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Debunking the human factor

The avalanche safety tools have advanced, human nature remains the same
"Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement."

— Barry LePatner

It was in the winter of 1973 on Vancouver's North Shore when Mitchell Sulkers and four friends decided to venture past the resort boundary of Seymour Mountain. A storm had rolled through the region dropping almost 50 centimetres of snow that week, leaving the out-of-bounds areas pristine and untouched.

"There was a pretty hard layer (in the snowpack) that was there from a previous period of clear skies," recalls Sulkers.

"We were pretty certain from the stuff that was going on just how easy it was to make things slide. So we drew straws to see who would go first."

As fate would have it, Sulkers selected the shortest straw.

Upon dropping in — just as the group had expected — the slope gave way.

"I got buried and I was not breathing. Rather than going for help, the guys skied down and saw a pole sticking out of the snow, which was still attached to my wrist."

One of Sulkers' friends proceeded to bounce compressions up and down on his chest in an effort to revive him. The snow in his throat dislodged and Sulkers managed to cough up the rest of the burning obstruction in his airway.

At just 17 years old, Sulkers had had his first — and hopefully only — near-death experience.

"We knew there was an issue but we really didn't appreciate how the terrain was going to play into the equation. It was just dumb luck that I actually survived. It was a bad process; we completely misunderstood the situation."

Though no one was carrying any avalanche safety equipment that day, the group couldn't really be criticized for not being properly equipped. In 1973, avalanche transceivers were still years away from being commercially available and the only reason Sulkers and his friends would carry a shovel in those days was to build jumps. But despite the obvious lack of tools and training, the group decided to ski the slope, even though everyone knew it would likely slide.

The problem that faces us 40 years later, is that despite several revolutions in avalanche equipment and education, people are still capable of making flawed decisions, like the one Sulkers and his friends made that day in the North Shore backcountry. Many of these incidents can be attributed in part, and sometimes in whole, to what is termed the "human factor."


The human factor can be largely attributed to heuristics — the process of gaining knowledge by intelligent guesswork, using previous experiences.

An example is the very human "rule of thumb." If you look out the window in the morning and it's sunny then you'll immediately reach for your sunglasses because it's faster than confirming the day's weather forecast on your smartphone or laptop. This type of mental shortcut serves us well in everyday tasks such as driving or crossing roads on foot, but can be dangerously misleading when making decisions in the backcountry.

"It was probably in the late 1990s when we came to realize that we weren't just making our decisions on a rational basis, but that psychology was entering it," says Ilya Storm, public avalanche warning service coordinator at the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC).

" (The) 'Human factor' may be a clearer... shortcut for the psychology of decision making. It's always been at work — in many ways it improves our decision making, but there's also a downside to it. We approach the mountains in a different way when there's a beautiful blue sky and when the snow is glistening to when it's an overcast day."

Just like the positive mood swing in a ski town when weeks of drought end and the snowstorm starts, backcountry skiers are similarly affected by the sudden appearance of sunshine. The euphoria of "the perfect day" in the backcountry alpine with your friends can easily cloud proper judgement of conditions, and lead groups to blindly pursue aesthetically pleasing objectives without properly considering all the hazards.

When issuing public avalanche warnings, the CAC now takes in to account the human factors at play and it attempts to communicate its awareness through the tone and language in the warnings. Reminding people to make good decisions before they even set foot in the backcountry is a proactive approach that Storm believes has, and will, make a difference.

"We can give people all the technical information they could ever possibly want, but we're more effective in our communications if we recognize that there's value in addressing what people are really thinking about — like if people haven't had good skiing for a long time and (all of a sudden) there's snow, or if the weather has restricted terrain access for a long time."

As well as special warnings and daily bulletins, the CAC also provides tools and training to help mitigate human factors. Every Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 course has an Avaluator 2.0 card included in the course materials, which provides a graphic checklist and a formulaic assessment of the current conditions.

"One of the best checklists that we have is the Avaluator (2.0)," says Storm.

"When you're standing on the slope and making your decision, it slows you down a little bit and gets you to pull an avalanche instructor out of your back pocket. That's the type of pause that can really help people gain awareness of their lust for powder, their desire to impress other people they're out with, all those kinds of things. It just can give you a sober second thought."

