Posts that deal with the day to day here at MWAC. Interesting snow observations, short videos, perhaps a story or two.


Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 4

It’s late April, low elevation snow is melting fast, and ski areas are closed, or closing soon. For many, this means that it’s Tuckerman Ravine ski season! While weather has been mixed, recently we’ve seen excellent conditions on certain days. Informed decision making remains crucial for enjoyment and relatively safety while scoring big rewards on one of these sweet days. Welcome back to The Pit and our spring decision making series!

This week, the Expert Halo heuristic trap is the focus of our series on what is known as the “human factors” To review, F.A.C.E.T.S. is the acronym which represent the heuristic traps which most commonly contribute to events that lead to an accident. Heuristic traps are the common mental shortcuts which diminish our risk perception and adversely affect associated decision making. The Expert Halo trap is simple. Most of us humans really like to place responsibility somewhere else, so what could be better than having an expert make decisions for you? Therefore, we tend to blindly trust these folks.

The Expert Halo is NOT the reluctance to voice a concern – that’s a symptom of our desire for Acceptance, a separate heuristic trap we’ll discuss in coming weeks. The Expert Halo is the reluctance to think for yourself. Allowing someone else to make decisions for you is obviously a mental shortcut, especially if your expert is providing that “Go” answer, which a backcountry skier inherently wants.

What or who is this expert? They’re usually the group leader, but not necessarily. It could be someone helping you plan a trip, a social media personality, or even an MWAC Snow Ranger. An “expert” in this case can be anyone you rely on to make decisions for you. Unfortunately, true experts are pretty hard to come by, if you can find one at all, since not one of us has a crystal ball which can make clear the outcome of your choices. We all know that no one is perfect, so ignoring your inner voice and trusting your life to the decisions of another person often seems silly in the 20/20 hindsight which follows an incident.

As skiers and riders, we’re used to decisions being handed to us, particularly here in the Northeast. Ski areas make many decisions for us. Runs are closed due to icy conditions, thin cover, rocks, cliffs, and other naturally occurring conditions. This would otherwise provide an opportunity for decision making. Particularly out west, runs are opened and closed in response to avalanche hazard and associated mitigation efforts. It’s normal for us to have some of the most consequential terrain and conditions closed to our travel.

With a few exceptions, you’re free to take limitless risk on Mount Washington. Yes, the Lion Head Summer Trail and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail high in the ravine have seasonal closure signs posted in response to present hazards, but we largely DO NOT make risk-related decisions for you. You’re free to ski and climb any snow, ice, or rock. Remember, “Low” avalanche danger does not mean “No” avalanche danger! Our Avalanche Advisories and the other conditions information we make available are valuable resources to inform the decisions YOU make.

One way the Snow Ranger team sees the Expert Halo manifested is in the questions visitors ask us. A question like, “I should be OK skiing Left Gully today, right?” is not uncommon. We can’t make this decision for you of course. If you’re asking such questions, it’s OK! You’re making an effort to better inform yourself. While we can’t and won’t make decisions for you, we’re happy to help you understand current hazards and their consequences.

Actively seeking to inform yourself is crucial to countering the Expert Halo heuristic trap. As always, acknowledge that you probably can’t turn this flaw off, but increasing your awareness of significant risks should turn your critical decision making brain on. If you have any sense of self-preservation, that is.

To further counter this heuristic trap, identify who YOUR expert or experts are. Who do you trust completely? There’s almost certainly someone in this category. If your expert is a trusted backcountry partner, they should appreciate your efforts to think for yourself. If they don’t, get a new partner. Accordingly, don’t be the expert, no matter how good it makes you feel to be held in this esteem! If you think you might be your group’s expert or de facto leader, actively voice skepticism of your own ideas. Even better, draw out the rest of your group to voice their perception of present risk.

The bottom line: Everyone’s opinion is valuable, and that includes you!

Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 3

Tuckerman Ravine is feeling and skiing like spring these days! The winter weather of the past few weeks has subsided, at least temporarily. Warmer temperatures, a more stable snowpack, and frequent blue skies might even engender feelings of familiarity with the terrain, the snow and the crowds in the Bowl.

Unfortunately, familiarity with your environment does not equate to safety. It’s actually the “F” of the F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps that we’re exploring in this decision making series. To review, our post two weeks ago focused on Commitment to a goal, highlighting the value of flexible decision making. Last week, we addressed decision making flaws stemming from the scarce nature of snow as a resource for skiers, as identified by the Tracks/Scarcity heuristic trap. Those weekends were both characterized by a dynamic winter snowpack providing a relatively unfamiliar environment for spring skiers.

Remember, heuristic traps are mental shortcuts which lead to flawed decision making in high risk situations. By using mental shortcuts instead of 20/20 situational awareness, we miss key information and take greater risks than we might intend. The natural sense of security associated with feelings of familiarity can easily lead us to miss unexpected clues which lead us to take unintended risks. When we’re in a familiar environment, it’s all too easy to put the blinders on, and we take greater risks as a result.

While perhaps some people reading this are new to the spring skiing scene in Tuckerman Ravine, chances are it’s a quite familiar environment for you. You might even be a Tuck’s veteran. Either way, this post is for you. You’ve seen a lot and that is a valuable decision-making resource, but none of us have seen it all. If you’re a cautious skier or climber and stay home on the most hazardous days, you’ve seen even less. Accordingly, you’ve developed habits of how you recreate in Tuckerman Ravine. That line you always ski, the place you always take a break, the date of your trip… What habits have you formed through familiarity?

Some habits even result in place names. Everyone knows that “Lunch Rocks” is a great place to hang out, right? Maybe not. It’s certainly a great location for spectating, but it’s also in the fall line of massive but infrequent ice fall and in the runout of an avalanche path. While many are familiar with Lunch Rocks as a break spot, people less familiar with Tuckerman but well versed in mountain hazard assessment would easily identify it as an area to avoid. After all, being drilled by bowling balls of ice provides zero fun and little chance of survival.

Avalanche danger ratings can similarly become familiar. Frank’s recent article addressing varying avalanche problems under a single danger rating illustrates this well. In short, all “Moderate” ratings are not created equal. Skiing Right Gully 10 times over the years when rated Moderate tells you nothing about what might happen on the 11th time if you don’t consider each specific avalanche problem. Further, even if you do, subtle differences that should influence your terrain management decisions undoubtedly exist. Being purely a creature of habit is not your ticket to longevity in the mountains.

Hopefully you’re motivated to counter the heuristic trap of Familiarity, but how? First, accept that unfamiliar conditions WILL exist, every time you’re in the mountains. Really. Every time. Of course, these differences might not pose any hazard at all to you, but you can’t consider potential hazards if they go unnoticed. Actively look for ANYTHING that is different and voice it to your group. You might not think it’s hazardous, but you’re just a human operating with many mental shortcuts, and someone else might perceive a risk that you miss. If not, new things are usually interesting, so what do you have to lose by looking for and vocalizing the unexpected?

We’ve already asked you this question, but what mountain travel habits have you formed through familiarity? Carefully consider your traditions. Are you a Lunch Rocks lounger? Do you ski without a beacon, shovel, and probe as long as avalanche danger doesn’t exceed Moderate? In short, try to identify the practices you’ve repeatedly gotten away with, and consider a change. You can only get away with dangerous habits a finite number of times.

Finally, we’re here for you. Our Avalanche Advisory or General Bulletin focuses on changing mountain conditions and associated hazards, the very same conditions that could be unfamiliar to you. Take advantage of this resource even if you’re not headed for the mountains soon. Hopefully we can help you identify an unfamiliar hazard that you might otherwise miss, or at least better understand the complexity of the mountain environment.