15 Jan 2012

No new snow but temperatures are good for making snow.

At 07:00 at 2280 meters the temperature was -18 with 8-10 KPH winds from the NE. At 1550 meters the temperature is
-14. Relative humidity there is 88% and the barometer is rising.  The temp in the valley is -7.
Here is an article submitted by Braden Douglas. 

The Human Factor

The Psychology of Backcountry Safety, by Mike Richardson
American Avalanche Association / Dec. 30, 2011

Backcountry Safety Systems

Originally, this was supposed to be an article about human factors and trip planning. Yet over the past few months, as I’ve had discussions with people in the industry and pored over materials on psychology and risk management, it’s become increasingly clear to me that there is no separation between psychology and any specific element of backcountry safety. In light of this basic fact, it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that backcountry safety systems must be centered around tools for managing the risks that arise from our psychology and its connection to our physiology.

The first thing I’m going to propose is a catchphrase to describes risk management concepts. In this article I’ll use the term “complete backcountry safety system” to foster an integrative view of the system composed of trip planning, travel techniques, and avalanche rescue. A complete backcountry safety system uses multiple overlapping elements in order to implement risk management in a variety of different places, which is the same concept as not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Second, on the advice of a clinical psychologist, I’m going to propose replacing the term “human factors” with “psychology.” Just as the high concepts of risk management are not easy for most people to learn and apply in the field, using jargon such as human factors only serves to increase the difficulty in accounting for how individual psychology flows into group psychology and influences decisions.

From the perspective of contemporary psychology, “bad decisions” can be described as negative outcomes associated with our reactions to stress. It’s tempting to say that our reactions to stress have very bad consequences in the backcountry, as if these reactions are benign everywhere else, but poor coping skills have bad consequences in the rest of our lives as well. How, then, can we teach recreational backcountry skiers to manage the psychological stress associated with backcountry outings? The answer, in large part, depends on what we believe is really at the center of backcountry safety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach to teaching us effective proactive and reactive techniques for managing our state of mind. Proactive techniques help us learn how to recognize certain psychological pitfalls in order to avoid them in the first place, and reactive techniques help us clean up afterwards if avoidance is impossible. Bruce Tremper makes the point quite succinctly when he writes, “See a therapist. Character flaws might provide your friends with good gossip, but in the mountains they will kill you.”

Ian McCammon has published some very interesting and oft-cited research. He was curious about why people with avalanche training were killed by avalanches when obvious signs of instability were present. This just begs the question: what was the state of mind of the individual for whom this sign of instability was allegedly obvious?

The deeper answer to McCammon’s original query is of course very clear: people ignored obvious signs of instability because their state of mind allowed them to do so. When it comes right down to it, psychology is critically important because it refers to our state of mind, and, naturally, our state of mind plays a central role in our choices. Including the choice to travel in avalanche terrain when the snow is unstable.

Why Does This Happen?

Psychological equilibrium is important to us, and it is perhaps related to the body’s drive to maintain biological homeostasis. Psychology is a very complex domain, so there isn’t enough room to discuss the subject in great detail here. However, despite the complexities, systems-thinking and the careful use of framing techniques allow us to produce powerful generalizations from which it is possible to construct simple, highly effective teaching materials.

In order to develop a systems-thinking approach to psychology as it relates to avalanches, we need to identify broader themes, and we can do this by searching the literature. To do this, I reviewed nonfiction works, avalanche research, and contemporary psychological research. In addition, there were several key conversations with clinical psychologists and the editor of this publication. The review process, and the associated synthesis, identified several very specific themes that comprehensively “frame” several major variables of the human element as it relates to avalanches: desire, uncertainty, stress, and trouble.

What do you think happens inside a mind beset with unmanaged desire? We rationalize in order to justify our desires. We think that the rules don’t apply today because the snow is mostly stable. What do you think happens inside a mind fraught with unmanaged uncertainty? We speculate and construct “facts” in order to fulfill our desire for clarity. We simply ignore our uncertainty or try to explain it away.

In short, desire and uncertainty – alone or in combination – create stress. In turn, we react, and it is the nature of this reaction in the context of the current situation that determines whether or not we get into trouble. The basic neurochemistry of this response is well understood. Chemicals such as norepinephrine and cortisol shortcut our decision-making and interfere with memory use. Sensory perception is routed directly from the thalamus to amygdala, bypassing the cortex altogether. Collectively, even the most basic facts suggest that it is very important to manage our psychological response to stress in order to prevent the psychological-physiological stress cascade from pulling the wool over our eyes.

