Wet avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine

2018-01-14 Lip avalanche in the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine

Starting late on Thursday, January 11th, southwest flow brought a prolonged period of rain to the region. This rain saturated the thick snowpack that has developed from the 144” of total summit snowfall to date this winter. By Friday night, over 2” of rain had fallen on the summit with temperatures in the 40’s F and nearing 50 F lower on the mountain at Hermit Lake. Sometime Friday the 12th a large wet slab avalanche occurred in the Headwall area of Tuckerman Ravine on a ski run and forecast area known as the Lip. The avalanche forecast for the day warned that, “wet slab avalanches may slide naturally without a human trigger today”, as well as, “the floor of Tuckerman Ravine is particularly threatened by a natural avalanche from the Headwall area.” After inspecting the site, it seems likely that the firm snowpack, weakened by rain, burst like a dam as water pressure built up in the stream channel beneath. The avalanche measured 160’ across the 12-20’ crown and ran 2,000’ with a vertical fall of 500’. By the avalanche size and destructive potential scales, this avalanche is classified as R3D3.5 or medium relative to path and capable of easily destroying wood frame houses or a railroad car.

Aerial few of the debris. People are visible near the end of the debris pile on the left.

This isn’t the first time for this type of avalanche in the Lip. The waterfall here creates this type of avalanche regularly in spring months as snow on the upper mountain melts, flows downhill, and saturates the snowpack. The one pictured below occurred on a busy spring ski day with two people narrowly escaping capture.

VIDEO: 2018-01-14   Aerial of Lip avalanche in the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine

 

Volunteer help needed

As some of you may know already, our avalanche forecasting operation involves much more than snow study field work and sipping coffee while studying weather data on the internet. Our work is complicated by maintaining the equipment and trails necessary to provide for search and rescue response as well. Not only does this equipment, need maintenance, it also breaks down or is inefficient. We have some upgrades in the works that we hope will make the logistics of gathering and posting information more streamlined, which should free us up to pursue other important projects, like more in-person and virtual outreach and education efforts. Put we need a reliable power supply to do it.

One of the current projects that will help us out alot is to upgrade our electrical situation in the cabin at Hermit Lake. We have a recently purchased inverter and some batteries to pair with our generator and existing wiring and breaker panel that we’d like to install, but we haven’t the time, or frankly, the skills to do it. If you or someone you know is an electrician and could help us out, we’d love it. Please email me at mwactucks@gmail.com. -Frank

ESAW 2017: In the Books!

Thanks to everyone who attended the 2017 Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop! We were very pleased with the whole weekend and it’s largely thanks to you all for coming and hanging out.

A huge thanks to Jerry Isaak, Sarah Carpenter, Eric Knoff, Mike Carmon, and Ryan Matz for stellar presentations throughout the day.

In addition to this, a huge thank you to our presenting sponsors: DPS Skis and Outdoor Research. I think just about everyone in attendance walked away with something, so thank you also to: Backcountry Access, Catamount Trail Association, Granite Backcountry Alliance, Black Diamond, Julbo USA, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, American Avalanche Association, She Jumps, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, and Frontside Coffee Roasters for their donations and helping us pull this whole thing off!

A big thank you to the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation for putting this whole weekend together. We’re very excited to see what Beth, Blake, Joe, Chris, and Frank do with this program and getting the kids safely into the backcountry.

Again, thanks for being there and supporting our mission. It looks like winter has arrived, we’ll see you on the hill soon!

Tonight at Allspeed Cyclery

Come to Allspeed Cyclery and Snow in Portland tonight at 6:30pm to show your support for MWAC! Frank will be giving on talk on terrain management and avalanche problems commonly found on Mount Washington. This will be a great opportunity to meet Frank in person and pick his brain about snow science and Lily the Avalanche Dog, especially what kind of sandwiches she prefers to eat. We’ll have lots of giveaways and refreshments. What better way to spend the evening watching the sleet come down than wishing it was snow with everyone else!

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Sarah Carpenter

Sarah Carpenter has spent most of her life on skis. She has been working in the field of snow and snow science since 1998, when she started as a ski patroller at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, MT. Sarah has led mountaineering trips in the U.S., Chile, India, Africa and Nepal for numerous companies. She teaches level 1, 2, and 3 avalanche courses throughout the west during the winter. She works a ski guide for the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Exum Mountain Guides in addition to being the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute.

