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!