Route Finder: Making sense of fears, goals and human factors in the backcountry
Editor’s note: Want more from backcountry guru Fritz Sperry? See the power of heuristics in action with a skinning trip to Quandary Peak, Breck’s hometown 14er.
We are only human. Our whole existence is one giant human factor: We hold dreams, ambitions, desires, passions, fears, doubts, love, joy, hate and myriad other creations of the mind. As singular entities, the world is the sum of our perceptions. Each of us has to make choices, from what to wear, to what to eat, to where to live and how.
These choices — and the results of the actions we take following them — impact our lives and shape who we are. From our earliest moments we seek to understand the world. It begins as children: We fail attempting our first steps, learn from the experience and, more importantly, adapt to succeed.
This process plays out through life in every facet, from walking to backcountry skiing. We develop our passions and strengthen our fears through the pleasure and pain of experience.
In the mountain world, and more specifically the backcountry, there is a lot of talk about human factors and heuristic traps. A recent paper by instructors at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming covers the most common heuristic traps and how they relate to avalanche safety.
But what exactly are heuristics? Webster’s definition of heuristics describes it in depth: “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and error methods… also: of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance.
A heuristic is essentially a mental problem-solving shortcut, which develops over time through trial and error. A good example is getting on the freeway: It takes practice to do it right and we learn a set of actions that simplify a complex set of scenarios. Think about it — there are heuristics at play in everything we do.
Heuristics at Butler Gulch
There are dozens and dozens of variables to cope with in the dynamic environment of the backcountry. The NOLS paper touches on some of the most common shortcuts people use to deal with these problems, including familiarity with terrain and with group members. It also points out how these can negatively affect the choices we make.
When we standardize our responses and don’t adapt to the individual circumstances of a situation, we can run into trouble. A common heuristic trap I’ve been hearing lately is, “I ski here all the time — it is low-angled and safe.” This was said by someone who then cut across a 38-degree slope in Butler Gulch that slid naturally (or remotely) about an hour later.
Oh, familiarity. The slide buried two, and they were lucky there were no injuries. They didn’t see the slide because visibility was so poor. I wonder if they were lured under the avalanche slope by the assumption that the zone was low-angled and safe. It was large — the debris almost made it to the regular skin tack.
I wonder how many people fall into the trap of, “This is the regular skin track — it must be safe.” Instead, get off the beaten path and get your nose in the snow. Be aware of avy slopes above you. Use safe-zone to safe-zone travel protocols, one at a time, with eyes on your party member in harm’s way.
Good, or just lucky?
The paper points out the most common heuristics, but I say it’s a heuristic trap in itself to limit the concept of “human factor traps” to merely those contained in the paper. We seem to need to standardize our world, from the cubicles in the office, to the grid of our streets, to time itself and how we feel the need to organize our lives. We need shortcuts and categories to get by.
As we look back at the formation of these shortcuts, we need to be aware of how unknown negative reinforcement impacts our decisions. I’m talking about getting lucky and mistaking that for being good. This can become a vicious circle, through which you make mistakes and get away with it. Since heuristics are learned from experience, if we get away with lazy decision-making or route finding once, then that bad habit is incorporated into how we solve problems. We end up making the same mistakes over and over again — until the luck eventually runs out.
Before heading into the backcountry, throw away your assumptions and shortcuts and approach each line or objective with fresh eyes and an open mind. Each day in the hills is a new experience. The terrain may be the same, but the snowpack is certainly different than the last time you were there. Look at it objectively and gather evidence to make the right choices based on the current situations. Get the training to make the best choices you possibly can.
I know it can be hard to set aside your desires and your objectives, but the goal is to have fun and make it home safe every time. The objective never supersedes that goal. The mountain may not be in condition for your objectives that day, even though it was fine the last time you were there. Are you going to listen to the signs, or are you blind to those signs because of your assumptions? Did you put so much effort into planning, preparing and traveling to get there that you feel you’re entitled to the prize?
Live to see March
With local avalanche danger in Summit County and across the central Rocky Mountains rated as considerable-to-high lately, it’s time to invest in yourself and sign up for that avalanche course you’ve been meaning to take. This makes a great Christmas present. What better way to tell someone you love them than by giving them the knowledge and skills they need to make backcountry adventures less risky? You can’t make it completely safe, as there is always risk, but knowledge is power.
The mountains deserve the respect of an open mind and creative thinking. Get the tools to put that into practice and begin the never-ending process of learning about the science of snow.
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