One of Sarah’s passions is educating youth. She has done this very well through programs oriented at youth in the Jackson Hole area. With the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund up and running, we are very excited Sarah is joining us this year as one of the goals of the WMAEF is to educate this demographic. We are thrilled to talk to Sarah about how young is too young and some of the tools that she uses in Wyoming. Sarah will be giving two presentations tomorrow; the first about the varying degrees of wind-slab (maybe we can teach her a thing or two about the extreme far end of stubborn wind-slab) and the second will be about using checklists as a tool for decision making. This will be one talk that everyone will be able to learn something from.

Haven’t registered for ESAW yet?!?! Hurry up and go to www.esaw.org and sign up now. We look forward to seeing you tonight at IME and at Fryeburg tomorrow!

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Mike Carmon

Mike Carmon is the senior forecaster for the Mount Washington Observatory. He joined the MWObs in 2008 as an intern after earning his B.S. in Meteorology from Rutgers University. After his internship, Mike was offered a job as the night-shift observer and stayed in this position for four years. In 2013, he became one of the shift leaders, adding the title Education Specialist in 2014. In 2015, Mike was appointed to Co-Director of Summit Operations.

For those of you who haven’t met Mike, he has lived and breathed Mount Washington weather for almost a decade. He is an invaluable resource to the Avalanche Center, always willing to take that morning phone call when we want to dig a bit deeper into the approaching weather. I’m always happy to see Mike’s name attached to the forecast, knowing he has it dialed. Mike is also working with MWAC by working closely with us this coming winter to create a mountain meteorology class. This weekend, Mike will be presenting two case studies of snowstorms that rolled through the White Mountains on April Fools Day and Pi Day. I really enjoy Mike’s presentations, this is one you won’t want to miss.

 

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Jerry Isaak

Professor Jerry Isaak is Chair of the Department of Expeditionary Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is an AIARE Instructor, AAA Professional Member and AMGA Assistant Ski Guide. He received an M.Sc. with distinction in Outdoor Education while studying as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and has worked as an expedition leader and guide in Canada, the USA, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Scotland, Austria and the Arctic. Personal climbing and skiing expeditions include journeys in Kenya, Nepal and throughout North America. 

I had the opportunity to ask Jerry a few questions about his work. I’m really looking forward to this Satruday and hearing his presentation: Organizing Doubt: Asking Questions in Avalanche Terrain.

Who was your first snow mentor?

My first snow mentor was really two people, Austrian/IFMGA Mountain Guides Hans-Peter Royer and Heli Rettensteiner. I met them both while I lived and worked in Schladming, Austria for a year after college. I went for my first ski tour in the Dachstein Range and have returned several times since. It will always hold a special place in my memory. Tragically Hans-Peter was killed in a paragliding accident in 2013. I think of him often, especially when ski touring. Heli and I are still connected via social media and we are hoping to bring SUNY Plattsburgh students to Austria sometime in the future.

How did you get hooked on studying social risk tolerances/decision making and snow?

I got hooked on this topic after living in Austria but then even more so after studying in British Columbia at Thompson Rivers University with Canadian/IFMGA Mountain Guide Ken Wylie (author of Buried). Ken is another person whom I consider a valued mentor. His experience as a guide and survivor of a tragic, high profile avalanche accident has helped shape and inform my own thinking on traveling in avalanche terrain. I now play many roles related to avalanche education and operations (guide, teacher/instructor, researcher) but my favorite aspect is my own continued learning and personal development. As I grow in experience in this field I am ever more acutely aware of my shortcomings and lack of knowledge. This is humbling but also incredibly engaging intellectually. I look forward to ESAW each year and to every issue of The Avalanche Review as an opportunity to learn more and gain different perspectives on my own practice in avalanche terrain.

Why is the snow the best in the East/ why do you choose to live here?

To be perfectly honest, the snow in British Columbia is the best in the world (sorry Utah)!

