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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of January 22 - 28, 2003

Opinion Columns

When rules of thumb betray us

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


Several weeks ago three skiers were skiing a slope just outside the boundary of Bald Mountain called Heaven. Somehow one skier got out ahead and was out of sight when the other two saw the avalanche.

The two skied back in bounds, then to the bottom, and called the ski patrol. At least 25 minutes transpired from the time the slide was reported and the time at which a rescue team was on its way to look for a victim. In those 25 minutes, the witnesses had to be brought to the top of the mountain and quickly interviewed, a rescue team assembled and outfitted with gear, the sheriff alerted, and permission obtained from the Sun Valley Company for the ski patrol to go look for the guy. Given the logistics, it was considered a fast response time. It’s also more than a lifetime for anyone buried in snow.

That the ski patrol would even be allowed to go out on this or any future rescue is not a foregone conclusion. The management of Sun Valley Company has repeatedly made it clear that the ski patrol’s primary responsibility is to the public inside the boundaries. If a rescue might compromise the patrol’s ability to respond to emergencies inside the ski area, the powers that be will prohibit any rescue efforts outside the boundaries.

As it turned out no one was buried, and it was considered a lesson learned. But what was the lesson? Not to get out of sight of your partners? To do a beacon search before or while someone goes to get help? Perhaps, but maybe we’re missing the bigger issue when it comes to avalanche education.

In the last several years there has been increasing traffic off the top of the mountain, out of bounds and into terrain that is not controlled for avalanches. On a given powder day, dozens of skiers and boarders, knowledgeable and not, are out there beyond the boundaries. Many are out there with beacons, probes and shovels, which is all good. How proficient they are with those tools is hard to know.

Avalanche awareness education, like most other elements of modern life, has taken on an increasingly technological bent in recent years. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on getting people equipped with tools to use in the event of an avalanche.

These are positive developments, but they focus all of our time and energies on the time after an avalanche. Even in the best of conditions and with well-trained people, avalanche rescue is a messy business. It takes time, which you can ill afford. It is imprecise, dangerous, and, in the end, has a bad outcome more often than a good one.

Rather than focus all of our attention on dealing with the aftermath of an avalanche, it seems we should expand our education efforts on the time before an avalanche. This is a much greater task because it is attempting to tackle the human element of the equation¾the very way we make decisions.

At a recent International Snow Science Workshop in British Columbia, Canada, a man named Ian McCammon delivered a scientific paper titled "Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents." In the study, McCammon examined data from 598 avalanche accidents that occurred between 1972 and 2001.

A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a decision-making shortcut that we routinely use to negotiate the complexities of life. They enable us to make complex decisions very quickly. McCammon points out that they "work often enough to guide us through routine but complex tasks such as driving or shopping … Because we use them so often, heuristics tend to operate at the threshold of our consciousness."

In high-risk situations, however, heuristics can fail us if we base decisions on "familiar but inappropriate cues … a heuristic trap." The four traps McCammon studied were "familiarity, social proof, commitment, and scarcity."

The first is our tendency to believe our current actions are validated by the fact that we have done it before. In other words, "I’ve skied this slope before, it didn’t slide then so it probably won’t slide now."

What McCammon found was that most accidents (69 percent) occurred on slopes that were "very familiar" to the victims. He also found that when on unfamiliar terrain people with advanced avalanche training used that knowledge to reduce the risk they exposed themselves to. However, in familiar terrain those with advanced training tended to expose themselves to the same risk as did those with little or no training. Familiarity with the terrain, in effect, negated the value of any avalanche knowledge in the group.

The social proof heuristic is the belief that our actions are correct to the extent that other people are doing it as well. McCammon found that the victims that had met others similar to them before the accident exposed their group to much greater hazards than groups that had met no one. He also determined that in 21 percent of the accidents the person that triggered the avalanche was not the first person on the slope. And in 204 of the accidents (of 598) the slope that avalanched had tracks in it already.

The commitment heuristic is our penchant to believe our behavior or actions are correct solely because we have made a prior commitment to them. It’s the familiar refrain: "We’ve come this far, we might as well go the distance." Again McCammon found that highly committed groups exposed themselves to greater avalanche risks than those who were less committed to a given venture.

And the last trap is the scarcity heuristic: "We tend to distort the value of opportunities we perceive as limited and to compete with others to obtain them," McCammon writes. On a big powder morning on Baldy, one can feel the "powder fever" in the air. It leads to all kinds of aggressive behavior. As it turns out, it also clouds decision-making.

McCammon found that groups that knew there were other groups "competing" for the fresh tracks again exposed themselves to much greater avalanche danger than they otherwise would have.

All this is to say that technology and knowledge cannot always save us from ourselves. At the very center of risk taking is human decision-making. Our natural inclination is to justify our actions, and, as McCammon’s work demonstrates, our tendency to fall back on rules of thumb can lead to disastrous decisions. What is unnerving is that our dismissal of objective clues from the terrain or weather takes place almost below the level of consciousness. We take those decision-making shortcuts before we know we’ve taken them.

Every time we duck under a rope to ski out of bounds, we assume we are going to ski the slope and then look for clues to persuade us not to ski the slope¾essentially proving a negative. Maybe we should approach the issue from the other direction: look for objective clues or information why we should ski something. What evidence is there to convince us it is safe?


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.