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.

Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 4

It’s late April, low elevation snow is melting fast, and ski areas are closed, or closing soon. For many, this means that it’s Tuckerman Ravine ski season! While weather has been mixed, recently we’ve seen excellent conditions on certain days. Informed decision making remains crucial for enjoyment and relatively safety while scoring big rewards on one of these sweet days. Welcome back to The Pit and our spring decision making series!

This week, the Expert Halo heuristic trap is the focus of our series on what is known as the “human factors” To review, F.A.C.E.T.S. is the acronym which represent the heuristic traps which most commonly contribute to events that lead to an accident. Heuristic traps are the common mental shortcuts which diminish our risk perception and adversely affect associated decision making. The Expert Halo trap is simple. Most of us humans really like to place responsibility somewhere else, so what could be better than having an expert make decisions for you? Therefore, we tend to blindly trust these folks.

The Expert Halo is NOT the reluctance to voice a concern – that’s a symptom of our desire for Acceptance, a separate heuristic trap we’ll discuss in coming weeks. The Expert Halo is the reluctance to think for yourself. Allowing someone else to make decisions for you is obviously a mental shortcut, especially if your expert is providing that “Go” answer, which a backcountry skier inherently wants.

What or who is this expert? They’re usually the group leader, but not necessarily. It could be someone helping you plan a trip, a social media personality, or even an MWAC Snow Ranger. An “expert” in this case can be anyone you rely on to make decisions for you. Unfortunately, true experts are pretty hard to come by, if you can find one at all, since not one of us has a crystal ball which can make clear the outcome of your choices. We all know that no one is perfect, so ignoring your inner voice and trusting your life to the decisions of another person often seems silly in the 20/20 hindsight which follows an incident.

As skiers and riders, we’re used to decisions being handed to us, particularly here in the Northeast. Ski areas make many decisions for us. Runs are closed due to icy conditions, thin cover, rocks, cliffs, and other naturally occurring conditions. This would otherwise provide an opportunity for decision making. Particularly out west, runs are opened and closed in response to avalanche hazard and associated mitigation efforts. It’s normal for us to have some of the most consequential terrain and conditions closed to our travel.

With a few exceptions, you’re free to take limitless risk on Mount Washington. Yes, the Lion Head Summer Trail and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail high in the ravine have seasonal closure signs posted in response to present hazards, but we largely DO NOT make risk-related decisions for you. You’re free to ski and climb any snow, ice, or rock. Remember, “Low” avalanche danger does not mean “No” avalanche danger! Our Avalanche Advisories and the other conditions information we make available are valuable resources to inform the decisions YOU make.

One way the Snow Ranger team sees the Expert Halo manifested is in the questions visitors ask us. A question like, “I should be OK skiing Left Gully today, right?” is not uncommon. We can’t make this decision for you of course. If you’re asking such questions, it’s OK! You’re making an effort to better inform yourself. While we can’t and won’t make decisions for you, we’re happy to help you understand current hazards and their consequences.

Actively seeking to inform yourself is crucial to countering the Expert Halo heuristic trap. As always, acknowledge that you probably can’t turn this flaw off, but increasing your awareness of significant risks should turn your critical decision making brain on. If you have any sense of self-preservation, that is.

To further counter this heuristic trap, identify who YOUR expert or experts are. Who do you trust completely? There’s almost certainly someone in this category. If your expert is a trusted backcountry partner, they should appreciate your efforts to think for yourself. If they don’t, get a new partner. Accordingly, don’t be the expert, no matter how good it makes you feel to be held in this esteem! If you think you might be your group’s expert or de facto leader, actively voice skepticism of your own ideas. Even better, draw out the rest of your group to voice their perception of present risk.

The bottom line: Everyone’s opinion is valuable, and that includes you!

The Risky Business of Avalanche Problems

Social media has been alive and bristling with opinions on last weekend’s avalanche cycle. Rather than join that fray, on social media anyway, I thought I would share a few thoughts here from the perspective of an avalanche forecaster, former guide, and rescuer. Friday night, March 31, we received 12 inches of snow on light easterly winds above treeline. This snow created an unusual avalanche problem for us around here that differed greatly from the more typical wind slab problem we deal with so much of the time.  The storm slab avalanche problem present on April 1 set the stage for a number of close calls and for a number of different reasons.

