There are countless books written on the subject of snowcraft and off-piste safety along with numerous training all readily available. But sometimes even experts and experienced off-piste skiers get caught out in off-piste incidents. With so much information and training readily available how can this happen?
In answer to this question research and training is delving further into the psychology of decision making in off-piste terrain and making as much information available on this subject as snowcraft.
Ian McCammon, an avalanche researcher from the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, USA has made in-depth research into what he terms the ‘human factor’ in off-piste incidents. He summed up his research using the acronym FACETS. The ‘six decision-making traps in avalanche accidents’. Through his research he recognised that an extremely low percentage of avalanches catch people out through completely natural unforeseen reasons. The signs are generally always there but somehow even experienced skiers can either fail to recognise the signs or even worse recognise the signs but choose to ignore them. Here are the six ‘human factors’ which you can easily remember using the acronym used by McCammon – FACETS.
F – Familiarity
When people travel in familiar places, they appear willing to expose themselves to greater risk than if they were travelling in unfamiliar territory. A “Come on guys I’ve been down here loads of times” sort of attitude. “I know this place like the back of my hand”. Of course local knowledge is invaluable as we all know but you must recognise when ‘local knowledge’ leads you to take a greater risk than normal. The signs will always be there, don’t ignore them. Just because you know the area doesn’t mean the acceptable risk you are willing to take should increase.
A – Acceptance
‘Bragging rights’ as we know them. Some skiers tend to engage in activities they think will earn them notice and respect from others and sacrifice the safety issues. The desire to be accepted even ‘revered’ can cause some skiers to take undue risk even when the signs are clear for everyone to see. The rewards of skiing are intrinsic. It feels great. It’s what you get from it. Not what others think of you. Of course most people like to share their experiences with others but if you want to stay safe then you need to make sure that signs are not ignored in order to get that ‘great shot’ or that one ‘run’.
P eople who are highly committed to achieving a goal are less likely to turn away. “We are here, we’ve worked hard for this and we are going to do it come hell or high water” so to speak. Anyone that has recently seen the film ‘Everest’ will remember the ill fated decision to make it to the top even though everything was against them. It’s a tough decision to turn back when so much work has been put in. You’ve worked hard to pay for the vacation, purchased new kit, lovely fat skis, a new avalanche bag, hiked to the top of a mountain, endured sweat and pain. “We’re here, lets do it”. The fatal decision, even when all the signs are there. Never be afraid to say no and turn back no matter how much effort has been put in. You gain more respect by turning back, by saying no. There’s always another day, another time.
E – Expert Halo
The perceived expertise of another member of the group leads lesser skilled members of the group to follow without question. “He/she knows what they’re doing, right, they went on that off-piste safety course last year”. “He/she’s been out here all season, they must know the snow conditions well”. A de-facto leader can give an air of authority. They can often be the louder, more confident member of the group, giving an air of knowledge and experience. Their leadership is often self appointed and other members of the group follow without question. De-facto leaders could be very good, very experienced and very well trained but they may also not be. Never be afraid to question, speak up, don’t follow in silence.
T – Tracks (Powder Fever)
Among the most dangerous decision making traits. New and deep snow has a tendency to make many people ignore obvious dangers. The thrill of being the first to make tracks in fresh snow tempts many off-piste skiers into terrain they would otherwise avoid. “Quickly lets ski this before anyone else”. “Hurry the snow will be tracked out in no time”. We all know skiing untracked fresh powder is like no other sensation on earth. It’s addictive and the more we get, the more we want. This ‘powder fever’ can take over all sense. Just watch on a bluebird powder day as skiers literally go crazy to be the first down the slope making fresh tracks. Resist the temptation, don’t rush, be patient. Let those skiers in a rush to make fresh tracks go ahead of you, don’t try to beat them to it. Take note of all the hazards and even when you see many skiers head down a slope ahead of you still go through the normal off-piste protocol. Steepness, snow depth, terrain traps, avalanche risk. It’s not always the first down the slope that triggers an avalanche. It could be the 10th, 12th, 200th. Lets face it, losing out on a few fresh tracks is not the end of the world.
S – Social Facilitation
“I’m not going to be the one to back out”. The pressure to partake when all the other members of a group are partaking is so great it’s almost impossible to opt out. “If you do it, I will” sort of attitude and conformity. Never be afraid to opt out. Don’t feel under any pressure to conform. If you are not happy just say “I’m not happy, it’s not for me”..
We all know skiing is a risk sport. It’s why it’s so attractive, why the sensations are so great and why we do it. But to remain safe, risk needs to be balanced carefully. We mustn’t let ‘egos’ and other ‘decision making traps’ get in the way of having a safe memorable exiting day. Take note of all the hazards, the avalanche risk, the steepness, the depth of snow, the terrain, the weather. When skiing in a group don’t let peer group pressure get to you. When skiing with experts don’t be afraid to question, to ask. Don’t be blasé when skiing known terrain or terrain close to a piste. Never be afraid to say no. Use FACETS and remind yourself it’s not just about the snow and terrain it’s also about your state of mind and your decision making capabilities.
If you are interested in learning more about off-piste safety you may be interested in our Off-Piste Safety Courses.
Notes: The information presented in this article is not a substitute for recognised off-piste training, it is for information only.
• Only ski off-piste with fully qualified instructors and mountain guides.
• Always carry essential safety kit including backpack, transceiver, shovel, prob.
• Develop skills to cope with the ever changing mountain environment.
• Learn about snowcraft and decision making in off-piste environments.
Phil Smith, Snoworks Ski Courses
Phil Smith is founder of Snoworks All-Mountain Ski Courses. Snoworks runs All-Terrain, Off-Piste and Adventure Ski Courses throughout the year where you can learn and develop the skills to become a competent all-mountain skier. www.snoworks.com