I’ve lived in many different places over the past 15 years but I’ve just recently passed the 3 year mark in Plattsburgh (upstate NY). Before this I lived in Oregon, Scotland, British Columbia, the Yukon, Austria and Chicago. I chose to move to Plattsburgh (from northeast Oregon) because my job as Professor of Expeditionary Studies is a one-of-a-kind. I get to work with students in perhaps the only undergraduate degree program in the world which has exploration at it’s core. I direct a small but exceptionally talented and experienced faculty and oversee roughly 50-60 students in the 4-year degree. I think I have easily the best job on campus!

 Do you ever ski with a GoPro?

I have skied with a GoPro in the past, though it’s not a regular part of my backcountry ski kit (which is not to say that I’m opposed to GoPro’s, simply that I don’t use one). However, this season I’m testing out a 360 degree camera as part of a Google Expeditions project. Telling the stories of adventure is an ancient human practice. Filming and sharing films or posts on social media is another way to tell these stories. The changes we’ve seen in the past 10 years have amplified those stories and changed the publishing cycle but I believe the impulse remains the same as it always was. As an educator I do my best to engage with my students on this topic, rather than attempt to ignore it. I’ve had some really interesting conversations on social media and technology in class this past year. These conversations and my own experiences have inspired me to begin writing a book on the impact of social media and technology on adventure. The Google Expeditions project is indirectly part of the book project as are the many lessons I’m learning from my students.

 

Have you registered for ESAW yet? Visit www.esaw.org and reserve your spot. The silent auction items are stacking up. This will be one day you won’t want to miss!

Risk and reward

Avalanche debris extending into the trees, almost to Connection Cache, in Tuckerman Ravine. This avalanche followed 24″ of new snow and wind loading on Dec. 29-30, 2016.

 

I’d love for this post, just days before the 7th Annual Snow and Avalanche Workshop, to be an avalanche advisory. Heck, I’d be content with a General Bulletin warning of potentially unstable pockets of snow. But the reality is that the weather, and the climate, sets the stage for mountain travel conditions and the snow stability issues that spring forth. But, as the West continues to get hammered with snow and we skiers, riders and mountaineers suffer through our western friend’s Instagram glory, I will soldier on through this prolonged Fall gloom and rain knowing that it is best to be careful what you wish for. The days will get darker, the air colder and all this moisture from a super-heated Atlantic is likely to bring plenty of snow and ice to our hills.

I’ve enjoyed lots of good rock climbing weather and I know the surfers, mountain bikers, trail runners and other mountain/outdoors folk haven’t been lacking for good conditions for their chosen sports. All of these games that we play outdoors come with some degree of risk, to our health or even our lives. Many of us face risks that threaten our health, or life, at work. Some risks are palpable and clear, like re-roofing a steeply pitched roof, felling a fire damaged tree with a chainsaw, flying an airplane in challenging weather or climbing and skiing a steep gully. Other risks that we face don’t present as direct a threat or at least they seem more routine. Providing patient care in an ambulance, driving a car on the highway or making healthy food and lifestyle choices. All these things involve some degree of risk and all require us to make decisions as active participants, either alone or with others. We may make decisions that affect other people’s lives directly. According to research, an adult makes 35,000 conscious decisions a day. Most are mundane, like the 226 decisions about food that we make per day. But others are more serious. How do we make the right decision at the right time?

Our state of mind when we make these decisions is one of the major factors that determines when and how we live and die. It’s an awesome responsibility when you step back and look at it from a distance. I’ve been privileged to attend most of the ESAWs put on here in the Mount Washington Valley and I’ve travelled to 2 International Snow and Avalanche Workshops. Each one has sparked my curiosity in directions that have lead me to challenge my views, not just on the mechanics of snow and avalanches, but on the assumptions that I make about how I relate to those high-risk snowy slopes. This year, at the 7th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop, we’ll be looking more closely at risk decision-making. The speaker’s presentations and our panel discussion will allow us a glimpse at their world and engage risk from their perspective.  Their many years of work and play in snowy places along with the effort they’ve put forth to unravel the process, will likely shed light on my process, and yours too.

In 2009, legendary Canadian ice climber Guy Lacelle was killed in a small slide in terrain just like ours outside Bozeman, MT. Gallatin forecaster Eric Knoff will share this tale and hopefully shed some light on the incident that could easily have taken the life of you or me. Similarly, an accident in a deep weak layer claimed the life of a friend of our own Ryan Matz. He will tell this tale in a similar spirit of learning and gives us an opportunity to check ourselves. Jerry Isaak will share his approach to forecasting in remote area of Kazakhstan with no data but direct observation and the questions required for safe passage. Sarah Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, will share her thoughts on checklists as tools for making the right choice. These are just a few of the presentations on tap next Saturday.

