Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop 2013

Yesterday, as you might have noticed, I had the opportunity to attend the Northwest Snow and Avalanche workshop. Similar workshops occur on an annual basis around the Mountain West, and they’re a great way to get you avalanche brain back on track at the beginning of the season. While many of the talks assume that you have some avalanche education, in my experience, you’ll benefit from attending even if you are only Avy I certified. Half of staying alive out there is keeping your brain on the right wavelength, and listening to the approaches of the best risk managers in the business can help take you there.

AIARE Program Director Ben Pritchett

Below, you’ll find my notes on each of the talks, with some subjective thoughts afterwards. I’m interested to field any questions or discuss any of these topics in the comments below. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do… the snow is falling after all![divider_line]

FOAC/NWAC 2013 Program Changes

Scott Schell – Program Director at Northwest Avalanche Center, Seattle, WA.

This year the Northwest Avalanche Center, or NWAC, is rolling out a new look designed to take a “modern approach to communication avalanche information”.  This includes a full site redesign that makes it easier to navigate, locate pertinent information, submit observations, and to use the site on a mobile device.

In content delivery, NWAC will be targeting their information to 3 user tiers.

1. They will issue a simple public message about danger over a broad area, using the language from the North American risk guidelines (‘Natural avalanches possible, human triggered likely, etc.)

2. A traditional forecast which communicates details with increased complexity, identifying discrete avalanche concerns (persistent slabs say) and their distribution. Interestingly, they’re doing away with the danger rose pictorial, changing instead to a three-band elevation graphic which targets above-, at-, and below-treeline zones. This is apparently more useful, easier to understand for many, and better reflects the precision of the forecast. The old danger rose gave the impression that the forecast was more spatially precise than it really is.

Avalanche concerns will use a danger-rose like graphic to describe their distribution, but it will be a binary black/white, yes/no type graphic to allow for better visualization of hazard distribution. In addition to discussing concerns, NWAC will suggest a risk treatment plan for each, explaining how to manage each hazard through terrain choice etc.

3. Raw data will be made available for sophisticated users, including telemetry, professional observations, snowpits, etc. This year, NWAC is employing 5 professional observers to submit 3 professional-grade field observations per week, so as to have more and better snowpack information.

NWAC will continue to issue its avalanche forecast at 6 pm the night before, and the weather forecast at 7 am with an update in the afternoon. They are encouraging amateur observations to be submitted through their website, and they’ve made this platform mobile-friendly to allow field-observations in real-time.

If you haven’t, become a member now and support the avalanche center!


Parallels in Aviation and Backcountry Travel

Commander Jeff Montgomery, USN, Naval Aviator

Delivered a review of the US Navy’s risk management strategies, which are described as Operational Risk Management (ORM) and Crew Resource Management (CRM). He emphasized that though night aircraft carrier landings are ostensibly the most dangerous part of his job, they are also statistically one of the safest. Instead, the greatest risk occurs while aircraft are in transit to and from objectives, when the alertness of the crew is decreased. he likened this to the danger of skiing a technical line vs. the danger incurred on the approach and deproach.

Operational Risk Management is a briefing which raises the risks and assets available within a mission, and discusses mitigation strategies for expected risks. This requires preparation before the crew gathers.

-Mission: Where and why are you going? What are the goals of your trip and do these bear any inherent behavioral traps?

-Crew: Who is in your party, and what is their experience level? Are there beginners who may not feel comfortable expressing their opinions, or experts who might be blind to new information?

-Weather: What is expected, and what are the attendant risks?

-Terrain: In what kind of area will you be travelling? How do travel practices change based on the terrain?

-Airspace: In skiing, how busy is the area in which you’ll be operating? Are you in a remote region, or at the most popular trailhead in your area?

Crew Resource Management describes a cadre of concepts which should be maintained in one’s consciousness during a mission, and each point is expected from everyone on the crew. These are discussed ahead of time, during the mission, and in review of the mission. Their applicability to ski-touring and avalanche risk management are clear.

-Situational awareness: Do you accurately perceive your surroundings?

-Mission Analysis: Does what you perceive meet your expectations?

-Assertiveness: Do you communicate mission observations and concerns with adequate but not excessive voice?

-Leadership: Is there clear structure to the group, and is someone managing the decision-making process?

-Adaptability/Flexibility: To what degree are you able to change course as needed? What options are available?

-Decision-Making: Are you making good decisions based on the information at hand?

Commander Montgomery emphasized repeatedly, through examples of flight missions during the Iraq War, that the simple decision to turn around is available to us and should be made if appropriate. He recommended listening to the people around you and yielding to the conservative opinions within the crew. Humility was his closing theme: “The simple willingness to remain humble is what will keep you alive”.[divider_line]

Practical Backcountry Risk Management

Ben Pritchett – AIARE Program Director, Executive Committee

Risk = (Avalanche Danger) x (Exposure) x (Vulnerability)

Avalanche danger is an intrinsic feature of the terrain on any given day. We have very little ability to modify vulnerability (ie. what happens to us if the risk does occur), so our best option for managing risk is through controlling our exposure. There are errors of ignorance and errors of incompetence. Many people have chosen to become educated about avalanche hazard and rescue, and as such they are no longer ignorant.  However, many accidents occur in spite of such knowledge because the knowledge was not effectively applied. These are errors of incompetence. To avoid incompetence we have to make a habit out of safety.

