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Avalanches and the Human Factor

Hallie Zolynski, The Nomadic Ice Axe

I went to a level one avalanche course years ago in the hopes of learning how I could be safer in my winter travels. Twelve years later, I am still learning about avalanches. I’m honestly not sure why I’m so fascinated by them. Is it their sheer power? How truly terrifying they are? Something more? Or all of the above? Through both my own business and the Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Montana, I now teach backcountry enthusiasts how to become safer and more aware of what an avalanche is and how to make better decisions. The first part is pretty straightforward. That last part is not so easy. 

You can talk snow science and propagation all day long. You can dig snow pits, watch terrain, review beacons and shovels and probes. But what I soon discovered during teaching was that a lot of people were not taking these things seriously. Sure, they realized they needed to practice with their beacons and shovels and probes more. They realized they needed to practice with their friends more. But what was missing was that human factor. The realization that even if it is just a course, they should be evaluating how they are treating the course. How others are. How their skiing and riding partners are. After watching a careless mindset over the years, I wanted to learn how I could change that perception in my classes. Not necessarily in order to put the fear of God in my students, but to make them "walk away with a better understanding about how they will make future decisions."

So I did a lot of research and talked to people about what would make a good learning experience, while still keeping it fun. And what I came up with was a set of scenarios during my clinics that would have people making uncomfortable decisions. Have them working both as a team and alone. Have them being a team leader as opposed to someone who doesn’t like to speak up. Have them breaking out of their shells. And have them learning about what factors make them decide to keep going up the trail during a high avalanche danger day when they should turn around. 

Photo:  r.illuminations

There are a lot of articles out there on heuristics and how they pertain to avalanches. Most have come to the conclusion that there are six: familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation, and scarcity. Every one of us is ruled by at least one of these when we go into the backcountry. I have found that I am particularly driven by acceptance and scarcity. I don’t like that. I don’t like that I just want to be accepted, so if I felt something was off while we were skiing, I wouldn’t say something. I don’t like that if I see something that hasn’t been done, I am more likely to go do it. But I have knowledge now of what decisions I would make and how not to make bad ones when in the backcountry.

In each avalanche clinic I ask the participants a set of questions such as, “What if you and your friend just drove four hours to get to an area you’ve had your eye on all year. You get to the trailhead and while unloading your friend turns to you and says, ‘I forgot my beacon.’ What do you do? Still go? Turn around?” Most people will answer with “I know what I should do, but what I would do…” These are the questions you need to ask yourself over and over. Because if you finally get to the point where you can say, “I would turn around and never let him/her forget it,” and feel good about it without worrying that they won’t speak to you again, then you’re halfway there. The second half is having that talk with your partner(s). Doing it before going out is critical. It will tell you where they stand.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in how many people are killed by avalanches each year, but avalanches for me aren’t just about the number of fatalities. Each victim in an avalanche has family members and friends who still wonder whywhy they made the decisions that they did. And it is something that can’t ever really be answered. But by teaching family members and friends of victims about the human factor in making decisions, there is some sort of closure to be had. Because we are all human and we all make bad choices in everyday life. I do it all the time and I try to catch myself, but it’s not always easy.

Photo:  r.illuminations

Avalanches happen so quickly, and knowing what you will do in that split second is key. Will you panic? Run? Forget what you learned in a class? I try to go over and over with my students why taking the scenarios seriously is so important. Because in that split second, if you know the drill and you have practiced to the point where it becomes muscle memory, you’re more apt to make the proper decisions that maybe others can’t.

When practicing a search during a course, I used to bury a bag with a beacon in it, but people kind of knew it was just a beacon in a bag. They saw me digging a hole and putting it in the hole, so when we would begin a search, some would take it slow and act without urgency. So I thought about how I could make the session better. Now, under a controlled and safe environment, we have people act as victims. We safely bury someone under a couple feet of snow (this takes time to make sure everything is going right and is safe). The victim always has their head above the snow, but the students can’t see that they do until they are a few meters away from them. Most students say it is stressful and a wake-up call to how they need to practice more and take it more seriously. This is what I want and what I think is needed in more classes everywhere. 

I hope I can make a difference in how we view travel in avalanche terrain, help people stay safe, and, if something does happen, help them prepare to save a life. Because until we can look at ourselves and answer the hard questions we all try to avoid, there are going to be bad decisions and there are going to be avalanche fatalities. But I am hoping that through my teaching, I can save someone from making that one bad decision that might change their lives. Because at the end of the day, every one of us should feel confident in our decisions and feel good about why we made them. That is what truly matters most.

Photo:  r.illuminations
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1 comment

  • Good work Hallie! Although I am not into snow hiking or being in snow in general, you bring up some good points! Great read!

    Lynne Downing

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