The speaker’s agenda is set and I’m making the final adjustments to the list of discussion topics for the round table session. It’s an exciting line-up, heavy with experienced backcountry ski mountaineers and guides and forecasters that share our passion for snow and travelling on it. No matter what the weather this week, or this winter, brings, we’ll all be facing decisions traveling in the mountains soon. Save the day to tune up your mental process and challenge your assumptions, not just about decision-making on powder days but anytime you face a choice when uncertainty of outcome looms and various pressures take their toll.

But it won’t be all serious! You have plenty to get excited about. Not only have you made some good decisions so far, at least since you’re reading this, you’re alive at least, but you’ll have some opportunities to win some great prizes though silent auctions and giveaways. The new lower cost of entry continues to buy you an adult beverage ticket from Saco River Brewing and a bunch of tasty snacks served through the day. And if that’s not enough, we have a number of big ticket items from skis, to jackets and packs to bid on, and a bunch of free stuff as well, so most folks will walk away with some sweet gear or schwag.

If you haven’t registered yet, do it now at esaw.org so we can get a close handle on how much food and beverages we need. It’s $50 General Admission, $25 students and military, just bring your ID. Folks that serve on our local SAR teams get the student rate as well, we’ll have team rosters at the door. Proceeds pay for the cost of the workshop and any profits will go to the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation’s effort to educate youth in snow science and avalanche safety…we’re working on an awesome curriculum to plug into Middle School science classes this year!

Thanks to our many sponsors donations to help fund this event and the WMAEF – the American Avalanche Association, DPS Skis, Outdoor Research, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Sterling Ropes, Julbo, Acadia Mountain Guides, Equinox Guiding Service and Friends of Tuckerman Ravine.

I hope to see you there!

-Frank

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Eric Knoff

Eric Knoff is one of our featured presenters at ESAW. He comes to us from the Gallatin National Forest Avlanche Center. We are very excited to have him join us on November 11 at Fryeburg Academy.

Guiding big mountains in the summer and avalanche forecasting in the winter sounds like an idyllic combination. Eric Knoff seems to have it figured out. Upon receiving his diploma from Montana State University in 2000, Knoff worked for a stint with the NRCS. In 2002, his real education began as he started working with the Snowbird Ski Patrol. In 2009, having caught the attention of his snow mentor Doug Chabot, Eric joined the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, where he currently works. In addition to forecasting for the Gallatin, Eric forecasts for the National Park Service in Glacier National Park, helping the road crew with plowing the Going-To-The-Sun Road.

Climbing has always been a passion for Knoff. In 2003, he began working for Exum Guides in Jackson, WY. In addition to guiding in the Tetons, Eric soon found himself guiding bigger mountains around the world. The consummate guide, desring more than just guiding clients, Eric has instructed at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal. The KCC instructs Nepalese about high-altitude mountaineering, wilderness medecine, and mountain rescue. Recently, he’s given up guiding big mountains and replaced it with his lifelong passion of guiding fishing trips.

When asked about what his favorite past-time, Eric says it’s a toss-up between skiing and fishing. Fishing is relaxing and compared to all the things you have to cram in a ski pack, it’s a lightweight sport and has relativley no objective danger. But on the flip side, fishing doesn’t give you stories like this one:

All-time favorite ski descent was the NE Face of Mt Cannon in Glacier National Park. It was a first descent and special because I skied it with my brother. The face rises 5,000 vertical feet above the Going-to-the Sun Road and has significant exposure due to its 45+ degree slope angle and a 150 foot cliff in the middle of the face. My brother soloed the cliff and belayed me up. While following my brothers footsteps across a snowbridge that spanned a scary moat at the base of cliff, the snowbridge collapsed and I was caught by the rope (I nearly crapped my pants). If I had not been on belay it would have been an ugly situation. We climbed and skied the face without further incident.

Don’t forget to register for ESAW at www.esaw.org and have a chance to meet Eric Knoff on november 11!

