Foolish Risk in Avalanche Country
When smart people make dangerous decisions
Posted Feb 13, 2014
In Colorado, where I live, every year brings new stories of skiers killed in avalanches, when descending (or traversing) outside of groomed resort areas. One such tragedy (the worst in 50 years) occurred in April 2013, when a party of six expert male skiers and boarders, most of them experienced in the backcountry and all with state-of-the art avalanche equipment, were buried in a massive slide below Loveland Pass, killing five of the victims. Such tragedies are particularly likely in the spring, after the resorts close, when significant snow accumulations pose an irresistible lure to diehard skiers who are willing to put in the extra work needed to access slopes that are not served by lifts. Another reason why avalanche fatalities are more likely to occur in the spring is because when heavy new snowfalls accumulate in warmer weather on top of older layers of frozen snow, they form large unstable slabs. When temperatures rise during the day well above freezing, these slabs can break loose either naturally or when triggered by human activity, and slide over the now water-lubricated older snow, careening down the hillsides in fast-moving deadly slides that can crush and bury everything (including trees and humans) in their path.
Most backcountry skiers are well aware of the possibility of avalanches and take various precautions, including: checking websites for updated avalanche forecasts, skiing with one or more buddies (who can dig each other out), purchasing equipment such as locator beacons, probes and devices for breathing while buried (the key there is not so much providing oxygen as it is diverting fatal build-ups of carbon dioxide away from one’s face) and taking courses taught by experts on avalanche avoidance and detection. These instructors espouse various well-established principles, such as: avoid skiing later in the day and on north-facing slopes and slopes steeper than 20 degrees, and with big wind-aided snow build-ups. One important principle, which seems to have been violated in several major avalanche disasters, is to avoid doing back-country skiing in groups that are too large. The problem there is less that larger groups are more likely to trigger an avalanche (although they are) as it is that a “groupthink” process can take place, where individual concerns about risk become submerged. In such a process, even people with great avalanche expertise (one of the victims of the Loveland disaster taught an avalanche workshop taken by my wife) can behave very foolishly.
Factors Contributing to Physical Foolishness
As with most other physical or social foolishness incidents, avalanche tragedies can be fruitfully analyzed using the four-factor action model that is described in most of my blog posts. I will apply the model to the Loveland tragedy and to another multi-victim incident, which took the lives of three skiers (also all men), near Stevens Pass Washington in February, 2012. Both cases are similar in that all four of the causative elements in my model of foolish action—Situation, Cognition, Personality, and Affect/ State—apply and help to explain why very intelligent people can sometimes make very foolish decisions, even when dealing with matters where they have considerable expertise. These factors are summarized briefly here.
Situations. This factor describes external forces, typically social, which make risky behavior more likely. In both the Colorado and Washington tragedies, the main situational factor was the large size of the groups, and the party-like nature of the outings. It is well-known that individuals who may harbor reservations about the safety of a proposed course of action are more likely to keep their reservations to themselves in a large group. A related phenomenon is that when a large group makes a decision, there is a tendency of members to assume that the others in the group know what they are doing. Thus, a large group tends to give a questionable decision a legitimacy it might otherwise lack. That is why during avalanche season, a backcountry ski outing should never involve as many people as was the case in the two tragedies.
Cognition. Taking a risk is obviously less likely if the victim understands the full extent and nature of the risk. In my own case, my natural caution when in risky terrain is reinforced by my understanding that I totally lack any expertise that would enable me to independently appraise the extent of the risk. This would increase my susceptibility to bad advice, were I ever tempted to ski out of bounds (which in my case I never will be). Ironically, most of the participants in the two tragedies possessed some knowledge and expertise about avalanches. A common phenomenon, however, is that people with expertise are sometimes prone to over-confidence based on an over-estimation of the extent of their knowledge. A related factor is that avalanche prediction as it relates to specific locations and times is not an exact science, and avalanche warning websites often do not provide fully accurate or sufficiently updated and detailed information. The ambiguity of the information needed to fully appreciate risk, is an obvious factor which may lull some individuals into minimizing or ignoring risks that may appear less serious than they actually are.
Personality. People who are attracted to backcountry skiing tend to be physical risk-takers; for example, many of them have engaged in rock-climbing, mountaineering, and other activities where the possibility of death or serious injury is well above zero. That is true of many of the victims, some of whom were attracted to a lifestyle that involved a certain love of adventure. While this does not necessarily translate to a death wish (most of the victims were devoted family members), it suggests a willingness to take physical risks on occasion. Another relevant personality trait that is specific to decisions when in groups is independence. Some people possess the ability to say “no” when their own judgment tells them to resist group pressure, but most of us do not have that quality.
Affect/ State. I am assuming all of the victims were sober, although the Colorado victims were on their way to a big annual Spring gathering, which gave the outing a celebratory quality that might (although I have no evidence for this) have led to some pre-celebration celebrating. Obviously, ingestion of alcohol or other substances is not a good thing to do when having to make potentially life or death decisions. More importantly, a backcountry group ski outing in the spring is a tremendously appealing and exhilarating prospect, and this makes a cautionary decision to abort the activity, especially if it is a sunny and beautiful day (almost always the case in Colorado), very hard to make. When strongly motivated to carry out an activity when risk is not clear-cut, many people will put their concerns on the shelf.
Living in the world, outside of say a cloistered monastery, exposes all of us to a certain degree of physical risk. Driving a car on a busy highway, for example, is an activity which could end one’s life at any moment. Some activities are inherently more dangerous than others, and skiing in avalanche country during avalanche season is one of those activities. While to some extent being killed in an avalanche can be considered an example of very bad luck, there are things that one can do to minimize (or increase) that risk. An analysis of fatal avalanche episodes involving groups can be analyzed, fruitfully, I believe, using the four-factor model of foolish action.
Copyright Stephen Greenspan