The Human Factor: The Only Factor

Black Diamond, Powder Magazine, and writer David Page completed a series on avalanche risk entitled The Human Factor, which I suggest just about everyone read, here.

Taken as a whole, I find the article frightening.  It is full of passages like this one: “The report, like most in the genre, is long on details about snowpack, terrain, and procedure, but short on the actual factors—human factors, social and psychological factors—that led the victims out onto the slope in the first place. To hazard theories or guesses about how certain decisions were made is considered beyond the purview of the avalanche investigator. As a result, as one of Merrill’s mentors, John Minier, said months later, avalanche reports tend to follow the same basic template: “We did everything right and then disaster struck.”  The overall tone, especially of the first parts, is that skiing in avalanche terrain is very dangerous, and that any current understanding of that danger is likely based as much on probability as it is on fact.

The article moves quickly to Ian McCammon’s six heuristic traps, a set of ideas which have almost become dogma in the 12 years since initial publication.  I’m a fan of big words, but “heuristics” has always struck me as a strong sign of social science trying to do more science than will ever be possible, something reinforced by McCammon saying, as quoted in The Human Factor: “It’s an area of science that’s in its infancy…There are many people studying decision-making and many people studying the psychology of judgment and perception, but there are not many fields that are integrating all of those things into robust solutions for making better decisions.”  McCammon’s original paper is great reading, and his six traps are as good a set of basic self-checks as I can imagine, but psychology is not hard science, and human judgment will never be ruly enough to be quantified in the way I see McCammon hoping for.

Page does a fantastic job with his examples, deflating the seventh heuristic trap of avalanches; not seeing our own actions is those who get caught in slides.  As he quotes Amie Engerbretson, who triggered as was caught in an infamous slide within sight of the road near Alta, “The thing of it is…if I hadn’t been in it, I would definitely have been one of those people saying these people are fucking idiots.”   McCammon’s work has become a standard part of avalanche education, and while the sample size may still be too small to say for sure, evidence thus far indicates that knowledge of heuristic traps has not made a significant impact at reducing avalanche accidents.  The article speculates, and provides some great photos to illustrate, how we skiers may never acquire enough knowledge to make certain sorts of backcountry safe enough.

That’s the question I’m left with after reading Page’s article, and one I’ve been contemplating for a few years now: is backcountry skiing acceptably safe?  In some respects it’s a silly question, given the range of winter activities available which largely avoid avalanche terrain. Powder skiing in the backcountry is deeply alluring, such that Bruce Tremper’s 19 of 20 slot machine analogy is absolutely appropriate. When the reward is great enough, and relatively frequent and dependable, judgement suffers, no matter how horrid the consequence. As of today, I remain unconvinced it’s a pursuit that sufficiently justifies itself. Fear and revulsion seem quite appropriate.

Watch the first two minutes:


3 responses to “The Human Factor: The Only Factor”

  1. It’s an argument for why we should be doing more promoting of BC ski-joy in the, what, 80% of snowcountry that isn’t mountainous — the hardwood hills. Let the mountains be the accent rather than the focus (of all media output on “BC”). We have half-mile neck-craning poplar pitches here in Michigan that get feet of powder and deliver day-long sessions, camping, as well as putting in long miles laterally. No avy risk. I’ve always appreciated that. But there’s basically zero promotion of this kind of scene. I lived out west (lost a couple friends to avalanche), now live in MI, and I find all turns to be tasty. …And I appreciate our gang staying alive.

  2. I’m curious to see where these discussions (and backcountry skiing more generally) will be in 20 years, once it’s a little more clear what the demographics are doing, and once some of the new angles to avalanche education are a bit more established / formalized. I see an obvious parallel in the alpine climbing world, where the objective hazards are similarly vast, unacceptably so for many. But for some reason the “is it worth it” discussion in mountaineering tends to take on a different tone — there are ritualized discussions of the question after any high-profile accident, but nothing, I think, quite like what I see in BC skiing at the moment. Part of it is, I think, that mountaineering a pursuit with a greater focus on the individual, a longer mainstream history, and a long tradition of discussing acceptable risk and ethics. But I also think some of it comes down to cultural context. Mountaineering has always been couched as a “noble” act, its risks framed as a necessarily foil for the triumph of the human spirit — something more than a sport. Skiing tends to be read, even within the community, as frivolous, hedonistic. You’d die for a few powder turns? we ask, incredulous.

    Fascinating, scary, close to home. But that Crystal slide. Shit.

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