Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Hey there folks it’s been about a month since my last post and I feel like I have a CD stuck in my old 97’ Honda Civic playing “I Got the Blues” over and over again. This season has been tough and I don’t really mean tough in the way most of you are thinking. The benefit of being a dedicated backcountry skier, I have earned a lot of good days on the snow this season.
That aside, what has been tough, is keeping myself from falling into traps. When I’m out touring my ‘’low angle love’’ stashes I’m finding myself staring at higher elevations and bigger lines knowing I have skied them before and trying to figure out how I could navigate them safely with this season’s snowpack. Then, I usually step on my own ski and fall face down onto my skin track, which abruptly brings me back to reality, and I quickly realize these fantasies are not worth the risk.
It’s a daily battle that we all go through at some level managing what Ian McCammon defines as heuristic traps. Familiarity, Consistency, Acceptance, Expert Halo, Social Facilitation, and Scarcity. I won’t go into depth on all of these and will instead attach some additional reading from the man who ‘’coined’’ these terms in the avalanche community.
Familiarity: Relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in a familiar setting, most of the time this is reliable but when the hazard changes and the setting remains familiar, this can become a trap.
Consistency: Once we have made a decision about something, additional decisions are easier if we maintain consistency with the first decision. This, too, can be reliable but when our desire to be consistent overrules critical new information about a hazard, it becomes a trap.
Acceptance: This trap is the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people.
Expert Halo: In most accidents, there is someone termed as the “leader” based off experience, age, skill sets, or simply personality, this can lead to others not speaking up due to respect, intimidation, or the true thought that this ‘’leader’’ knows what is best.
Social Facilitation: Social pressure can enhance risk taking, when someone in a group is confident in their skill sets, they will tend to take more risks in front of others than they would if no one was present.
Scarcity: This trap is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them. “Powder fever” rather it’s a big storm or the lack of storms with the eventual arrival of one will make individuals take seemingly disproportionate risks in order to be the first to access untracked snow.
It is thought that only 4% of avalanche accidents are really “accidents”. This leaves a lot of room for us to improve whether the backcountry enthusiast or the avalanche professional. Some ways to manage these traps are, but not limited to:
-Good communication and teamwork. Actively elicit input from everyone, it is important that uncertainties or concerns are heard.
-Surround yourself with partners that have similar risk acceptance as you do so your group decision-making isn’t frustrating.
-Trip planning or margin setting, write it down and be explicit so you can refer to it when you have grey areas or decisions that need to be made during your day.
-Have the ability to be open-minded and reassess yourself and the situation. Recognition that things aren’t what you thought will allow you to step back before you have a problem.
Hopefully, the above list has given you something to think about and as we continue to sing and play the blues about a snowpack that is only 30’’ deep, holds 2 nasty persistent week layers, and shows no sign of improvement, just remember there are a lot of good things going on. We get to rise above the Ogden smog with some fresh air, our goggle tan lines are really coming together, we are perfecting patience with ourselves and mother nature, there is plenty of low angle pow to be had, and, in all seriousness, at least that CD stuck in our cars isn’t playing a pop country song.
For more in depth reading:
 McCammon, Ian Heuristic Traps In Recreational Avalanche Accidents:Evidence And Implications, 2004