Addressing Human Factors in Avalanche Accidents

This post originally appeared on the University of Utah’s U-EXPLORE blog. Win an alpine touring rental package from Outdoor Adventures—register here.

“The truth is,” started U-EXPLORE instructor Josh Beckner, “that what goes on in a snowpack is relatively straightforward compared to the decision to ski or not ski a slope.”

Avalanches occur due to a number of factors, most salient are the weather, terrain and the snowpack. “But humans observe each of these things through a biased lens. Our desire to ski awesome terrain and fluffy north-facing aspects can be so significant that it overwhelms our ability to make safe decisions.”

University of Utah Avalanche Safety Course

To address the tendency for humans to fit the facts to their motives, researcher Ian McCammon developed a set of human factors, labelled FACETS, to help backcountry users to assess their own conscious or unconscious motivations. Each letter in the FACETS mnemonic corresponds with a human factor that can bias our otherwise excellent judgement.

Familiarity refers to an individual’s use of past experiences to make decisions within present situations in familiar terrain.

Acceptance represents the tendency of individuals to engage in activities they feel will be approved by their peers or those whom they hope to impress.

Consistency is the propensity for someone to stick with prearranged decisions – those often focused on timelines, routes and descents (e.g., summit fever). Consistency can also refer to attachment to a self or group image.

The expert halo describes how individuals in a group may rely on the decisions of those perceived to have more experience, skill, knowledge or assertion (i.e., perceived experts).

Scarcity, also known as “powder fever,” is ignoring potential risks or concerns in favor of experiencing finite resources, in this case “first tracks” on un-skied or freshly fallen snow.

Finally, “tracks” (or, social facilitation) is someone’s tendency to decrease or increase the amount of risk he or she is willing to undertake depending on the presence of other group members.

These six heuristic traps are commonly known by the acronym FACETS with the “t” representing “first tracks” in place of scarcity (McCammon, 2004b; Zajchowski, Brownlee, and Furman, In Press).

F: Familiarity. “I’ve skied this slope before and it hasn’t avalanched, thus it must be stable this time.”

A: Acceptance. “If I shred this sweet line right now then my buddies will be impressed.”

C: Consistency. “I made plans to ski the south face of Superior, told several folks my plans and don’t want to alter them.”

E: Expert Halo. “I am concerned about the slope stability, but since my ski partner has her Avalanche 2 certification and doesn’t seem concerned, then it must be OK.”

T: Tracks (scarcity). “The powder is so good today, I’m going to ski this slope because it’s awesome, even though I have concerns in the back of my head.”

S: Social facilitation. “I don’t want to appear like I’m afraid in front of my friends, so I’m going to stick with their decisions.”

U-EXPLORE Avalanche Awareness

Each of these human factors can bias backcountry skiers against making informed and conservative decisions. “With tools like the Utah Avalanche Center, route-planning applications like Avanet, and forecasting websites like weather.gov, we have enough information to avoid many avalanche accidents and fatalities,” Beckner states. “It’s through better awareness of our human biases that we’ll be able to be safer backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.”

U-EXPLORE offers several avalanche education courses each year. These courses are pegged to the curriculum standards of the American Avalanche Association (AAA). If you’re interested in signing up for a U-EXPLORE avalanche course, follow the link to our snow-based courses.