There is an international standard, ISO 3100o, for risk management. Grossly simplified, it begins with Establishing Context, progresses to Risk Assessment, and concludes with Risk Treatment. Throughout the process we review and revise our assumptions as we collect information (including information about group and human dynamics). Unfortunately, our analysis of risk is always incomplete, especially in avalanche science, wherein we have limited and imperfect information. Given that our subconscious process is often fallible, it become important to structure our review of information so that we can make a habit of reviewing all pertinent information.

The AIARE trip plan card formalizes this planning process and allows us to help identify gaps in our knowledge. (Reviewed the contents of the card)

Ben also addressed some interesting psychology as an aside. We have two ways of making decision, fast and slow, and these are very different processes used in different situations. Fast decision-making is subconscious and is well-suited to environments with which we are very familiar (ex, 2+2=?). Slow processes are more deliberate, and better suited to new problems (Square root 2743?) We run into trouble when we use fast decision making in situations which are deceptively unfamiliar, but appear familiar.

By repeatedly using a checklist (He referred here to Atul Gawande’s great book, the Checklist Manifesto) we makes sure to collect the relevant information in deceptively new environments. Over time, as we use such a tool, we develop more pattern recognition and can make more fast decisions, though we should always fall back on slow systems if there’s any questionable circumstance. Reflecting on how you manage risk at the end of the day is also the best means for cementing your knowledge and for quickly improving your accuracy with fast decisions.


1. Plan: your day with reference to the avalanche bulletin, and use photographs of the terrain when planning your day. Apparently looking at the terrain with bulletin in hand greatly improves field decision-making. As a corollary, it’s time to take some good photos of the places where you ski often, and Google Earth is a good tool for unique situations.

2. Communicate: risks and risk treatments in your tour plan, and reference a communication checklist to make sure that you haven’t missed any information. Before going into the field, make a run list of terrain which might be safe and terrain which is a no-go (more on run lists in Colin’s talk below).

3. Act: In the field, clearly differentiate between safe and dangerous zones. Don’t say ‘stay to the right’, as it’s an ambiguous instruction. Instead say ‘do not ski to the left of that tree’.

4. Review your day: take a strong look at how you manages risk and whether it was effective. This is required for good learning and for developing risk management skills.[divider_line]

Meteorological Changes and Their Effect on Snowpack

Cliff Mass – University of Washington Professor of Meteorology

Professor Mass focused largely on the effects of global warming on the ski industry, ans specifically on the Pacific Northwest. This began with a discussion of global warming as a topic, and he addressed common objections to the theory, which I won’t rehash here. Suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that global warming has a significant human component, that the earth is indeed warming, and that those who say otherwise most likely either don’t understand science, have an agenda, or both.

As to the effects of global warming, some information in order of presentation:

– Global warming is not uniform. The poles will warm more quickly than other regions, wetter areas will get wetter, and drier areas more dry. Local changes are much more challenging to predict, however, the PNW should change more slowly than elsewhere as our environment is buffered by the adjacent Pacific Ocean.

-All human impacts on the climate begin around 1970. Older effects can’t be attributed to human causes. Most trends cited before that are likely the result of the end of an ice age, or with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is an oscillation in the temperature of the Pacific ocean which changes direction about every 20-30 years. When the PDO is in a cold phase, we have better snow and more precipitation. While we are on the cusp, it appears that we are starting a cold phase of the PDO.

-There has been no discernible trend in precipitation, snowpack, or temperature in the Pacific Northwest. As mentioned above, we’ll be among the last to change. Those who claim that global warming is affecting the cascades snowpack are likely confusing the PDO with global warming, as we have been in a warm phase for 20-30 years. Glacial retreat,  for example, correlates significantly with the PDO, and glaciers grew during the last cold cycle.

-While the PNW will be slow to respond to global warming, the rate of climate change is likely to be exponential. The Northwest could potentially warm by and average of 10 degrees by 2090. This would likely eliminate Snoqualmie pass as a skiing area. (Author’s note: probably also all Mt Hood resorts and Mt Bachelor)

-The best model for weather prediction at the moment is the European Center model, which Professor Mass wants to reclaim for the US. The only place where the public has access to this model is through Weather Underground.

-The best model for local weather in the Pacific Northwest is that of the University of Washington department of atmospheric sciences, with resolution on an almost 1 km scale.