ESAW – November 11, 2017

Mark your calendars for the annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop that is taking place on Saturday, November 11, 2017. We liked our hosts at Fryeburg Academy so much last year that we’re going back to the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center. Check out who will be presenting:

  • Jerry Isaak, born in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, has his masters in Outdoor Education and is currently the chair of Expeditionary Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh. He has traveled the world as a guide and expedition leader for both climbing and skiing. Jerry spends much of his time studying social influences on risk tolerance levels and decision making. Please check out his paper titled Social Media and Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain which he presented at ISSW 2016 in Colorado.
  • Sarah Carpenter is currently co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute as well as one of its instructors. While not running the programs for AAI, she ski guides for Exum and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
  • Eric Knoff has forecasted for the Gallatin Avalanche Center since 2009. He has guided for Exum, Rainer Mountaineering Inc., and Adventure Link as well as for the Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal. Eric studies snow with some of the best in Montana and as is such, will happily fill your time informing you about the cross-slope PST.
  • If you follow the weather on Mount Washington, you surely know the name Mike Carmon. Mike graduated from Rutgers in 2008 with a degree in Meteorology and immediately joined the Mount Washington Observatory team. He has been a shift leader since 2014 and a daily resource for our avalanche center.
  • In addition to those above, Frank, Ryan and Helon will also present on their hard work over the last year.

ESAW is a one-day professional development seminar for people working in avalanche safety. It provides a venue for avalanche workers to listen to presentations and discuss new ideas, techniques and technologies with their colleagues. The meeting is intended for avalanche forecasters, ski guides, avalanche education instructors, ski patrollers, students, and researchers, but the meeting is open to anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of avalanche safety. Workshops like this take place all over the country around this time of the year. This is a great opportunity to come and get ready for the upcoming winter with fellow snow geeks from around the country.

Registration for ESAW can be found at www.esaw.org. Proceeds from ESAW go toward the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, a non-profit designed to educate as many people as possible before they go into the mountains.

Help Wanted

We are hiring for a new Snow Ranger. The application period will be open through September 5. This opening is for a permanent, full-time position that would be part of the Avalanche Center in the winter and run the Backcountry/Wilderness program on the Androscoggin in the summer. Please contact us if you have questions.

Frank, Helon, and Ryan

 

Click here to see the application.

 

We’re looking for a new Snow Ranger….

Do you have skills that you can bring to the USFS team? The Mount Washington Avalanche Center will be advertising and filling a full-time, year round position soon. In addition to avalanche forecasting, outreach and education and SAR responsibilities during the winter and spring months, this position also manages the backcountry and wilderness program on the District. The Great Gulf, Wild River and Caribou-Speckled Wilderness areas will be among your summer time offices! See the attached outreach notice for details and email the form to me if you are interested or have further questions. -Frank

Snow Ranger_Avalanche Specialist-Backcountry_Wilderness_Outreach

Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 6

What will they think if I don’t send this line?

We all have some desire for Acceptance from our peers, and it often influences the decisions we make. This desire can vary in its source as well as how and when it manifests itself. Inevitably, it helps drive our choices when playing in the mountains. Social Acceptance is the sixth and final heuristic trap of this decision making series.

Heuristic traps, introduced in Part 1 of these human factor posts to The Pit, are mental shortcuts often resulting in common decision-making flaws that can be identified in skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and others who travel through snow covered mountains. We can’t turn them off, but we can acknowledge and actively counter these flaws. Our desire for acceptance is no exception.

The partners you ski, snowboard, or climb with are often the primary driver of the Acceptance heuristic trap. Hopefully you actually like the folks who you travel with in the mountains, so as a result maintaining their acceptance is probably of value to you. Disappointing these peers is rarely our intent, and we would often prefer to impress them. The stronger the desire to impress, the greater the influence of this heuristic trap.

New backcountry partner? You certainly want to show them your best stuff. How about someone you have a romantic interest in? Men do bold things in an attempt to impress women. While gender is not an absolute driver in this stereotypical scenario, it’s tough to ignore this glaring flaw common in male decision making. Regardless of your romantic preferences, the accidents inevitably resulting from an increase in risk taking behavior rarely impress anyone.

