I was 16 when I was caught in my first avalanche.
It was April at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., and it had been snowing hard enough to cancel the giant slalom race I was there for. The storm had dumped several feet of snow since we'd been there, and with the day now free, I headed out for some powder skiing with friends. The snow was deep and light and we lapped a lower lift nonstop, bobbing through trees and coughing on powder.
After several laps in a steep, wooded zone, we decided to push farther left into a pristine, untracked bowl that funneled into a narrow chute. Green as I was in terms of avalanche education, I hesitated on the drop-in, suspicious of why it was untracked. As I contemplated, an older skier slid up next to me, beard caked in snow.
"What do you think?" I asked sheepishly.
"Sometimes you just got to go for it," he responded.
With all the confirmation I needed, I flashed a wan smile through braces and pushed off into the blank canvas. I made only one turn before I heard the whoomp, the first note of the avalanche symphony.
The slope cracked under me, like a spider web from ridge to ridge, and I started sliding. In a moment of panic, I made a lunge for a small group of trees, the only anchor on the slope. They were small but spry, and I managed to self-arrest before I was carried through the choke and into the forest below. Heart racing, jacket full of snow, I looked around. The stranger was gone, and I was alone -- but OK -- on the freshly cleared slope.
Truth be told, after years of avalanche education, building snow pits, and copious amounts of discussion, there's a decent chance -- if the opportunity presented itself -- I'd make the same decision to ski that slope tomorrow. Because even though most of the red flags -- new snow, wind, increasing temperature, cracking and recent avalanches -- were present, so was the one thing that can override them: the human factor.
Ian McCammon is an avalanche researcher based in Salt Lake City, Utah, who investigates the role that the human factor, or unconscious rules of thumb, play in backcountry decision-making.
To provide a window into this most complicated element of backcountry education, McCammon, in a paper called "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications," investigates six pitfalls that stem from experience -- familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation and scarcity -- in the context of the backcountry.
By studying 715 documented recreational avalanche incidents over 31 years, McCammon sought to determine how the mental guidelines used in everyday life can betray travelers in the backcountry.
Heuristics, or the experience-based problem-solving techniques used in everyday life, become dubious in avalanche terrain due to the unique factors presented by the backcountry setting and group dynamics.
At Mammoth, I fell into two of these traps: scarcity (my desire for access to an untracked slope) and social facilitation (engaging in risky activity due to the presence of another person).
The other traps that were absent were: familiarity, or perceiving an activity to be safe because it has been safe in the past; consistency, or maintaining the course based on an initial decision, even given new information; the expert halo, or crediting a leader with more knowledge than he is due and allowing him to make the decisions; and acceptance, or engaging in an activity we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect.
Though McCammon's research has been out for nearly a decade, avalanche educators are still struggling to instill this knowledge in their students. "Traditionally, avalanche education focused on external conditions -- the snowpack, weak layers, stability tests, terrain -- things [that have] tools to measure," says McCammon. "But when it comes to human factors, the topic is a lot more fuzzy. It's difficult to quantify those variables, [and] humans are notoriously bad at self-assessment."
While educators undoubtedly have their work cut out for them, these complex psychological factors are exactly what they have their sights set on. "McCammon and others have come up with this idea that, wait a minute, 'We are the problem out there. It's not the avalanches,'" says avalanche educator and guide Kent Scheler. "The new progression of education is based around humans -- how we handle stress, peer pressure and these heuristic traps that have been identified."
Scheler says that every avalanche course today focuses not only on what makes a slab avalanche but also on the decision-making process involved with being in avalanche terrain. But as avalanche educators like to note, teaching the human factor is one thing; having students implement their knowledge in the field is another.
"There's not a lot of evidence [to prove that] teaching people about human factors improves their decision-making -- not just in avalanche training, but for emergency doctors, people in combat situations or fire commanders," says McCammon.
Still, instructor Margaret Wheeler and her colleagues at the American Institute for Avalanche Rescue and Education (AIARE) -- the nationally recognized and foremost avalanche-education organization in the U.S. -- are set on creating ways to navigate the human factor in the oft-chaotic backcountry setting.
While Wheeler acknowledges the limitations of real-time self-critiquing in the backcountry, she believes the answer lies in empowering students with a checklist and discussion tools that allow them to constantly keep tabs on the state of the group.
"The basic thing we're talking about is helping the group realize they're doing something without thinking about it," says Wheeler, also a member of the American Mountain Guides Association board of directors.
On the AIARE-developed checklist are two human-based protocol: having a facilitator and having a group consensus. The facilitator serves as the catalyst for conversation about decision-making throughout the day as conditions, moods and risk change. While facilitators are central to the checklist, they are effective only if the group can agree on the goals for the day.
"We haven't solved it yet. We've been testing this checklist in our own backcountry groups, and our goal is to have people see themselves as a facilitator," says Wheeler.
Just as snow science will never be perfect or 100 percent predictable, the human equation will never be fully "solved." But it's through this ongoing quest for understanding that risks can be mitigated and, ultimately, lives can be saved.
However, nothing is foolproof, Wheeler contends. "Whatever system we design to manage it, we ourselves will find a way to game that system."
Because that's just human nature.
Heading into the backcountry? Find an avalanche education course near you at Avalanche.org.