I use the term avalanche “problem” in its technical sense as defined by snow scientists and forecasters around the country, and at this point around the avalanche forecasting world. In a pivotal 2004 paper  Roger Atkins, a veteran forecaster for a Canadian heliski operation, identified and defined a dozen  or so different avalanche problems as a way to clarify and provide guidance to those managing risk in avalanche terrain. Around the same time, American forecasters were revising the avalanche danger scale while also tackling the important work of addressing the nature of avalanche types in terms of size, distribution, and likelihood of triggering. Travel advice which each danger rating should include was also updated.

This process of defining properties of avalanches points to some critical concepts. The character of each avalanche type, as well as its size and distribution, directly affects your choice of terrain and how you manage it. If it doesn’t affect your terrain choice and management, it should, because certain avalanche problems can be assessed and mitigated while others may be more a roll of the dice. For example, a moderate rating on a slope with a dry loose problem presents a very different hazard than a deep but low rated persistent slab problem. I may ski the edges of a slope when a loose dry problem is present, with a plan to occasionally pull out and let my sluff pass me. Alternately, a big slope with a persistent slab problem may have me thinking about staying in the center of the slope, on the thickest part of the slab, in order to increase my odds of avoiding a thin spot which is the most probable trigger point. Both avalanche types can kill me, and each has a dynamic management strategy.

The avalanche problems last weekend required a much different risk management strategy than our more typical stubborn wind slab. A storm slab, which consists of barely cohesive slab with poor bonding to the layer below, can create ideal skiing opportunities in the right terrain. The critical detail in the last sentence is “in the right terrain”. One thing most folks with some advanced avalanche education, training, or experience could tell you is that 12” of new snow of an upside down nature on a 35+ degree slope presents an avalanche mitigation problem. Depending on your level of experience and risk tolerance, you could take a ski patroller or guide’s approach and ski cut a slope to release the avalanche. In a storm slab or loose avalanche problem this is reasonable, with a few caveats:

  • You are an expert and have done this before.
  • You have a bailout plan and an island of safety at the end of your ski cut.
  • You are confident that you can self-arrest on the bed surface if you fall down.
  • You are confident that the nature of the avalanche problem is such that the slope will crack at your feet or below, AND NOT ABOVE YOU.
  • If you are 100% confident in your assessment, step back and reflect on the nature of the universe and your role in it. If you have some uncertainty, that’s good. The resulting humility may keep you alive longer.
  • You are using safe travel practices including no one below you on the slope, skiing one at a time, and pitching the slope out in such a way that partners have eyes on the skier as well as the runout.

Two folks skinning up Hillman’s. They moved straight up into the hangfire of the looker’s left fork just before dropping into and triggering Duchess. Note that the right fork had slid earlier that morning which created the crown/stauchwall that you can see in the picture above the skiers.

Last weekend, it was fairly clear in most cases that folks were not applying many of the above concepts. The person that triggered Right Gully was alone though oddly criticized for going back up the slope to search for his pole lost while he was carried downslope. At that point, the slope was drained making the bed surface there one of the safest places to be. The party that triggered the Duchess placed no ski cut at all and made two turns center of slope in the drop in before the slope released. That was after center-punching up Hillman’s directly into fresh hangfire. The party that triggered Lobster Claw was together on the slope near the top and may or may not have understood how ugly and potentially unsurvivable the terrain trap is at the bottom. These are all big travel or terrain choice risks that can be mitigated or avoided. An experienced party triggered upper right Hillman’s from the top and with a somewhat formulated plan reduce the consequences of triggering but were admittedly surprised at the results of their ski cut. Yet another party in Gulf of Slides ski cut and triggered two avalanches, which they expected. It is likely that these groups were driven partly by the classic Scarcity heuristic. It is really hard to say no to 12” of powder. Really hard.