In a highly social and often crowded backcountry ski setting like Tuckerman Ravine, you might also be motivated to gain acceptance from people you don’t know. On busy days, this is obvious. We even have a cheering crowd. These motivations are closely tied to perceived norms of how we can and should ski or snowboard on steep slopes. As discussed in Part 5, we often look to the example others set for an indication of how to conduct ourselves. These examples might be someone you just watched ski in person, but the action sports media is another primary driver of our perceived norms. We’re inundated with footage of people pushing the envelope.

The Acceptance heuristic trap can manifest itself in a number of ways. When planning a trip, our perceived norms might influence a group to develop high-risk objectives. More importantly, you could suppress concerns about a particular plan in effort to please the others in your group. This act of not voicing a concern is problematic in the field, naturally. If you feel uneasy with a situation but don’t speak up, there is a very strong chance that desire for social acceptance is driving your behavior. Noticing a risk while staying silent and watching it happen isn’t of much benefit to anyone. This also contributes to the Commitment to a goal heuristic trap, our tendency to stick to established plans.

In the big picture, seeking acceptance can lead us to obvious hazards, like skiing a no-fall zone in bulletproof ice conditions, ripping powder turns on an avalanche prone 38 degree slope when a High danger rating has been issued, or simply hucking your meat off a big cliff. We can easily recognize these hazards, but social pressure might prevent us from speaking up or altering plans. At a more nuanced level, our desire for Acceptance might urge us towards pushing to faster speeds or choosing a more aggressive, high consequence line. FurtherFurthermore?, remember that as mental shortcuts, it’s common to be unaware of the influence of heuristic traps on any decision.

The indirect motivation for Acceptance though social media cannot be ignored. While outdated these days, the meaning behind the term “Kodak Courage” is as relevant as ever. We’ve already established our propensity to do bold things to impress just small numbers of people; impressing large numbers of people can easily provide even stronger motivation. With smartphones, cameras and direct access to social media are nearly everywhere we go. It’s tough to not record your backcountry exploits.

With potentially wide ranging sources from which we seek approval, countering the Acceptance heuristic trap requires a diverse approach. First, as always, we must acknowledge that this heuristic trap does indeed influence us, that none of us are immune to it. Second, seek to identify your specific source or sources of social pressure. Constantly question your motivation to travel in the mountains, particularly the details of how and where you like to travel. Chances are you’re not motivated by the experience alone. You probably want others to know about your Dodge’s Drop descent.

Prior to a trip, consider who you plan to travel with and associated social dynamics. Have you skied in the backcountry with them before, or are they new partners? Is it a date? It’s crucial to understand their acceptable level of risk and how it might affect yours. Accordingly, be aware of your motivation to impress these people. As plans formulate, consider the inspiration of the trip, or if you’re motivated by the photos or video that you’ll post to social media.

In the field is when your decision making flaws will play out, and these themes continue. Question how and where you are actually travelling. Are you going along with an uphill route because you don’t want to be the one to second guess another’s decision? The same can be said for the descent, or even where you take breaks. If the alarm bells are going off in your head, but you say nothing, your desire for acceptance is probably at play. Accordingly, consider your group’s communication. If limited or without much meaningful discussion of present hazards, this should serve as a warning sign. Finally, is there a camera, and what potential audience might you be trying to impress with your bold actions?

Our desire for Acceptance is just one of the six F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps, each with the potential to make or break your day or even life when you ski, snowboard, or climb in the backcountry. Familiarity addresses the potential for hazards to go unnoticed when we’re in terrain we know well. Acceptance from our social peers can lead to excessively bold action. Commitment to a goal can limit ability to realize safer options. Blind trust in a more experienced partner characterizes the Expert Halo. The desire for fresh Tracks and associated scarcity of snow allows subconscious risk perception sacrifices. Finally, Social proof helps us feel safer when following the example of others, regardless of actual hazards present.

These heuristic traps should only be pieces of your human factor puzzle. This overall process of risk assessment and resulting travel decisions is essential to your longevity in the mountains, unless you’re incredibly lucky. From planning, to the up track, to the descent, and finally the beer in the parking lot, ask yourself and your group how you could be wrong. Better yet, acknowledge that you ARE wrong about some safety element and seek to discover it. Remember, we inherently look for the “Go” or “Yes” decision, otherwise we’d never leave the couch. One hundred percent safety is impossible in the backcountry, but we could all be a little safer. The art of saying “No” isn’t easy, but it might lead to the highest quantity of good skiing in the long run.

Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 5

A bunch of people already skied it… It’s pretty safe, right?

Well, maybe not. We’ve all made decisions based on this logic. A particular slope that you’ve just watched others ski without mishap might be relatively devoid of hazards, but what if those skiers were just lucky? Use of Social Proof to make decisions in the mountains is yet another heuristic trap:  a mental shortcut that helps us skiers and climbers make the “go” decisions we inherently seek.

This week’s post to The Pit will focus on our use of Social Proof, the “S” in the F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps. Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment to a goal, Expert Halo, Tracks or scarcity, and Social Proof are the six key decision making flaws we make in the mountains. Remember, none of us are immune to these particular mental shortcuts; we must acknowledge and actively counter them to minimize their influence over our decisions.

We tend to look to the example of others for clues as to how we should conduct ourselves. It’s our herding instinct. Often, this sort of decision making serves us well. If people made deadly decisions most of the time, the human population wouldn’t be growing. The reality is that some people make deadly decisions some of the time. When backcountry skiing, it’s difficult to discern which stranger is setting the best example to follow. If you do pick out who you want to follow, you’re slipping dangerously close to the Expert Halo heuristic trap. Again, think independently!

Take avalanche danger on a particular slope for example. The strength of a cohesive slab of snow and its bonding to the layer below it are not uniform across that slope. For this reason, certain points are more sensitive to a human trigger than others. It’s entirely possible and even likely in some cases that a number of people could ski an unstable slab of snow and miss these weak points. It can easily be the third, the fifth, or the tenth skier who finds the weak point and triggers the avalanche. Tracks on a slope do not equate to stability! The person scoring first tracks does have a higher likelihood of triggering an avalanche than subsequent travelers, but not by much.

The same can be said for most conditions-dependent mountain hazards. Often, through some combination of good decision making or luck, many people will travel through an area safely before conditions become just right for the big accident. This time of year, icefall exemplifies such a hazard and is present in parts of both Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Until the ice above Lunch Rocks comes down, anyone in that area is directly below a hazard that could easily kill numerous people in a few seconds. Lounging at Lunch Rocks is Social Proof at its finest: the more people hanging out there, the more inviting it seems to be for spring skiers, even though much safer options exist elsewhere in Tuckerman Ravine.

On top of our herding instinct potentially getting us into trouble, the presence of other people actually increases our risk taking behavior. Among other reasons for this, we feel safer around others and push the envelope a bit more. While people do have some ability to assist in the event of an accident, this isn’t much help if you’re pushing to the point of risking your life. Further, people can create additional hazard, triggering an avalanche or causing any number of things to fall down a slope, including themselves. We’re not suggesting you ski by yourself, but large groups do have the potential to cause more harm than good in a number of ways.

If you ski in Tuckerman Ravine on a sunny spring weekend, there will be plenty of other people around. Countering the Social Proof heuristic trap in this environment can be as simple as asking “Why is everyone on the left side today?” Have they actually found the best option, or can you find a better one? You don’t know their decision making process, so you have no reason to trust it. Make your own observations, use all resources available to you including your friendly Snow Ranger, and form travel decisions amongst your group based on this assessment of potential reward and risk. Don’t forget that part of the Social Proof heuristic trap is our propensity to take greater risk when there are other people around. Would you ski the same line if you were solo? What if it were just you and a friend, rather than you and a thousand other spring skiers? When will you be most at risk? Such questions can help reveal the consequences of a mistake.

Making your own unique decisions will help you manage risk, but it will also provide unique experiences in the mountains, even within the confines of a familiar ravine. That said, the route less travelled is not necessarily the safer option. Countering Social Proof by actively questioning the consensus route is only one of many tools in your decision making kit. Next time you’re out skiing or climbing, use these tools to choose the best line for you.

See you on the hill!

Annual Tuckerman Ravine Trail Closure in the Lip

 

Each year around this time, Lip becomes laced with crevasses and undermined snow. We close the section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Lunch Rocks to its junction with the Alpine Garden Trail as a safety measure. Ascending or descending through this area now has numerous hazards that make travel through this area not worth the risk. This closure also pertains to skiers and riders. This closure only pertains to this section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and will remain in effect until the snow disappears.