. Any day it could take your life. I don’t ever hear that on the mountain. I think there are a lot of factor’s involved with this from lack of spirituality or earth consciousness in the cities to comfort by skiing in ski resorts and getting used to runs without having to worry about avalanches.

    It do us well to remember that the earth can squash us flat in the blink of an eye no matter how good you are. As this article points out, smarts greatly outweigh your skill on a pair of skis or a snowboard.

    • Kyle

      I really like this comment. Among surfers the common mantra is “respect for the ocean” and yet we rarely hear this mentality in mountains (in the US). As a ski patroller in Arizona, I see first hand the ‘attitude’ of folks who simply don’t understand the physical forces in effect on the mountain. We could probably re-write the 7 points of the skier safety code to start with #1: RESPECT THE MOUNTAIN!

      • Shortie D.

        Both comments are so true. I patrol at a major resort in Nor Cal and the disregard I see for safety is mind blowing. Especially on storm days with riders poaching areas we’re in the middle of actively doing control work. You gotta remember, in the mountains, there is neither penalty or reward, only consiquence. The mountain could give a damn about you me or our skill sets.

      • Chris luce

        #2: respect and understand weather!

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