Sunday, 18 February 2018

One reason experienced winter climbers get avalanched.

I've watched with interest the avalanche forecast and where climbers have been climbing this weekend. I've been winter climbing for just over 30 years now and have been in, on or in immediate proximity to friends in avalanches 4 times. More recently I've started trying to be very critically aware of why and how this happens.
The concept of heuristic traps is now becoming well known in relation to avalanches. Heuristics are the simple 'rules of thumb' we employ, subconsciously, to make sense of complex information. When we get the answer wrong this becomes a 'trap' with potentially negative consequences. The bodies that study avalanches and provide our forecasts The Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland, The Scottish Avalanche Information Service and others (Instructors, Guides, Winter Mountain Leaders and other avalanche educators) promote the Be Avalanche Aware process as a decision making tool to reduce the chances of us falling into these traps. Many novices to the winter environment are being introduced to this planning tool from the outset of their winter careers. Its a structured routine, a habit to fall into if you will, that provides a better framework for walkers/climbers and mountaineers to employ their experience when making decisions about where to go in the Scottish mountains.
What's interesting to me is that I believe far fewer hill goers who are already competent and experienced are aware of or using the process and therein lies the problem. Rope work, use of crampons and axes,  placing ice screws, even taking care of yourself in bad weather are nice closed  skills that can be learnt and performed repeatedly and its relatively easy to distinguish when they are done competently or well. There is even often a 'right' or 'wrong' way to do them. Unfortunately the quality of decision making is a great deal harder to measure....
As I go to the mountains and journey around each time I go out and don't get avalanched adds fuel to the belief that I'm making good decisions. Unfortunately this may be erroneous (nonsense). I may well have just been lucky. A few metres to the right or left, a degree steeper, a little more or less snow, humidity or temperature and I might have been avalanched. But the fact that I wasn't becomes a form of attribution bias. This is where I dismiss luck and chance and attribute my success to my knowledge, skills, experience and ability; my Jedi like ability to 'read the snow'. This means I'll be inclined to repeat my actions again and again and often get away with it. Until the day I don't...

Note I'm not advocating that people take no risks at all... that's up to them. Just that we become more critically aware of what we are actually doing and how we are actually making decisions. For more on risk acceptance -including some cold hard figures- see this excellent article by Mike Austin of Avalanche Geeks

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