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December 2004, Week 1


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Marc Chrusch <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Vermont Skiing Discussion and Snow Reports <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 6 Dec 2004 15:22:53 -0700
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Given the recent talk about skiing an avi and Matt's tale of his incident,
there coincidentally appeared an article in the SL Trib last week that is
apropos. I'm reproducing it here since it will vanish from the Trib server
tomorrow and become "paid content" (despite continued availability in
Google's cache and on the project).


Article Last Updated: 12/02/2004 10:51 AM
Inside the mind of a potential avalanche victim
By Brett Prettyman
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
    Before he started writing avalanche research papers with lofty titles,
Ian McCammon was a mechanical engineer working on robotics and machines.
    "Now he is trying to turn people into machines," jokes Bruce Tremper,
director of the USDA Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center and a friend of
    But helping backcountry travelers act more like machines and less like
human beings may be the only way to avoid the inherent and obvious dangers
of avalanches. The human mind has a tendency to make too many shortcuts.
    In papers with titles such as "Heuristic Traps in Recreation Avalanche
Accidents: Evidence and Implications" (published in The Avalanche Review in
December 2003 and February 2004), McCammon has delved into the psyche of
backcountry winter travelers. After losing a close friend he knew to be
well-trained in avalanche education, he wondered why seemingly
knowledgeable people get caught in snowslides.
    "There are patterns embedded in our humanity. To understand them could
help us get a better understanding of ourselves and what we do in the face
of certain events," said McCammon, a Salt Lake City resident who travels
the nation sharing his research with avalanche experts.
    Research on more than 700 accidents between 1972 and 2003 led McCammon
to identify several "heuristic" traps, or situational cues, that can lead
to poor decision-making by rookies and experts, even in the face of
unequivocal avalanche indicators.
    McCammon is not the first to explore the human factor in avalanche
tragedies, but he has approached the subject in a different way.
    "It's a paradigm shift in the way we think about avalanche education.
Every time Ian gives a talk I just go 'wow.' We have . . . [been] preaching
the avalanche gospel for years, but the accidents just keep going up and
up. . . . Ian's research shows there is more to safe travel in the
backcountry than just being able to recognize avalanche danger; it is being
able to recognize when you are ignoring that danger," Tremper said.
    McCammon found the advertising world a fertile field for ideas about
the effect of human factors on decision-making.
    "They want people to make a decision to buy their product and they use
the same mental traps we fall into in the face of avalanche danger to make
those products more desirable even when the product is not exactly what the
person might want," McCammon said. "This kind of advertising has been
around for thousands of years."
    Which makes it all the more difficult to recognize. Like consumers
falling for products they don't need, potential avalanche victims are
unaware they are making life-and-death decisions based on subconscious factors.

     McCammon and Tremper, both seasoned backcountry winter travelers,
admit they still fall prey to these errors in thinking even though they
talk to people about ways to avoid them.
    The mental "traps" identified by McCammon in his research on avalanche
victims include:

     Familiarity: Cameron Carpenter felt safe, at least initially, the day
his best friend died in an avalanche near Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood
Canyon in 1986.
    "It was one of our favorite places to go. We had been in that same spot
a lot, even during that winter," said Carpenter, who lost his friend Brad
Lindsey when they were both caught in the avalanche. "It wasn't until we
were on the mountain for the second time that we realized we could be in
    McCammon explains the familiarity heuristic this way: Rather than
figuring out what behavior is appropriate each time we visit the
backcountry, we tend to rely on past actions in that same place.
Familiarity can help with decision-making, but it becomes dangerous when
the avalanche hazard increases. McCammon found that 71 percent of the
accidents he researched happened on slopes known to victims. When people
travel in familiar places, they appear willing to expose themselves to
almost four times as much avalanche hazard than when they travel in
unfamiliar places. Familiarity also apparently negated the advantage of
avalanche education.

     Acceptance: The theory here is that people tend to engage in
activities they think will earn them notice and/or respect. Call it the
"bragging rights" or "testosterone" heuristic.
    "Men, in the presence of women, will behave more competitively,
aggressively or engage in riskier behaviors than when women are absent,"
McCammon writes.
    Tremper says he understands the acceptance heuristic all too well.
    "When I'm by myself I'm very cautious. Add a trusted partner and I'm
willing to go places I probably wouldn't before. Add a group of six people
and a couple of attractive females and I'll do just about anything,"
Tremper said.
    McCammon reports that groups that include women appear to expose
themselves to greater risk than those without, but not because women take
more risks. Of the 1,355 individuals present in accidents McCammon studied,
only 10 percent were female. And only 9.1 percent of the avalanche victims
were women.

     Commitment: When he first heard about the commitment heuristic,
Carpenter said it probably did not play into his accident, but the more he
talked about that fatal day, the more he realized how it had affected his
and Lindsey's decisions.
    "It was snowing hard. One of the other guys got cold and went back to
the car. We were pretty committed to making another run," Carpenter said.
"We made an effort to get up the canyon and weren't going to sit in the car."
     McCammon found that people who were highly committed to enter the
avalanche path that eventually caught them took more risks than those less
committed to a certain goal or objective.

     Expert halo: People appointed as "backcountry experts" by the group
tend to expose the party to greater avalanche hazards than groups that make
decisions based on consensus. McCammon found that leaders with the expert
halo appear to make riskier decisions as the size of the group increases.
    Individuals appointed as experts may suffer from a false sense of
confidence in their avalanche awareness skills even if they are actually
quite knowledgeable in the backcountry.

     Tracks/scarcity: This may be among the most dangerous heuristics
because the desire to find fresh powder increases along with the avalanche
hazard. New and deep snow has a tendency to make many people ignore obvious
dangers. The thrill of being the first to make tracks on fresh snow tempts
many backcountry travelers into terrain they would otherwise avoid.

     Social facilitation: McCammon found that groups who met other people
before their accident exposed themselves to more hazards than those who had
not encountered other groups that day. Parties of three and four people
appeared more prone to this phenomenon than groups of other sizes. McCammon
theorizes that people who are good at something believe they will do it
better with an audience. But unskilled people believe they will perform
even more poorly. The trap is that people with some avalanche avoidance
skills take more risks.
    The question for avalanche educators now is how to incorporate
McCammon's research into effective prevention.
    "The Europeans have had some great success with rule-based
decision-making. There are certain rules they follow in certain
situations," Tremper said. "That makes a lot of sense, but it still does
not address the ability by people to justify certain risks, many times
without even realizing they are doing it."
     [log in to unmask]

     Flawed decision-making has been the folly of even the most experienced
backcountry traveler
    Mind traps
    Six decision-making traps in recreational avalanche accidents
identified by Utah researcher Ian McCammon:
    Familiarity - If the geography is familiar, we tend to do things we did
before, despite changing risk factors.

    Acceptance - A tendency to engage in activities that will get us liked
or accepted.

    Commitment - Focusing on an objective or goal to the exclusion of
important hazard information.

    Expert Halo - Placing decision-making and responsibility on a person
perceived to be the most knowledgeable in the group even if the person
isn't a true expert.

    Tracks/Scarcity - If fresh, untracked powder is scarce, it is perceived
to have more value and be worth the potential risk.

    Social Facilitation - People who believe they have good avalanche
skills are more likely to take risks in the presence of other people;
people who feel less skilled take fewer risks.
    Source: "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence
and Implications" by Ian McCammon

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