A new project co-headed by the director of the Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State University in Bozeman, Jordy Hendrikx, and researchers in Norway and MSU, is looking to dissect the decisions we make while skiing in the backcountry and the associated risks that come with those decisions. White Heat Tracks, which began collecting data in January, seeks to address why skiers make the decisions in the backcountry.
"What's really cool about this project is that rather than just being snow scientists, we've started working with professor Andrea Mannburg, who's a behavioral economist," says Hendrikx. "What's unique about our study is that we're looking at decision making in avalanche terrain through somewhat of an economic lens, where everything can be measured in some sort of cost or consequence. In this case it's not cost of money, but the cost of opportunity, not getting the powder, or missing out on an experience."
Piggybacking off their previous project, SkiTracks, a GPS-based smartphone app that allowed users to track where and when they skied in the backcountry, the team is now looking to answer a bigger question: Why?
"With SkiTracks we found out a lot of good information about where people go, who they go with, how often they go and so forth," says Hendrikx. "But the piece of the puzzle that is missing is the 'Why?' That's what this project is really trying to dive into, finding out why people take the types of risks and make the type of terrain choices they do."
To find this missing piece of the puzzle, Hendrikx and his team have developed an online survey built to mimic a day in the backcountry. After asking a few questions about the user's ski preferences, they are presented with a variety of different scenarios to work through. They are given the forecast, snow conditions, and some photos of the proposed terrain, and then asked where they would ski, and why.
Hendrikx says one of the biggest obstacles we face when studying behavior in the backcountry is that we tend to only look at fatality data and not the actions of the vast majority that make it through a day in the backcountry with no accidents. "We know that most times we go into the backcountry we don't die. Most of the time we go out, we have a great day and get home safely," says Hendrikx. "The problem is, we never know how often we get really, really close to making a bad decision."
Hendrikx hopes the White Heat Tracks project can fill in the gaps. By studying the actions of everyday backcountry users, he hopes to be able to understand why people make the decisions they do, and in turn highlight them in future snow safety and education classes.
"We spend weeks and weeks doing avalanche classes and learning about avalanche terrain and digging snow pits doing transceiver checks," said Hendrikx. "Which is fantastic, but we rarely practice decision making. We never put ourselves in those tough situations until we're already in them."
While still only in its first few months, Hendrikx says the feedback so far from the survey has been positive. "We're seeing that people are excited about the kinds of questions we're asking. People are really latching onto the importance of making decisions in a group, as well as social media and its impact on decision making."
The White Heat Tracks survey can be found here, and should only take between 20-30 minutes to complete. Hendrikx hopes that in spreading the word about their project, they can gather data from as diverse a group as possible—including everyone from novice skiers to professional ski guides—to best understand the decisions we all make while skiing and encourage a safe future for all backcountry users.