Canadian avalanche education has come a long way in the last 20 years and decision-making aids such as the Avaluator are testament to its continuous development. But terrain navigation and decision making were not the biggest focus during the earlier years of avalanche courses.

"Originally the idea was to spend a lot of time with one's head in the snow, identifying layers then doing some different types of tests," says Sulkers, who has now been teaching avalanche courses for over 20 years.

"But really in the end, that may not have made us any safer. A little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing."

In the 1990s several avalanche researchers in the U.S. confirmed that an alarmingly high percentage of avalanche victims were found to have taken a two-day avalanche course. This trend was also true in Canada, prompting an overhaul of the entry-level course curriculum to focus less on snow science — which requires continuous education and mentorship to be effective — and more on the practicalities of risk management and decision-making.

"With a lot of professional organizations, of course, (the old approach) was a lot safer, because they understood the decision-making process that was passed on from a master craftsman to an apprentice," says Sulkers.

"That sort of system worked because it created a safer environment for people to get experience. But in terms of recreation, those systems were not always in play. Groups can make bad decisions, but if more people have training in terms of how the actual decision is being made, it allows them to gain some of that experience more safely. That's the thinking."

Guiding humans to play safe

If you are looking to take your first journey into the winter backcountry by foot, snowcat or helicopter, it should be with a certified guide. The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) sets the standard for Canada's guiding industry and is recognized by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA).

With the thousands of dollars invested in course instruction, and years of field experience one might assume that ACMG guides — these men and women of the mountains — are immune to the "human factor." But this is not the case.

"A guide is a under a tremendous amount of pressure to provide a really good product and to keep a smile on every (guest's) face," says Keith Reid, a guide for over 20 years and president of the ACMG.

"We are out there in far more complex conditions than the general public, so the human factors that affect the professional guide are real variables that exist. Even though we do have a lot more tools and a lot more experience and judgment, there are a lot of human factors that are a challenge to manage."

Despite Canadian guides having unavoidable human traits, they are considered to be some of the safest in the world. The ACMG has been selected as the chair of a new committee that's reassessing risk management in the IFMGA.

"Our framework of decision making and risk management is unparalleled in the world of guiding," says Reid.

"What's happened over a number of years is (the IFMGA) looked back at a number of accidents that have happened and reflected back on those in a case-study format, and realized that maybe they could do a better job at training their guides to gather better information and make better decisions in the field. Because of the way our industry has developed (in Canada), there's been a really good, open decision-making framework, a culture of mutual respect and information gathering that's not part of (the process in) other countries."

Reid points to the concentration of guiding operations in B.C., which account for roughly 90 per cent of the world's heli skiing. This high concentration is a significant factor in how Canadian guides are able to mitigate risk. That's because every resort, lodge and backcountry operation contributes daily field observations to the Canadian Avalanche Association's InfoEx database, allowing forecasters to monitor province-wide trends in weather and snowpack. However, says Reid, even though InfoEx model is completely unique to Canada, it is not the only reason why its guides are so informed.

"The guides in Canada have more information to draw on than most other countries... the nature of our industry has created a culture of information sharing. If three Canadian guides run into each other in the field they'll have quite a fast, but high-end, (conversation of) comparative points about what's going on in the snowpack. If you go to other countries in the world that doesn't exist, it's a lot more competitive."

Conservative is cool

Earlier this season a panel of five backcountry industry experts led a discussion at the Whistler Museum to draft a Backcountry Responsibility Code, a 10-point code of conduct for backcountry travellers to adhere to when journeying beyond resort boundaries. Reid was on this expert panel and during his presentation he highlighted his desire to "change the culture of decision making in the backcountry."

"When a recreationalist goes out with a group, I want the culture to be that it's really cool if you're making good decisions," says Reid.

"It's not something that's really been a strong point in the way people approach the backcountry, certainly not locally (in Whistler). It's been more cool to say 'Oh yeah, it snowed a metre and we went out and skied this line that was insane, it was amazing!' The reality is that those guys got really lucky and it is not something I would do as a professional guide. What I'd like to see is that their friends think that these guys are really cool dudes because they decided not ski those slopes after reading the bulletin and realizing that the metre of snow would be incredibly unstable. Because the reality is, it's only skiing."

