Photo by David Bowers
On January 17th, a pair of riders triggered a large avalanche on a steep, near-treeline slope in the backcountry behind Snowmass Ski Resort. The slope had previously been nicknamed “Mr. Magoo’s” after a ski patroller who bore some resemblance to the near-sighted cartoon character. The pair of riders escaped unhurt, despite an ugly terrain trap below. An hour later, the resort’s snow safety director watched a solo skier turn down the same slope and trigger a second slide adjacent to the first. He met the solo skier as he returned to the resort and asked him whether he’d seen the first slide – or the larger natural avalanche just up the drainage at the same aspect and elevation. The solo skier replied, “It’s ok; I have skied Silverton and I skied the path a couple of years ago.”
The slope where the Jan. 17th incident – incidents – occurred is steeper than 35 degrees and faces southeast. On that day, it was blanketed by a foot-thick slab formed by a recent storm and subsequent cross-loading; the slab sat on a thin, persistent weak layer. It was a slope that closely fit a pattern of recent avalanche activity and that was highlighted in the CAIC forecast as the kind of slope where people were most likely to trigger slides. With the danger rated as considerable, skiing that slope that day was a very risky proposition, especially alone and with a fresh slide visible.
The solo skier’s response seems oblivious to the day’s conditions and risks. He doesn’t seem to answer the question posed to him – did he see the other slide and was he concerned about avalanche danger on the slope. Indeed, he seems to be answering a different question altogether. Perhaps, “Can I ski a slope like this?” And his answer seems to have been “Yes, because I’ve skied slopes this steep before. I’ve even skied this slope before.”
According to Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, substitution like this is a nearly automatic cognitive response to complex, irregular environments. Our brains produce what Kahneman calls “off-the-shelf answers” to difficult problems by answering simpler, more familiar questions. It’s a sub-conscious process, and it provides solutions that leave us feeling very confident in our assessments and choices.
Marketing provides numerous everyday examples of this sometimes pernicious tendency. When faced with a question like “Is this the best pair of skis for me to buy?” we often answer a question more like “Do I like this brand of skis?” or “Do I like the graphics?” In situations like these, substitution often provides adequate answers, because the alternatives aren’t that different and the consequences of not answering the initial question aren’t severe. And substitution has the advantages of saving us mental energy and time. Once we’ve substituted a simple, seemingly coherent answer to a complex question, we can confidently summon numerous arguments supporting our choice without recognizing the substitution.
That leads us back to Mr. Magoo, the cartoon character referenced in the slope’s nickname. Mr. Magoo stubbornly refuses to recognize his near-sightedness. He doesn’t have to, because situations always seem to work out for him. Magoo mistakes an airport for a movie theater, takes a seat on a departing plane – “It’s like I can feel the plane taking off!” – wanders around on the wings, unknowingly leads the police to a bank robber, and when the plane lands, tells the flight attendant he really enjoyed the film. The tension in the Mr. Magoo cartoons derives from seeing how lucky the character can get yet be oblivious to it. Moreover, we know his luck will never run out.
We can all be Mr. Magoos in the backcountry. When nothing bad happens, it’s easy to finish a day of skiing or riding in avalanche terrain confident we made good choices and understand our experiences. So it’s easy to take the wrong lesson from our experiences. We’re sure we really liked the movie, unaware of how close we came to falling off the wing. The three riders involved on the slides on the 17th might easily conclude that they judged conditions correctly. More correctly even than the forecast, which called slopes like Magoo’s dangerous. Yet none of them were hurt. The answer of “Yes, I can ski this” seemed to work, so the solo skier might be more likely to rely on it the next time he’s faced with a slope where the stability is questionable.
The winter backcountry is very different from cartoons, however. Substituting an easy question for the relevant one can kill us, our friends or our loved ones. Our luck can run out. Or we may not get lucky at all. It’s what Kahneman and others have termed a “wicked environment” – an environment in which a lack of regular, reliable feedback allows us to develop habits and patterns based on faulty correlations, or luck.
So, what’s the alternative, given our brain’s hardwired proclivity for substitution and the wicked nature of the backcountry? How do we keep from being Mr. Magoo?