Our terrain is in itself a red flag due to its steepness. Thirty-five plus degree slopes present a lot of challenges to mitigating avalanche dangers and reducing exposure to risk when travelling as a small group. Rollovers obscure the view of the slope and skier below, few islands of safety exist in or near start zones, and choke points in gullies force a climber into the avalanche path. These are not insurmountable problems though they do require careful planning and discussion when figuring out a plan of attack. Group size and ability, weather, and avalanche size and character should dictate this plan of attack.

An avalanche forecast provides information about the size and character of an avalanche by identifying the avalanche problem whenever possible and when our confidence level in our assessment is high. It is critical to consider the avalanche character or problem as one of the most important factors when choosing where and when to travel. Equally important is to consider the cautionary remarks of veteran avalanche professional Don Sharaf, who recently studied the things that kill avalanche pros. “Don’t cheat the avalanche problem,” was one of the points he made to the audience at the 2016 ISSW. In other words, plans based on assumptions of the avalanche character can go completely sideways if your assumption is wrong. You can only get lucky a finite number of times before a mistake leads to disaster.

It’s probably useful to understand that my perspective on last week’s cycle is shaped by a relatively high personal risk tolerance which I likely share with everyone out skiing that day. I rock climb, sometimes soloing low fifth class terrain, and go skiing when red flags and signs of instability are apparent. Like some that day, I use terrain to my advantage on elevated danger days. But I always, and I mean always, wear a beacon, and often an airbag pack, carry rescue gear, and never travel alone in avalanche terrain when unstable snow is an issue. The Friday evening prior to this snowfall, while looking at low wind speeds and copious snowfall, I was actively engaged in a battle with my skiing desire. My emotions and desire tried to convince me that a 40 degree slope would be a reasonable target in the morning. In the end, reason won out over my emotions and I realized that low angle slopes would be the more appropriate and safer option. Indeed, I got a nice lap in that afternoon on the low angled slope next to the runout of Lobster Claw. Not a GoPro worthy hero run, but pretty darned fun.

For obvious reasons, I have a much lower risk tolerance when at work or when making decisions for others in elevated risk environments. I also understand and frequently remind myself that being wrong about the nature of the avalanche problem only needs to happen once, and being wrong once can kill me or a friend. I had the misfortunate of being caught and carried when what I thought would be a manageable sluff turned into a wet slab that broke upslope behind me. In that case, I only received minor injuries and a broken ski several miles into the backcountry but the subsequent reflection on the experience made for a great learning opportunity.  I’ve been involved in enough other avalanche incidents to understand that skiing and climbing are very dangerous games. Part of my strategy to remain alive and kicking is to be honest with myself when reflecting on risks. Whether I was right or whether I was just lucky is the question I ask myself at the end of every day I’m out in the field, now more than ever.

-FC

Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 2

Scarcity. Snow is our resource, and it’s limited.

As introduced last week, our mountain decision making is clouded by heuristic traps. To explain a bit further, “heuristics” are mental shortcuts we all use to process complex situations. They aren’t bad, they’re actually necessary. Mental shortcuts are often necessary in our not-so-simple lives. However, when we’re skiing or climbing and inherently looking for the “go” decisions which we prefer, heuristic traps lead us to mental flaws. Shortcuts help us feel good about doing what we really want to do. Shredding the gnar or sending that route is way more fun than staying mellow, and mellow skiing is better than sitting on the couch. Wait… is it?

While a few folks truly enjoy fearing for their lives, most of us probably prefer to believe that we’ll make it through the day. That’s where these heuristic traps, or F.A.C.E.T.S., come in. As mentioned in Part 1, they help people “feel good” about high-risk situations. We’d rather not notice a level of risk with high potential to take our lives, so we process information accordingly, effectively missing clues that we’re in over our heads. The fun you and I have skiing a consequential line or climbing a sketchy route is often because we perceive lower risk than actually exists. For the same reason, the comfort we feel when skiing a “safe” slope might not be based on reality.

If you stay home on the couch pounding ice cream (a worthwhile pursuit, without question), heart disease will probably get you sooner than you would like. Don’t stop playing in the mountains, but work to continually improve your perception of risk. Remember that Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment to a goal, Expert halo, Tracks/scarcity, and Social proof are key heuristic traps leading to flawed decision making in the mountains. We can’t turn them off, but we can actively counter them.

