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 6

What will they think if I don’t send this line?

We all have some desire for Acceptance from our peers, and it often influences the decisions we make. This desire can vary in its source as well as how and when it manifests itself. Inevitably, it helps drive our choices when playing in the mountains. Social Acceptance is the sixth and final heuristic trap of this decision making series.

Heuristic traps, introduced in Part 1 of these human factor posts to The Pit, are mental shortcuts often resulting in common decision-making flaws that can be identified in skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and others who travel through snow covered mountains. We can’t turn them off, but we can acknowledge and actively counter these flaws. Our desire for acceptance is no exception.

The partners you ski, snowboard, or climb with are often the primary driver of the Acceptance heuristic trap. Hopefully you actually like the folks who you travel with in the mountains, so as a result maintaining their acceptance is probably of value to you. Disappointing these peers is rarely our intent, and we would often prefer to impress them. The stronger the desire to impress, the greater the influence of this heuristic trap.

New backcountry partner? You certainly want to show them your best stuff. How about someone you have a romantic interest in? Men do bold things in an attempt to impress women. While gender is not an absolute driver in this stereotypical scenario, it’s tough to ignore this glaring flaw common in male decision making. Regardless of your romantic preferences, the accidents inevitably resulting from an increase in risk taking behavior rarely impress anyone.

In a highly social and often crowded backcountry ski setting like Tuckerman Ravine, you might also be motivated to gain acceptance from people you don’t know. On busy days, this is obvious. We even have a cheering crowd. These motivations are closely tied to perceived norms of how we can and should ski or snowboard on steep slopes. As discussed in Part 5, we often look to the example others set for an indication of how to conduct ourselves. These examples might be someone you just watched ski in person, but the action sports media is another primary driver of our perceived norms. We’re inundated with footage of people pushing the envelope.

The Acceptance heuristic trap can manifest itself in a number of ways. When planning a trip, our perceived norms might influence a group to develop high-risk objectives. More importantly, you could suppress concerns about a particular plan in effort to please the others in your group. This act of not voicing a concern is problematic in the field, naturally. If you feel uneasy with a situation but don’t speak up, there is a very strong chance that desire for social acceptance is driving your behavior. Noticing a risk while staying silent and watching it happen isn’t of much benefit to anyone. This also contributes to the Commitment to a goal heuristic trap, our tendency to stick to established plans.

In the big picture, seeking acceptance can lead us to obvious hazards, like skiing a no-fall zone in bulletproof ice conditions, ripping powder turns on an avalanche prone 38 degree slope when a High danger rating has been issued, or simply hucking your meat off a big cliff. We can easily recognize these hazards, but social pressure might prevent us from speaking up or altering plans. At a more nuanced level, our desire for Acceptance might urge us towards pushing to faster speeds or choosing a more aggressive, high consequence line. FurtherFurthermore?, remember that as mental shortcuts, it’s common to be unaware of the influence of heuristic traps on any decision.

The indirect motivation for Acceptance though social media cannot be ignored. While outdated these days, the meaning behind the term “Kodak Courage” is as relevant as ever. We’ve already established our propensity to do bold things to impress just small numbers of people; impressing large numbers of people can easily provide even stronger motivation. With smartphones, cameras and direct access to social media are nearly everywhere we go. It’s tough to not record your backcountry exploits.

With potentially wide ranging sources from which we seek approval, countering the Acceptance heuristic trap requires a diverse approach. First, as always, we must acknowledge that this heuristic trap does indeed influence us, that none of us are immune to it. Second, seek to identify your specific source or sources of social pressure. Constantly question your motivation to travel in the mountains, particularly the details of how and where you like to travel. Chances are you’re not motivated by the experience alone. You probably want others to know about your Dodge’s Drop descent.

Prior to a trip, consider who you plan to travel with and associated social dynamics. Have you skied in the backcountry with them before, or are they new partners? Is it a date? It’s crucial to understand their acceptable level of risk and how it might affect yours. Accordingly, be aware of your motivation to impress these people. As plans formulate, consider the inspiration of the trip, or if you’re motivated by the photos or video that you’ll post to social media.

In the field is when your decision making flaws will play out, and these themes continue. Question how and where you are actually travelling. Are you going along with an uphill route because you don’t want to be the one to second guess another’s decision? The same can be said for the descent, or even where you take breaks. If the alarm bells are going off in your head, but you say nothing, your desire for acceptance is probably at play. Accordingly, consider your group’s communication. If limited or without much meaningful discussion of present hazards, this should serve as a warning sign. Finally, is there a camera, and what potential audience might you be trying to impress with your bold actions?

