The AIARE Way

A blueprint for mitigating the human factor

Last week, we heard from three avalanche and backcountry professionals about tools they use to make better decisions in avalanche terrain. Since AIARE, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, develops and distributes curriculum specific to this issue, we wanted to provide some of the basic but valuable methods they use to teach students in the hundreds of snow-safety courses they conduct every winter. While the checklist presented below can seem like a lot to remember when you just want to get out for a tour, with enough practice it will become second-nature. In the end, that translates to having many more days head of ripping pow with your friends. For more on AIARE and to further your avalanche education, go here.

Ben Pritchett, AIARE program director

The two critical elements to mitigate human factors are: One, communicate better; and two, improve the decision process. To achieve these goals, people can take the following steps:

Ben Pritchett
Ben Pritchett, AIARE program director.

Agree on a Strategic Mindset
As a group, agree on a strategic mindset that defines our approach to risk management for the day. An example might be: “Weird avalanches have occurred lately and conditions are deteriorating, so given the uncertainty we’ll be more cautious than we have been all week.” Or, “given that storm slab avalanche activity has dropped off, we’re several days out from the last storm, and that last snow fell on a strong snowpack, we’re ready to start stepping out a bit today.” The mindset is more than just a terrain-use strategy, it affects everything: our terrain use, group management, observations, and the level of detail required for the plan.

To reinforce the group’s mindset, agree on rules of engagement as a team. Look at it like a contract. “We agree to decide together, travel together, respect all opinions and anyone can veto.”

Within the mindset spectrum, you have the status quo, where what you did yesterday should work again today. Then you have days where you are willing to either step beyond the status quo, and days where the group agrees to step back. Sometimes you can’t buy an avalanche and it’s open season. Other times conditions are simply too dangerous or uncertain and you’re entrenched in the need for being utterly conservative. If you don’t verbalize the mindset and agree on where that line is, you’ll have conflict all day long.

Agree on Rules of Engagement
To reinforce the group’s mindset, agree on rules of engagement as a team. Look at it like a contract. “We agree to decide together, travel together, respect all opinions and anyone can veto.”

Make a Plan
For the plan, we want to answer the questions: What’s the threat? Where’s the threat? And how dangerous is the threat? If we can anticipate the personal consequence, then we can plan a terrain-use strategy to avoid the problem.
The avalanche advisory provides a common starting point, where patterns of avalanche problems are described on the mountain range scale, using icons to represent the character of the problem, their expected size, and an overall likelihood of avalanche encounters. The challenge then becomes relating the general guidance to the specific avalanche threat on a given slope.

Terrain photos have become such a huge part of our teaching these days. You can carry your own photo atlas or an iPhone photo you took on a sunny day, and most of the guidebooks in Colorado these days are picture books. Terrain images really improve our ability to communicate and see terrain as part of your plan, as well as how it fits the pattern.


Given the problem pattern the forecasters identify in a generic sense, you can relate that to your local terrain that’s off limits. That gives you power to apply your plan to specific terrain, and find terrain that does not fit the pattern. Conversely, if you pick the terrain you want to ski first, you’ll just be trying to find evidence that supports what you want to do in the first place.



To plan and communicate your strategy down to the slope scale, use terrain imagery. Terrain photos have become such a huge part of our teaching these days. You can carry your own photo atlas or an iPhone photo you took on a sunny day, and most of the guidebooks in Colorado these days are picture books. Terrain images really improve our ability to communicate and see terrain as part of your plan, as well as how it fits the pattern. Now you can start opening and closing terrain, and everyone is perfectly clear which terrain to avoid. The group stands around and puts x’s on their photo, and says, “No matter how good it looks when we get up there, we’re not going to go in there.” Once people get into the terrain, it’s easy to ignore the plan if it’s conceptual, so the visual tool really locks in options that are open for the day.



Black, White…and Yellow

Some slopes are not exactly black or white, so we use yellow. But yellow is dangerous because it gets misapplied when you hedge your bets, to simply note terrain where you are uncertain of the consequence. Conversely, waiting to decide when we get there lets the human factor take over, instead of having predetermined opened or closed terrain. The way we use yellow is we define certain criteria, and identify thresholds that group can agree on. For instance, it might be that if we get to Glory Bowl and see the cornice has already dropped, then it’s open. Or maybe, if we get there and there’s not more than six inches of fresh, then we’ll call it open. We encourage Level 1 students to use open and closed because they don’t often have the tools to judge the yellow. 


Anticipate checkpoints
These checkpoints are places where we conscientiously engage our situational awareness. “Is anything different than we expected? Is the plan on track?” If the plan is materializing as anticipated and consensus is that all is well, then carry on. If not, then step back to a more conservative option. If things are better than planned, exercise a 24-hour rule where you can open the terrain for tomorrow based on what you now know, but don’t ever reverse your planned terrain closures that same day. In the AIARE curriculum, we have a communication checklist designed to help steer the conversation at these checkpoints in the right direction. The key is to visualize the destructive potential to you if the slope slides, then set agreed-upon boundaries or margins in the terrain between you and where an avalanche might occur.

Review the Day
Review what happened during the day if you want to get any better at this stuff. Ask how well we anticipated the conditions? Ask whether we got lucky, or whether our mindset and strategy worked? If all we ever do is clink beers and say, ‘Yeah dude, nobody died,’ we won’t learn anything. Five years of quality experience will serve you way better than 20 years of making the same mistakes.