Manage Your Human Factor in Avalanche Terrain
I've never been caught in avalanche. Maybe it's because I'm good at mountain travel. Maybe it's because I maintain a healthy margin for error. Maybe it's luck. In any case, I work hard to avoid avalanches. I'm in the snowy mountains most of the winter. The odds are against me. One of the things I work at is my own system for avoiding avalanches.
My system is a method for avoiding avalanches that addresses my personal human factors—the seemingly silly mistakes I make in avalanche terrain despite how much I know about avalanches. My system is rigid. I follow it every time I ski, but it evolves year to year as my human factors change.
Target your own human factors with your system.
A system is a set of principles or procedures used to achieve a goal—in this case, avalanche avoidance. Avalanche professionals who work in large operations like ski patrol or Canadian heli ski services use a time-tested system that keeps them relatively safe day after day in a high-risk environment. These systems work well in operational settings, but they do not target individual human factors.
Ski guide and avalanche instructor Sarah Carpenter says, on Wildsnow.com, that recreational skiers should model their daily routine after snow professionals, who often follow these nine steps:
Check the avalanche forecast every day.
Follow the weather.
Track avalanche activity.
Plan before you leave the house.
Have an opinion.
Adjust your plan if conditions are different than you anticipated.
Report your observations.
Review your tour at the end of the day.
In Avalanche Essentials, Bruce Tremper says that the system for avalanche safety includes:
Have trip plans.
Know what kind of avalanches you are dealing with.
Know what the avalanche pattern is.
Choose safe terrain based on those patterns.
Know how to travel on the terrain.
Know what to do if things go wrong.
Comparing these two lists, we can see some components of an avalanche-avoidance system are essential, such as planning. Through years of practice, most elements of Carpenter and Tremper's systems have become second nature to me. But even if I adhere to these systems, an avalanche could get me through one of my own human factors. Factors not shared by all avalanche professionals.
To address your human factors, develop a personalized system that incorporates what avalanche researcher Ian McCammon calls your disaster factors—human factors that are most likely to kill you in avalanche terrain. If you know your disaster factors, you can target those issues with your system. Your system builds onto, rather than replaces, generalized systems like Tremper's and Carpenter's. By consistently practicing each step in your system, you will learn to mitigate your human factors, and you can stay alive longer.
As you gain experience, knowledge and maturity, your system will evolve. Tweak it at the beginning of each season. A few years ago, for example, I added "Look for reasons to turn around" to my system as a way to mitigate my goal-obsession on personal trips. After working on that disaster factor, I felt I'd mostly overcome it, and I removed it from my system. Last year I considered my disaster factor of becoming too engrossed in pleasing ski clients. I wanted every client to say, "That was the best day of skiing in my life!" To address this, I reminded myself of the guiding priorities: "number one is safety, number two is achieving the objective and number three is having fun."
My 2015/16 system for avalanche avoidance focuses on guiding. It ensures that I’ve done as much as possible to keep my clients and myself safe in avalanche terrain. I follow this system every time I guide. Remember, it is an evolving system that targets my human factors that I'm working on now.
Joe's System for Avalanche Avoidance, January 2016
1) Communicate with Clients
Lack of communication is a core problem in most avalanche accidents. There are many aspects to good pre-trip communication with clients. These are the aspects I am working on now, until they become habit:
Send pre-trip letter to client.
Discuss objective and options with client.
Discuss risks with client.
View and discuss weather with client.
View and discuss avalanche advisory with client.
2) Attend Guide Meetings
The morning guide meeting is an important step to processing information before going into the field. Since I mostly work by myself, the guide meeting is often just me, at 5:30 am at home or in the sleeping bag. I review the weather, snow and avalanche conditions, the group and the plan. When possible, I join Chugach Powder Guides in Girdwood for their morning meeting.
3) Practice Avalanche Companion Rescue with Clients
Before going near avalanche terrain, I practice companion rescue with every client. I do the same for glacier skiing. Before moving on glaciers, I practice building snow anchors for crevasse rescue with each client.
4) Apply Terrain Progression
Alaska ski guide Brad Cosgrove first explained terrain progression to me. Brad said to start every day, and every trip, mellow. This is akin to skiing at a resort where you warm up with some groomers, hit your most challenging run toward the end of the day, and then warm down for the last run. While backcountry skiing, I apply terrain progression by starting on easier terrain and ramping it up if conditions and the group allow. Before every trip, I explain terrain progression to clients so they understand how it works.
5) Use Strategic Mindset Terms with Clients
In Yin, Yang and You, Roger Atkins describes seven mindsets for integrating human factors into decision-making. For example, when a big storm clears and while collecting information, you'll be in assessment mindset. After a few days of stepping out mindset with no signs of snow instability, you may enter open season mindset and go for it. I use this terminology with clients so they better understand our status relative to avalanche danger.
6) Pause Before Skiing
I pause and think before diving into each run. Standing there on the ridge, I create what McCammon calls a pre-mortem. I ask myself, "If this slope avalanches, what clues would I have missed?" I pick out the dumb mistakes from my imagined obituary and try to correct those mistakes before they happen. Southcentral Alaskans can ask themselves: "What would Medred say?"
7) Ski Test Every Run
I ski test every run, to keep it a habit. Ski testing is similar to ski cutting done by ski patrollers, but different. You're not trying to start an avalanche. Rather you're starting the run defensively with a couple zig-zags, aiming toward your escape route just in case the slope does release. As Larry Goldie explains in Off Piste, a ski test is "one last test before we fully commit to the slope.... a tool … used to further minimize the risk while skiing."
What are your human factors? What is your system to address those human factors? Write it down on your coffee cup. Stick to it. And let it evolve.
Morning Meeting, The Importance of a Clear Plan and Conditions Dialogue, by Larry Goldie, Off Piste, October 2015.
Avalanche Essentials, by Bruce Tremper, Mountaineers Books.
The Daily Rituals of Avalanche Professionals, by Sarah Carpenter.
Yin, Yang and You, by Roger Atkins. Proceedings of the 2014 ISSW, pages 210-217.
A Question of Risk, by Drew Hardesty, blackdiamondequipment.com.
Decision Making in the Wild, NOLS, by Ian McCammon, May 18, 2015.
The Biggest Secret Your Avalanche Instructor Never Mentioned: The Ski Cut, by Larry Goldie, Off Piste, December 2013, pages 20-21.
Mountain Skills: Be Ready with Team and Routine, by Brennan LaGasse, Backcountry, January 2016.