Our desire for Acceptance is just one of the six F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps, each with the potential to make or break your day or even life when you ski, snowboard, or climb in the backcountry. Familiarity addresses the potential for hazards to go unnoticed when we’re in terrain we know well. Acceptance from our social peers can lead to excessively bold action. Commitment to a goal can limit ability to realize safer options. Blind trust in a more experienced partner characterizes the Expert Halo. The desire for fresh Tracks and associated scarcity of snow allows subconscious risk perception sacrifices. Finally, Social proof helps us feel safer when following the example of others, regardless of actual hazards present.

These heuristic traps should only be pieces of your human factor puzzle. This overall process of risk assessment and resulting travel decisions is essential to your longevity in the mountains, unless you’re incredibly lucky. From planning, to the up track, to the descent, and finally the beer in the parking lot, ask yourself and your group how you could be wrong. Better yet, acknowledge that you ARE wrong about some safety element and seek to discover it. Remember, we inherently look for the “Go” or “Yes” decision, otherwise we’d never leave the couch. One hundred percent safety is impossible in the backcountry, but we could all be a little safer. The art of saying “No” isn’t easy, but it might lead to the highest quantity of good skiing in the long run.


Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 5

A bunch of people already skied it… It’s pretty safe, right?

Well, maybe not. We’ve all made decisions based on this logic. A particular slope that you’ve just watched others ski without mishap might be relatively devoid of hazards, but what if those skiers were just lucky? Use of Social Proof to make decisions in the mountains is yet another heuristic trap:  a mental shortcut that helps us skiers and climbers make the “go” decisions we inherently seek.

This week’s post to The Pit will focus on our use of Social Proof, the “S” in the F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps. Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment to a goal, Expert Halo, Tracks or scarcity, and Social Proof are the six key decision making flaws we make in the mountains. Remember, none of us are immune to these particular mental shortcuts; we must acknowledge and actively counter them to minimize their influence over our decisions.

We tend to look to the example of others for clues as to how we should conduct ourselves. It’s our herding instinct. Often, this sort of decision making serves us well. If people made deadly decisions most of the time, the human population wouldn’t be growing. The reality is that some people make deadly decisions some of the time. When backcountry skiing, it’s difficult to discern which stranger is setting the best example to follow. If you do pick out who you want to follow, you’re slipping dangerously close to the Expert Halo heuristic trap. Again, think independently!

Take avalanche danger on a particular slope for example. The strength of a cohesive slab of snow and its bonding to the layer below it are not uniform across that slope. For this reason, certain points are more sensitive to a human trigger than others. It’s entirely possible and even likely in some cases that a number of people could ski an unstable slab of snow and miss these weak points. It can easily be the third, the fifth, or the tenth skier who finds the weak point and triggers the avalanche. Tracks on a slope do not equate to stability! The person scoring first tracks does have a higher likelihood of triggering an avalanche than subsequent travelers, but not by much.

The same can be said for most conditions-dependent mountain hazards. Often, through some combination of good decision making or luck, many people will travel through an area safely before conditions become just right for the big accident. This time of year, icefall exemplifies such a hazard and is present in parts of both Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Until the ice above Lunch Rocks comes down, anyone in that area is directly below a hazard that could easily kill numerous people in a few seconds. Lounging at Lunch Rocks is Social Proof at its finest: the more people hanging out there, the more inviting it seems to be for spring skiers, even though much safer options exist elsewhere in Tuckerman Ravine.

On top of our herding instinct potentially getting us into trouble, the presence of other people actually increases our risk taking behavior. Among other reasons for this, we feel safer around others and push the envelope a bit more. While people do have some ability to assist in the event of an accident, this isn’t much help if you’re pushing to the point of risking your life. Further, people can create additional hazard, triggering an avalanche or causing any number of things to fall down a slope, including themselves. We’re not suggesting you ski by yourself, but large groups do have the potential to cause more harm than good in a number of ways.

If you ski in Tuckerman Ravine on a sunny spring weekend, there will be plenty of other people around. Countering the Social Proof heuristic trap in this environment can be as simple as asking “Why is everyone on the left side today?” Have they actually found the best option, or can you find a better one? You don’t know their decision making process, so you have no reason to trust it. Make your own observations, use all resources available to you including your friendly Snow Ranger, and form travel decisions amongst your group based on this assessment of potential reward and risk. Don’t forget that part of the Social Proof heuristic trap is our propensity to take greater risk when there are other people around. Would you ski the same line if you were solo? What if it were just you and a friend, rather than you and a thousand other spring skiers? When will you be most at risk? Such questions can help reveal the consequences of a mistake.

Making your own unique decisions will help you manage risk, but it will also provide unique experiences in the mountains, even within the confines of a familiar ravine. That said, the route less travelled is not necessarily the safer option. Countering Social Proof by actively questioning the consensus route is only one of many tools in your decision making kit. Next time you’re out skiing or climbing, use these tools to choose the best line for you.

See you on the hill!