or Connect
EpicSki › The Barking Bear Forums › On the Snow (Skiing Forums) › General Skiing Discussion › The Psychology of Avalanche Awareness
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

The Psychology of Avalanche Awareness

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 
I grabbed an excerpt from a Salt Lake Tribune article in today's (December 2) paper that I thought was interesting. The entire article can be found here:


The mental "traps" identified by McCammon in his research on avalanche victims include:

Familiarity: Cameron Carpenter felt safe, at least initially, the day his best friend died in an avalanche near Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1986.
"It was one of our favorite places to go. We had been in that same spot a lot, even during that winter," said Carpenter, who lost his friend Brad Lindsey when they were both caught in the avalanche. "It wasn't until we were on the mountain for the second time that we realized we could be in trouble."
McCammon explains the familiarity heuristic this way: Rather than figuring out what behavior is appropriate each time we visit the backcountry, we tend to rely on past actions in that same place. Familiarity can help with decision-making, but it becomes dangerous when the avalanche hazard increases. McCammon found that 71 percent of the accidents he researched happened on slopes known to victims. When people travel in familiar places, they appear willing to expose themselves to almost four times as much avalanche hazard than when they travel in unfamiliar places. Familiarity also apparently negated the advantage of avalanche education.

Acceptance: The theory here is that people tend to engage in activities they think will earn them notice and/or respect. Call it the "bragging rights" or "testosterone" heuristic.
"Men, in the presence of women, will behave more competitively, aggressively or engage in riskier behaviors than when women are absent," McCammon writes.
Tremper says he understands the acceptance heuristic all too well.
"When I'm by myself I'm very cautious. Add a trusted partner and I'm willing to go places I probably wouldn't before. Add a group of six people and a couple of attractive females and I'll do just about anything," Tremper said.
McCammon reports that groups that include women appear to expose themselves to greater risk than those without, but not because women take more risks. Of the 1,355 individuals present in accidents McCammon studied, only 10 percent were female. And only 9.1 percent of the avalanche victims were women.

Commitment: When he first heard about the commitment heuristic, Carpenter said it probably did not play into his accident, but the more he talked about that fatal day, the more he realized how it had affected his and Lindsey's decisions.
"It was snowing hard. One of the other guys got cold and went back to the car. We were pretty committed to making another run," Carpenter said. "We made an effort to get up the canyon and weren't going to sit in the car."
McCammon found that people who were highly committed to enter the avalanche path that eventually caught them took more risks than those less committed to a certain goal or objective.

Expert halo: People appointed as "backcountry experts" by the group tend to expose the party to greater avalanche hazards than groups that make decisions based on consensus. McCammon found that leaders with the expert halo appear to make riskier decisions as the size of the group increases.
Individuals appointed as experts may suffer from a false sense of confidence in their avalanche awareness skills even if they are actually quite knowledgeable in the backcountry.

Tracks/scarcity: This may be among the most dangerous heuristics because the desire to find fresh powder increases along with the avalanche hazard. New and deep snow has a tendency to make many people ignore obvious dangers. The thrill of being the first to make tracks on fresh snow tempts many backcountry travelers into terrain they would otherwise avoid.

Social facilitation: McCammon found that groups who met other people before their accident exposed themselves to more hazards than those who had not encountered other groups that day. Parties of three and four people appeared more prone to this phenomenon than groups of other sizes. McCammon theorizes that people who are good at something believe they will do it better with an audience. But unskilled people believe they will perform even more poorly. The trap is that people with some avalanche avoidance skills take more risks.
The question for avalanche educators now is how to incorporate McCammon's research into effective prevention.
"The Europeans have had some great success with rule-based decision-making. There are certain rules they follow in certain situations," Tremper said. "That makes a lot of sense, but it still does not address the ability by people to justify certain risks, many times without even realizing they are doing it."
post #2 of 3
Interesting, summarizes the points that Bruce Tremper hammers home in his book.
post #3 of 3
The more people you are skiing with, the safer your feel, but in avalanche terrain exactly the opposite is true. Those extra people only help to dig you out faster after their extra weight helped to collapse the slope.
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: General Skiing Discussion
EpicSki › The Barking Bear Forums › On the Snow (Skiing Forums) › General Skiing Discussion › The Psychology of Avalanche Awareness