Given the ever-present and dynamic nature of our psychology – including its basis in, and effects on, our biology – instead of presenting psychology as yet another element of a complete backcountry safety system, it might be very useful to acknowledge that a complete backcountry safety system revolves around managing our psychology. Managing implies actions, and we can sort these into proactions and reactions. Since managing our psychology is of central importance to safe backountry travel, then it certainly could be useful to think about how complete backcountry safety systems help us choose proactions and reactions appropriate for the current situation.

The Planning Cascade

In my experience, which may be relevant only to the Cascade Range in Washington state, many recreational backcountry skiers prefer to go light on the trip planning. In the hands of undisciplined skiers, poorly planned trips can easily become disorganized, stressful affairs. How does this stress arise? Well, it’s quite simple actually: if you don’t plan, you might not know something. Not knowing something creates uncertainty. It’s perfectly possible to desire something even if you’re uncertain, and this creates the psychological discomfort which can trigger a physical stress response. When this happens, the stress response may be significant enough to induce behavior that compromises the application of travel techniques.

As a result of compromised planning, including its effects on the application of travel techniques, additional pressure is put onto the avalanche rescue component of the dismantled backcountry safety system. Unfortunately, the avalanche rescue component of a complete backcountry safety system is designed only to give you a chance at live recovery in the event of a complete burial. At this point, in the event of an avalanche, successful avalanche rescue is the only thing that stands between the party and total disaster.

Trip planning plays a prominent role in managing our psychology. Planning allows us to condition our state of mind in a safe, low-stress situation. We can gather information by performing simulations of the trip, and even determine key decision points beforehand. In this sense, trip planning helps us establish a healthy state of mind that can serve as a highly effective replacement for our default psychological habits and responses, while also reducing stress and helping us manage expectations.

Good habits are essential to high performance in most areas of life, and backcountry skiing is certainly no exception. Mountain professionals, many of whom possess a high degree of experience and skill, already realize that safety and psychology are, in fact, inseparable. They also know that managing psychology requires proactive and reactive techniques, and they get into the habit of applying the right technique at the right time.

It’s really quite remarkable how the psychological-physiological stress cascade leads directly to a similar cascade of failures in a complete backcountry safety system. On the other hand, it is not remarkable at all when you consider that a complete backcountry safety system is composed of human beings.

Check your transceiver before you leave home. Check yourself as well.

Additional Food for Thought

•Accident formation is an appropriate technical term for the basic psychological and physiological processes that lead to avalanche involvement, and it may be useful to present trip planning, travel technique, and rescue skills as basic activities that are highly related to stress management and state of mind.
•McCammon and others, such as Albi Sole, have noted that many avalanche victims had some degree of formal avalanche training. It would be interesting to know whether or not any of the victims had psychological training, and if so, how much.
•Psychology is the ring that rules and binds all these concepts.
•Good individual decisions flow from healthy individual psychology.
•Good group decisions flow from balanced group psychology.
•Poor group decisions flow from individual imbalances that manifest as collective imbalances in group psychology as a whole.
•Dangerous psychological conditions occur when individual numbers for desire, uncertainty, and stress are uniformly high; or when there are large differences in these variables among group members. Uniformly high numbers or large variances are a sign to regroup and recenter. Accident formation is possible under these conditions; likelihood of accident formation is harder to discern and probably highly correlated to current instability. Stated simply, psychological conditions suitable for accident formation may develop on a regular basis, but the snowpack is usually stable…and you usually get away with it.
•Sloppy backcountry trips can quickly become highly stressful affairs during which we become susceptible to dangerous psychological conditions at level of individual and group.
•Uncertainty stimulates information-seeking behavior in most people. Data sampling has a strong influence on perception of instability, and we must manage our state of mind in order to minimize unwarranted influences on our beliefs about instability.
•Trip planning is a powerful, proactive method of managing desire and uncertainty.
•Differences in primary cognitive style can also serve as a source of instability during conflict resolution. People should strive to make decisions using a mix of cognitive styles, or a neutral style should be used.
•People who are “doers” may have more problems with desire.
•People who are “planners” may have more problems with uncertainty.
•People in the middle of the spectrum may have a mix of problems with desire and uncertainty.
•You can manage your state of mind quite effectively by evaluating desire, uncertainty, and keeping an eye out for stress, including stress that may arise in others.
•Educators should explicitly teach students that psychological stress, and our response to it, creates conditions suitable for accident formation.
•Don’t teach decision-making before you teach the basic psychology of desire, uncertainty, and stress. Students must proactively manage their state of mind before educators can expect their students to make good decisions. Otherwise, our mind will unconsciously selfmanage and create conditions suitable for accident formation.
•Cognitive behavioral model = Desire, Uncertainty, Stress, Trouble (DUST). This field doesn’t need “yet another acronym,” but I think this is a good tactic for memorization.
•Recreational backcountry enthusiasts must be taught how to negotiate with each other in order to sharpen their conflict resolution skills. This is an important area for future work.
•There are outliers for whom these techniques will not be effective.
•Finally, any techniques used must be compatible with realistic human behavior.


