This year I was honored to be invited to the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop as a guest of the organizer, Michael Jackson. He saw my write-up from last year and and agreed that sharing the conference in writing could only spread its impact, so I returned this year caffeinated and with notebook in hand.
Avalanche conferences are a great way to get your head back in the game at the start of the season and to get a window into the thinking of some of the best in the game. This year was as absorbing and entertaining as last, and I’m happy to say that the quarterly publication of the American Avalanche Association, the Avalanche Review, is running my write-up in their February issue. It’s pretty cool to be just pages away from the likes of Drew Hardesty and Doug Chabot.
Below are a couple of excerpts from the article, and you can read it in its entirety Here.
…Montana State University’s Jordy Hendrix, built on the unpredictability of snow science by demonstrating in his research that we don’t even make the decisions that we think we do. Jordy’s research uses volunteer GPS data from tours combined with a post-tour survey to analyze how we are making terrain decisions on days of differing hazard. While his results are still cursory, he did find that 26% of his results came from solo skiers, 95% of whom traveled into avalanche terrain on the days in question. 100% of these skiers self-identified as experts…
Simon Trautman, National Avalanche Specialist for the USFS, said that it’s hard to make yourself change what you’re doing when you’re having fun. He highlighted his point by telling a story about two avalanche professionals in the Sawtooths having a rip-roaring time triggering predictable but large slab avalanches, subsequently burying the highway and nearly missing the car carrying the director of their center. Trautman emphasized that our decision-making deteriorates when we’re swept up in having a good time. In this mode of moment-to-moment, automatic decision making, fun will trump risk, so we can’t count on making good decisions in real time…
Colin Zacharias and Roger Atkins added to the discussion of why we don’t make good decisions by exploring the well-known maxim that since our observations are often unreliable, snow-safety experience is the sum total of a rider’s close calls. In Colin’s words, “accidents provide us with compelling raw information, but they’re rare”.
“Your intuition is only correct to the extent that the historical reference connects the right facts to the right reference” -Antonio Damasio.
The answer, Colin said, is to be more emotionally sensitive. When we experience different emotions than we expected…then we have both the signal that our automatic reasoning made an error as well as the opportunity to change our thinking. Further, if we can cultivate an emotional sensitivity to compliment our rational acuity, then we create more opportunities to learn from our decisions on the days when they don’t lead to near misses.
We’re learning that we’re often inaccurate about not just the snow we ski, but about our own decision-making and behavior. It’s hard to change that behavior, and challenging to make our decision-making systematic. Still, we value ourselves and our partners, so we, as a community, make a yearly effort not just to learn more, but to find new and better ways to learn about avalanche hazard. As guides, snow-safety workers, and recreationalists, it’s our responsibility to continue to learn and to contribute to the learning of the community. -P
Is avalanche science greek to you? Then consider getting some basic education. AIARE is the leader in avalanche education curriculum, and I can personally recommend the American Alpine Institute for those in the Pacific Northwest.