In the short term, he says, the PNW should have better winters. As the earth warms, we’ll have more precipitation. However, there will come a point within most of our lifetimes when the warming exceeds the freezing temps at the passes, and we start having rainy winters instead of snowy ones. Dire. He has little hope that there is any way to reverse this trend.


“What’s the Problem?” – How We’ve Learned to Better Communicate Avalanche Risk

Colin Zacharias – Technical Director, AIARE

Colin’s presentation focused on his time at CMH heli-skiing and how the communication there is a great model for both amateur and professional snow-safety practitioners. He highlighted three key questions to be thinking about in your touring day, and expanded on these with examples from the guiding business. The three questions are:

1. Where would you go? Before the day starts at CMH, guides sit down at a meeting an develop a run list. These are runs that are open, conditionally open, or closed for the day. If any one guide thinks that the run should be closed, then it is closed. They review all possible runs, resulting in a list of options for the day. During this meeting, there are three rules:

A. Everyone is required to have an opinion. You have to have considered the options and formulated an opinion. You can’t just listen to and respect the opinions of others.

B. All have a voice, anyone has a veto. No matter seniority, anyone can weigh in, and all are expected to. The veto of any one person will close a run.

C. Decisions are unanimous. Discussions should continue until all agree to open, to yield to a closure. Leaving the meeting, guides abide by these decisions.

D. Field observations can close an open run, but cannot open a closed run. The decision to close a run cannot be changed during the day. Negative field observations can close any run, and need the opinion of one guide to do so.

He recommends collecting photographs and naming the features in areas where you ski to facilitate this process. Using these photos to discuss terrain insures that there is no ambiguity and everyone is talking about the same run or feature.

This also gives rise to a good question for the recreationalist or professional: Where wouldn’t you go? As different types of avalanche hazard dictate different terrain choices and risk treatments, consider what kind of terrain is a no-go for each hazard. Also consider how others in-the-know are choosing to manage these hazards.

2. What do you see? While in the field, repeatedly as yourself this question to check that you have identified the correct problems. What has changed from when you made your plan? If something has changed, what are the implications and how does that change affect the consequences at hand? These are communication priorities that should be vocalized during the day as information is collected and evaluated.

When we communicate avalanche information to our partners, it needs to be relevant, concise, and most of all, memorable. When you make an observation, focus on: A) Why are you digging and where? B) What is the critical observation? and C) What is the implication for the team.  Be aware of the heuristics affecting an observer under pressure who is also tasked with communicating observed information. Risk communication is more important than any snowpack observations.

3. What are you thinking now? After your tour, evaluate the effectiveness and accuracy of the forecast. Reflect on how you managed risk throughout the day. Reflection allows us to solidify experience. Think about how you managed the hazards of the day and whether your management was effective. Also think about how others are managing risks, as reflecting on the learning of others allows us to build an experience base more quickly than our own experiences allow.

Other notes from his talk:

When we assess avalanche risk we look at (Avalanche problems) –> (Terrain Character) –> (Likelihood of triggering) –> (Size and Consequences).

We are very bad at predicting the likelihood of a trigger, as we have limited information, especially regarding spatial distribution of hazards. Also, professionals consistently underestimate consequences and size. Because of this, our big power in assessing risk likes in identifying the problems and the appropriate terrain choices. Communication and preparation guide our terrain choices.

We have to take advantage of good moments for communication (the pre-trip huddle, the snowpit info handoff, route decision points). At these times, we should focus on simple, memorable communication, and we should seek opinions to make sure that we’re not missing information.[divider_line]

Conclusion: Common Themes

It is interesting to observe the difference in emphases between this conference and the last that I attended. Avalanche science is more and more becoming a study of how those with knowledge can convey that information. We want to clearly explain to people what the different hazards are, and how to manage them. We want to do this in a clear and memorable way, and we want to target our information to the sophistication of our users.

As with any study of risk, the use of checklists is emphasized. This can’t be repeated enough because if we know anything, it’s that our decision making is inherently fallible. Checklists are boring and repetitive, but they give us the opportunity to realize that we are not necessarily dealing with familiar situations.

An interesting tip from two presenters is to use photographs of terrain to discuss avalanche problems and the terrain choices used to manage them. This allows for clear communication of hazard distribution and the terrain that is green-light vs red-light.

Multiple presenters also highlighted the need for reflection after a risk treatment. Reviewing risk management at the end of the day facilitates learning. Experience doesn’t accumulate with hours in the field but with hours of reflection–without reflection the experience can be lost. It is also worth reflecting on the experiences of others in reports etc, as through that reflection we can expand our experiences beyond the limitations of hours in the field.

Identify specific avalanche problems. Decide how to manage these with terrain choices. Communicate these risks, decisions, and plans to your partners using clear, specific, and memorable communication. When you sit down for beers at the end of the day, talk it over. And enjoy it! It could be gone within our lifetimes!

Got thoughts? Observations? Related stories? Let’s hear it in the comments![divider_line]

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Category: Skiing



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