Safe Solutions in the Backcountry

How do we solve our innate ability to make poor decisions? Three experts weigh in.

All backcountry users, no matter how experienced, are susceptible to taking “mental shortcuts,” which inevitably lead to trouble. Thankfully, there are certain behavioral tools available to mitigate being, well, a powder-crazed human who only wants to score sweet, sweet face shots. Ever since 2002, when Ian McCammon identified various behavioral traps, or heuristics, that cause people to get caught in avalanches, the snow safety community has been searching for answers to help skiers make better decisions in the backcountry.

“We’ve been trying to get beyond categorizing the problem—such as F.A.C.E.T.S. and decision-making—and setting up solutions,” says Ben Pritchett, program director at AIARE, a nonprofit that develops and disseminates snow-safety curriculum for courses across the country. “That’s way more important, especially when you only have a student for three days in a Level 1 course.”

To that end, we asked various avalanche and backcountry professionals how they mitigate their own human factors. While it’s rarely simple, they share their valuable insight.

Liam Fitzgerald is a 40-year forecaster for Little Cottonwood Canyon. He is now retired. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz
Liam Fitzgerald is a 40-year forecaster for Little Cottonwood Canyon. He is now retired. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

Liam Fitzgerald, retired, worked as forecaster in Little Cottonwood Canyon for 40 years

For me, some of the things that have worked over the years would include trying to remain “ego-neutral.” By that I mean, don’t make decisions because you are trying to make a point, or to prove you were right. I would also frequently remind myself, and others that I worked with, that it is important to remain “consistently rational and objective.”

Snowpits usually don’t tell us all we need to know in order to make a decision that could have life-threatening consequences. I always expect to be surprised.

In other words, “Don’t make it what it isn’t.” I don’t know if it is because I am a born worrier, or if it is something I have acquired over the years, but I am perpetually suspicious about snowpack conditions. Snowpits usually don’t tell us all we need to know in order to make a decision that could have life-threatening consequences. I always expect to be surprised. My good friend Peter Schory (aka Mongo) likes to remind me that “proper (backcountry) procedures are what get you through difficult times.” All those things that have been taught for decades, such as, “Don’t go skiing in avalanche terrain immediately after a significant snowfall,” or, “Ski slopes one-at-a-time,” have been valid concepts for a long time and for a good reason. Just because so many people don’t adhere to those rules doesn’t mean they aren’t still valid. Don’t try to be too smart, and keep it simple.

Talk it out, says Alex Taran. PHOTO: Ryan Day Thompson
Talk it out, says Alex Taran. PHOTO: Ryan Day Thompson

Alex Taran, ski guide for CASA Tours, director of South American Beacon Project, and forecaster with Idaho Department of Transportation

Two years ago I was caught in an avalanche on Mount Superior, in Little Cottonwood Canyon. I was the only chick in the group, we were shooting photos with a couple of athletes, and I didn’t want to be the one to say anything. But then they’re not saying anything either because I’m the patroller. At the time, the avalanche hazard was “low,” and the forecast was for three to five inches. We ended up getting more, and because I was objective-driven, I ignored the terrain above us, which was obscured by the weather.

When the avalanche hit me, I lost my skis, poles, gloves, and my pants were ripped open and filled with snow. Afterward, I wrote down the things where we failed.

I saw the warning signs. I saw the sloughing, but I justified them. I was really objective-driven and had skied this chute by myself three days prior. When the avalanche hit me, I lost my skis, poles, gloves, and my pants were ripped open and filled with snow. Afterward, I wrote down the things where we failed.

The biggest is that we didn’t have a discussion. We kind of had one at the bottom in the parking lot and then never had one again.

You could say I fell into the “familiarity,” “commitment,” and “expert halo” traps. It’s really good to know your ALP TRUTHs and heuristics that you might be susceptible to. But if one person doesn’t feel comfortable, you gotta say something. If you’re that one person that’s uncomfortable, just say it. And for the other people in the group, it means that it might be time to turn around.

Required reading for backcountry skiers: The Human Factor, a five-part series investigating the decisions skiers make in avalanche terrain.

Doug Workman has hundreds and hundreds of days logged in the backcountry, and yet, is still humbled by the snowpack. PHOTO: Erlend Bo
Know where the edge is, and when to step back from it, says Doug Workman. PHOTO: Erlend Bo

Doug Workman, mountain guide

While being a useful teaching aid, I find checklists—like F.A.C.E.T.S. and such—to have a lot of power in the classroom and during pre-trip planning, but far less in the field. Does anyone really consult a checklist before dropping in?

The problem, of course, lies in the non-existent feedback loop. When we make bad decision and get away with it, we don’t get feedback—it simply does not exist. When we make a good decision, we still don’t get feedback because there is no way to tell if we just got away with it or not. So, while checklists are excellent for reminding us of the most offending distractions, in the end we still never know if we are good decision-makers. I suppose you only begin to get feedback after decades in the mountains: Are you still alive, are you still having near misses every season, do you ever back off?

At the end of each season I ask myself, not how many times I opened Cody Peak after a storm, but how many times I walked away, said, “No, not today,” or made an active decision not to go out of bounds on days others were trashing the backcountry during unpredictable times of persistent avalanche problems

I have been backcountry skiing for somewhere around 100 days a year since the late ’90s. I try to be humble when it comes to snow. I am only just beginning to feel like I have a deep personal database to look back on and ask myself if I make good decisions. What about somebody who doesn’t have that multi-year database? What does a beginner or even someone with five years experience do? I believe the answer lies in the margin for error. The less time you have in the mountains, the bigger the margin you must provide yourself. Just because you have taken a Level 2 avalanche course does not mean you are seasoned—it takes many years.

I have made plenty of bad decisions over the years, and I have had a formal avalanche education almost the entire time. As a mountain guide, it is my job to identify the edge—and, the more mature I get, the more willing I am to give that perceived edge a wide berth. This means less first tracks, yes. But actively trying not to be out on point every time means, I hope, that I am safer. At the end of each season, I ask myself not how many times I opened Cody Peak after a storm, but how many times I walked away and said, “No, not today,” or made an active decision not to go out of bounds on days others were trashing the backcountry during unpredictable times of persistent avalanche problems despite the “moderate” avalanche hazard rating. How many times did I pass, let it go? Because if the answer is “never,” then I am providing myself no margin for error. Same reason females are less likely to be caught in avalanches; they don’t tend to suffer from fear-of-missing-out, the testosterone-driven desire to be a know-it-all, to be right, to be the point of the spear. The point of the spear gets bloody.