Mountain Rescue: Assessing the human factor in avalanches
February 17, 2015
"Yeah, but a mistake is a mistake even if you get away with it."
— Ed Viesturs
I first heard of the human factor at the Summit County Avalanche Seminar a dozen or more years ago. The speaker in the advanced track spoke about how human factors and decision making were being recognized by avalanche professionals as major contributors to avalanche accidents.
This was relatively new information. My friend Dale Atkins, who was with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at the time, had recently published a paper titled "Human Factors in Avalanche Accidents," which proposed that human errors were the primary factors in avalanche fatalities, especially when the victims were knowledgeable and experienced.
So what are these "human factors" that can be more dangerous than terrain, weather and snowpack? Here's a short list:
• Familiarity: Risks are easily justified when you have taken them before.
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• Peer pressure: Seeking acceptance from friends, showing off.
• Summit fever: Commitment to a goal, no matter what the cost.
• Expert halo: A good athlete or fast talker can't necessarily recognize a dangerous situation.
• Following the herd: People act differently in groups, behaviors change.
• Invulnerability: Ignoring danger signs, ignoring consequences.
• Competition: One-upping your partner or group.
Turns out these same issues have been studied in other settings – mountaineering, industry, finance, aeronautics. Human factors are simply your brain following the shortest route toward an end result, sometimes with dire results. Especially where avalanches are concerned.
These behaviors cause people to do things they know are unsafe. Poor decisions are made, shortcuts are taken. Beacons are left in the car because it's the first snow of the season. Groups will ski together on a steep slope, instead of travelling one by one. Tracks will appear on slopes or aspects with obviously high or extreme avalanche danger. Avalungs and airbags give riders a false sense of security, enabling risky behavior.
What can you do to avoid the pitfalls of the human factor? After all, you're only human.
Routine is one answer. Once you develop a safety routine, stick with it. Insist that your partners participate.
Approach situations with a questioning attitude. Is it really safe? Who says? Why? Reach a consensus among the group. Do not be afraid to challenge what you feel is a poor decision.
Make a plan, but be prepared to change it up when the weather or the snowpack aren't cooperating.
Communicate with your group. Make sure everybody is on the same page, has the same expectations.
Do you ride with a partner that scares you every time you go out? Maybe it's time to re-evaluate that relationship.
Ed Viesturs, the only American to climb all 14 of the earth's 8,000 meter peaks, made the opening quote while describing his ascent of K2. He and his partners summited during a raging blizzard. He considered turning around several times, but summit fever tainted his decision. The four-hour descent was on "really steep slopes that were fully loaded with snow, and visibility was zero. We were in the midst of a snowstorm, we could barely find our way down, we're wading through snow that's almost crotch deep. We got to the top, but the price was way too high."
Even the most experienced, knowledgeable professional can become a victim when judgment is clouded and common sense put aside due to the human factor. There are two kinds of risk – acceptable and unacceptable. By overcoming the human factor you can more clearly distinguish between the two. Think about it the next time you're ready to drop in.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR. Mountain Rescue is a feature that will appear in the Sky-Hi News on the first and third Wednesday of each month.