Avalanche survivors share their story in the hopes of saving lives 

Risk of avalanche stays high in Sea to Sky country

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY LEE LAU - Richard and Phil look towards Fissile from Oboe.

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The fact that Lau had skied the slope safely so many times before is also another key reason the avalanche risk there that day was overlooked.

"What am I embarrassed about? I'm alive," he says.

"I made a mistake and someone else should learn from this. Very often you don't hear from survivors of really violent incidents. Objectively speaking this was a size 2.5 avalanche, it's not even that big. What it was, was a size 2.5 with a huge terrain trap at the bottom which should not have been survived."


The question of how groups of advanced skiers with extensive skills and knowledge get caught in avalanches has often been answered with the ambiguous term "the human factor." Researchers are now looking beyond the physics of how snow slides and more towards why people in the backcountry make the decisions that they do. One theory explored by Utah-based avalanche researcher Ian McCammon is the concept of "heuristic traps." In an article published in Avalanche News titled "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications," McCammon describes how heuristics can affect critical decisions.

"One possible explanation is that people are misled by unconscious heuristics, or rules of thumb that guide most of our decisions in everyday life. Such heuristics work well for dealing with routine risks such as driving, using crosswalks or avoiding social embarrassment.

"Avalanches present a unique hazard that renders some of our heuristics irrelevant, and in some cases dangerously misleading."

McCammon's study reviewed 715 recreational avalanche accidents that took place in the U.S. between 1972 and 2003. The six heuristics that are recognized as being widely used in our daily decisions, and particularly when touring in the backcountry, are familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation and scarcity (see sidebar for explanations). Such theories are difficult to confirm explicitly — controlled experiments on people's behaviour in avalanche terrain is far from practical — but they do help explain why groups can stare hazards squarely in the face and still make the decision to ski the slope.

Dr. Pascal Haegli, a native Swiss living in Vancouver, is the principal of Avisualanche Consulting and has collaborated with the Canadian Avalanche Centre and several other researchers on the Avalanche Decision Framework for Advanced Recreationists Project (ADFAR). Haegli believes part of the reason why poor decisions are sometimes made in the backcountry is because there is very limited feedback when travelling through avalanche terrain.


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