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!