The influence of Tracks, or Scarcity, is ever present for us skiers. This heuristic trap is characterized by the human tendency to value opportunities in proportion to how easily they might be lost. Of course, a powder day epitomizes this phenomenon. The opportunity for fresh tracks is scarce. C’mon, we intentionally make plenty of sacrifices to ski pow, don’t you think we might be making a few subconsciously as well? Missing clues that we’re in or approaching an unsafe situation are part of what defines good ‘ol powder fever. Obviously, we’ll go to great lengths to get first tracks. With at least some snow and wind in the forecast, this weekend could provide such an opportunity.

In the springtime, particularly in Tuckerman Ravine, most folks don’t mind tracks on a slope. However, a scarce opportunity is still present: Summer will soon end our beloved ski season. It’s now or never! That ski line might melt out by next weekend. Yep, ski season probably will give way to summer in the coming months, and that scarcity could hamper your ability to perceive risk.

How can we counter this heuristic trap? Repeatedly acknowledge it. Vocalize it to your group. Use it to question your plans. Powder fever is tough to reduce, but it’s easy to identify. You’re not immune to it, so embrace it. This all applies for countering scarcity-based decision making flaws occurring as a ski season wanes as well. Carefully consider your plans and motivations, and allow time to effectively do so. There’s almost certainly an element of risk that you’re missing. What is it?

This weekend, our mixed bag of expected conditions may or may not engender feelings of scarcity. Whatever kind of tracks you’re hoping to make, don’t forget that your excitement to recreate on our season-dependent resource might lead your decision making astray. Powder, corn, or breakable crust, they will all come again. Check our website to inform your decisions, and enjoy another weekend on Mount Washington!

Photos from Sunday, March 26, 2017

Just a taste of Huntington and Tuckerman Ravine this morning. Bluebird skies but no traffic made for a very peacful sunrise.

Huntington Ravine

Damnation Gully

Yale Gully as well as Damnation have pockets of unstable snow near the top that likely reach wall-to-wall. Talking to climbers who traveled in both of these yesterda, they reported knee deep soft snow. These pockets will be heads up today when they start to get cooked by the sun and warm temperatures.

Central Gully was the only gully in Huntington that did not see climbers yesterday. Looking at the pillow of wind loaded snow that exists from top to bottom, I can see why folks went elsewhere.

Odell Gully has lots of ice a the moment. It’s hard to believe it’s almost clising time for the Harvard Cabin.

South Gully has a mix of sastrugi, old surface and few pockets of new snow. A skier reported triggering an isolated pocket of new snow yesterday.

The Overview of Tuckerman

One of my favorite views on this mountain. Hillman’s and the Boott Spur Ridge.

Dodge’s Drop looking very steep at the top

The Duchess

 

Thanks for the Support!

Last week, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine held a fundaraiser at Allspeed Cyclery and Snow in Portland. We enjoyed a great turnout and were treated to a discussion with Ben Leoni about his latest Working for the Weekend film, East Coast Avalanche. If you haven’t had the time to check out this film, it’s well worth 7 minutes. The crew does an excellent job of making sure everyone on the scene is safe and then taking the time in the film to talk about what happened. Ben fielded lots of questions at Allspeed and discussed what they learned and the big takeaways from the event. Kudos to Ben and the Ski the East team for a quality production.

A big thanks to everyone that helped make that night possible:

We look forward to events like these in the future. Again, many thanks to all who made this event possible, but a big thank you also to those who came out for the night to talk about snow.

March 11, Elevated avalanche danger and continued wind loading

5″ of snow in the past 24 hours combined with strong west winds make large, human-triggered avalanches possible in Tuckerman Ravine. As a result, expect Considerable avalanche danger in the Lip, Center Bowl and Chute. Wide spread but smaller wind-slabs in Huntington so expect Moderate danger there, possibly pushing towards Considerable in a few strong lee locations. Full advisory will be issued soon.