THE SYSTEM & Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain By: Joe Schwartz
Avalanche accidents don’t just occur randomly. A series of decisions are made in order for a backcountry enthusiast to put themselves in a position where they are exposed to an avalanche hazard. Our goal in order to avoid this unfortunate scenario should be to develop a system that we rely on EVERYTIME we go into the backcountry in order to identify the different steps along the way where we are confronted with an instance where we need to make a decision. Singled out, some of these decisions may seem inconsequential, but over the course of a trip, while moving through mountainous terrain, they can add up to potentially life-threatening actions.
There are numerous “decision-making frameworks” out there, and some great tools to utilize (the Avaluator, for example). The approach that follows outlines three different decision-making phases that you can use to build out your own checklist, or framework, that you can rely on every time you head out into the snow-covered hills.
Determining a trip that is appropriate for the group and conditions is the key step in planning a safe trip, and ensuring that it’s enjoyable for all involved.
First: who’s the group? What are everyone’s experience levels, risk tolerances, and goals? Is it a group you’ve skied a million times with, or are there new (un-vetted) members? How big is the group? As a general rule, the larger the group, the lower your risk level (and mellower the chosen objective) should be.
Think of the ol’ “we’re only as fast as the slowest person” adage. The trip plan needs to take into account the least experienced member(s). Finally, designate a leader. This planning stage should involve the whole group, but a single designated leader is important in case of an emergency in the field.
Do your research. Where are you going? Is there an up-to-date guidebook or online resource for the region you’re planning to explore that can help you make decisions? Local knowledge you can tap? From that route information, create a route plan. This plan should include trip times,
Once you have a good sense of the area, make sure everyone in the group is up to speed on the forecasts, both avalanche and weather. Understand the nuances in the forecasts, and how they might affect the hazard in the area you’re planning to go.
A Trip Meeting is important to kick this phase off. This can be at the trailhead, or while grabbing the morning coffee. Make sure all group members are present and contributing. This meeting is where the group should review any and all observations to that point. Have there been significant changes to the weather or avalanche forecast? Changes to the group? New information can be gathered as early as the drive to the trailhead. Use that new data to verify the weather and avalanche forecast observations from the trip plan and the morning meeting. When out in the field, the hazard can be further verified by looking for any signs of instability (whoomphing, cracking, recent activity, etc) and possibly investigating with a snowpack evaluation and testing. All of this information is used to verify your original plan, and determine whether or not alternatives to that plan should be considered.
This is the go/no-go decision. Do you ski that slope? Do you carry on to the summit? This decision requires careful consideration only possible with information collected and decisions made from the first two phases. Ongoing information gathering and updating is key to an informed decision. Once that decision is made, group management is paramount. How will you manage the hazards? Where will you re-group? How will you minimize the hazard exposure time to everyone in the party?
It is important to remember that we play in what is called a “wicked learning environment”. This refers to the fact that most of our decision-making leads to a non-event. It is only when an avalanche occurs do we truly get immediate feedback to our decision-making. This dynamic underscores the importance in debriefing the day as a group, and determining what went well, and what could be improved. We need to understand when we make good decisions, and when we just get lucky. This distinction is important in continuing to evolve our decision-making process, and will allow us to have fun shredding in the mountains for years to come.