Lynne Wolfe. Personal Communication.

Dan Otter. Personal Communication.

Uncertainty: The lack of certainty, A state of having limited knowledge where it is impossible to exactly describe existing state or future outcome, more than one possible outcome. Definition from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty. Retrieved February 16, 2011, 12:11 am.

Desire. Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome. Desire is the fire that sets action aflame. The same sense is expressed by emotions such as “craving” or “hankering”. When a person desires something or someone, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the thought of the item or person, and they want to take actions to obtain their goal. The motivational aspect of desire has long been noted by philosophers; Hobbes (1588–1679) asserted that human desire is the fundamental motivation of all human action. Definition from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desire_(emotion). Retrieved February 16, 2011, 12:19 am.

Desire is not an emotion. Desire is a feeling. Emotions originate from the limbic system in the brain; whereas, feelings originate from the cerebral cortex.

Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.[2] Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. Definition from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance. Retrieved November 16, 2010, 1:16 pm.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (or cognitive behavioral therapies or CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach, a talking therapy, that aims to solve problems concerning dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and cognitions through a goal-oriented, systematic procedure. The title is used in diverse ways to designate behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and to refer to therapy based upon a combination of basic behavioral and cognitive research. [1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy. Retrieved January 4, 2011 2:23 pm.

Cognitive Styles of Forest Service Scientists and Managers in the Pacific Northwest. Andrew B. Carey. United States Forest Service. 1997

Biological Homeostasis. The tendency of an organism or a cell to regulate its internal conditions, usually by a system of feedback controls, so as to stabilize health and functioning, regardless of the outside changing conditions (2) The ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. Definition from www.biologyonline. org/dictionary/Homeostasis. Retrieved December 9, 2010, 4:24 pm.

A Systems Approach To Human Factors And Expert Decision-Making Within Canadian Avalanche Phenomena. Laura Adams. MSc Thesis. 2005

The emotional/analytical conflict. Deep Survival. Laurance Gonzales. Norton, W. W.& Company, Inc. October 2004.

What does your gut say and should you listen? The intuitive-analytical decision making continuum in mechanized ski guiding. Iain Stewart-Patterson. Proceedings of ISSW 2010.

Elements of Avalanche Education. Mike Richardson. The Avalanche Review. December 2009.

Uncertainty In Nature, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Perceptual Distortion of Environmental Information: Weather Forecasts and New England Beach Trips. Robert L. A. Adams at University of New Hampshire. Economic Geography. 1973

Choices, Values, and Frames. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. American Psychologist. 1984

Sex, Drugs, And The White Death. Ian McCammon. Proceedings of ISSW 2004. The Role of Belief In Avalanche Decision-Making. N.J. DiGiacomo. The Avalanche Review. February 2007

Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence And Implications. Ian McCammon. Avalanche News. Volume 68.

Working with Emotional Intelligence. Daniel Goleman. Bantam Books. 1998

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Robert Cialdini. Collins. 1998

The Avalanche Handbook Volume 3. Dave M. McClung, Peter Schaerer. Mountaineers Books. 2006

Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain. Bruce Tremper. Mountaineers Books. 2003 The Role of Belief In Avalanche Decision-Making. N.J. DiGiacomo. The Avalanche Review. February 2007


AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article arises from some discussions I’ve had over the last few months with Lynne Wolfe and Dan Otter. They deserve an equal share of credit for many of the ideas contained herein. Mike Richardson is a software developer based in Seattle. He likes cookies and real life happy dogs. You can contact him at mike@scenomics.com.