But the culture is getting better. Though there will always be a segment of the backcountry population that thrives on pushing its limits and compromising the safety of themselves and others, Reid says that majority of people want to be perceived as safe and reliable rather than having a "cowboy" attitude towards risk.

"My perception is that it's happening to a greater extent than it has in the past", he says. "People want to be perceived as being great skiers and having great adventures, but it's more and more important to be looked upon as having made good decisions."

Making good decisions inevitably means erring on the side of caution more often than not, but that doesn't mean backcountry beginners never get to ski any exciting terrain. By finding a backcountry mentor, someone who can steer you in the right direction on what is safe to ski or not, you can build experience without reaching too far beyond your comfort zone of risk. All guides are mentors to their clients, but all guides have mentors themselves. Even Reid, who is in the highest tier of guiding qualification and experience, has guides that he looks up to and occasionally looks to for advice.

Finding the right mentor can be easier said than done. Reid says you should not only look for someone with a higher level of training, but also someone who has the right mindset to make the good decisions based on facts, not how awesome the untouched terrain is looking that day. If a group is heading out, at the very least one person should have done an entry level avalanche course, but depending on their experience, the group should realize that their friend with an AST Level 1 certificate is likely still a long way from being an avalanche expert.

"The absolute minimum is an AST Level 1 course, but just because you've done an AST course, doesn't mean you've got it figured out," says Reid.

Treading the line and making it home

There are more people heading into the backcountry than ever before and for the most part they are adhering to their responsibility of being equipped and educated for avalanche safety. But there are still so many of those equipped and educated people who are consciously making decisions that endanger themselves or others, even when all the warning signs are staring them right in the face.

"How can we make it easier for people to read the signs," asks Pascal Haegli, principal of Avisualanche consulting who spearheaded the Avalanche Decision Framework for Amateur Recreationists (ADFAR) project for the CAC.

"We know a lot about how avalanches happen and the physics behind them, but can we make that more accessible to people? One of the challenges with the avalanche environment is that we don't get a lot of chances to learn directly from experience. If you compare it to driving on icy roads, if you come a little too fast into a turn you'll immediately get feedback from your environment. Your car will start to skid, you get a bit of an adrenaline rush and hopefully you'll make it out of that turn OK. You'll immediately know that you were driving too fast, you'll slow down and go a little slower into the next turn.

"In avalanche terrain you don't get a lot of feedback like that. You can be very close to the line for a long time without ever knowing, you just didn't hit that sweet spot that would have triggered the avalanche. Even when the conditions are the worst ever, you could ski that run 99 times and you would probably be fine. But on the 100th time you would likely end up in a fatal accident. That's not a very good system that promotes learning through personal experience."

After acquiring the tools and skills, experts agree that gaining that experience is the next step to becoming a safe and adventurous backcountry traveller. Finding an appropriate mentor to safely gain that experience with is a key step that many beginner tourers are missing.

Indeed this year for Avalanche Awareness days the CAC is focusing on the message of mentorship for youth.

"The Canadian Avalanche Centre wants you to go beyond avalanche awareness and share your mountain skills with those who need it most," it states on its website.

"Experienced backcountry skiers/boarders and patrollers are invited to "pay forward" their knowledge of riding in avalanche terrain. Riding out-of-bounds is becoming the norm, and we need to equip our youth to stay safe."

There is no doubt that the "human factor" permeates every level of backcountry expertise, but by travelling with an experienced and educated mentor, allowing for sober second thought at critical decision points and sometimes just taking a step back from the obvious risk, avalanche fatalities influenced by human factors can hopefully be reduced.


This year Squamish park rangers will host Avalanche Awareness Days Jan. 18 and 19. Join B.C. parks rangers to look for avalanche clues in snowpack layers, see how avalanche transceivers work and test your skills at finding buried beacons. Find info on avalanche safety resources, latest innovations, and test your knowledge in a trivia quiz for a chance to win great prizes as well. Remember to bring tire chains for your vehicle as the road can be icy. The event will be held at Garibaldi Park — Red Heather Shelter/Diamond Head area between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Contact: Sietse Breedijk at [email protected] for more information.