I noted that the winter backcountry is an instance of what Nobel-Prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and others describe as a “wicked environment” for developing expertise. In part, that’s because expertise in the backcountry is a collection of skills; we have to master the individual elements – technical skiing and riding skills, route-finding, and stability assessment among them – while simultaneously learning which set to prioritize and apply in a given situation. It’s also because in the winter backcountry, we don’t get much immediate, consistent feedback on our decisions and actions. We rarely know how close we are to triggering a slope, so it’s easy to develop habits and patterns based on faulty correlations, or luck.
An online video of Pucker Face from January 2, 2012, made the rounds for a year or so, providing a real-world example. In it, one rider successfully navigates skier’s right of the face in the photo, while the second rider, just afterward, triggers the entire face from a slope cut on his second turn, then is able to stay on the summit ridge. We choose to ride the slope for some reason – maybe a well-considered assessment of stability, maybe by substituting a question that’s easier to answer, like whether there’s enough sun on the face for good video. When it doesn’t slide, we conclude our rationale was correct. Given enough similar experiences, we could start to feel very confident in our skills. But the slide triggered by the second rider reveals a more accurate conclusion: we got lucky. And instead of developing skills, we might just be getting lucky, a lot.
The image above also shows Pucker Face on an early-winter day, this time nearly two years later, on Dec. 26, 2013. On this day, a rider wasn’t so fortunate; he was killed in the slide visible in the image. That’s the potential penalty for substitution, inadvertently relying on luck, or just plain making a mistake. Each day in avalanche terrain, each run or route we chose, is unique and novel; we have incomplete or ambiguous data, we get one chance, and the cost for choosing badly can be fatal.
An alternative to relying on luck is expert intuition – recognizing familiar cues in a new situation and choosing an appropriate response. Kahneman notes that “Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not.” It’s Mr. Magoo with eyeglasses, a prescription that lets him recognize an airplane instead of confusing it for a movie theater.
Making a habit of some simple practices can, over time, make the backcountry environment more regular and help us to develop the base of stored cues necessary for expert intuition. The point of these practices is to improve the quality of our observations and the feedback for our decisions.
It’s all about the up: Most – two thirds or more – of our time in the backcountry is spent going up. It’s our best opportunity for observing and communicating. Set a low-angle, meanderthal skin track that takes advantage of the terrain to investigate different aspects and slope angles. And that allows you to talk about your observations without having to stop. Steep skin tracks make it hard to see much beyond your ski tips or your buddy’s butt, and even if you do notice something important, it’s hard to communicate it when you’re anaerobic.
Give it a rest: Take breaks at decision points. Fiddling with your clothes or gear randomly just slows you down yet provides little information about snow conditions or route choices. Stopping to drink, eat and layer up when you’re faced with a decision is productive; it allows you to look around when you’re comfortable and talk about what you see. More often than not, you’ll pick up nuances in the terrain that you didn’t see while moving and out of breath. And you’ll make better decisions when your brain isn’t starved for oxygen or nutrition.
Write it down: Keep a field notebook or submit observations after each backcountry trip. It’s a sure way to notice and remember details about snow and weather conditions. Summarizing them for a field report forces you to make sense of what you observed, to sort what’s most important from what’s irrelevant. And it gives you something besides dim memories when you’re checking impressions of past events.
Debrief: When we talk about a day in the backcountry immediately afterwards, we often focus on the highlights – the great run, the funny fall, the beautiful light or snow. You provide otherwise unavailable feedback on your decisions by including an opportunity to talk about how you did things and whether put you at risk. Guides often do this formally, in afternoon meetings in which they can identify when they were most at risk during the day. A friend gets in the car and asks “Well, did we get it done or did we get away with it?” Find a way to expand your end-of-day conversation to more than high fives.
Find a mentor: Years ago, I spent a day traversing a high peak in the Wasatch with a mentor during when the avalanche danger was high. It was a lesson in micro-routefinding. Near the end of the day, when it seemed we’d mostly passed the hazards, I took a few extra turns on a small slope I now recognize as a terrain trap. I looked up to see my mentor giving me a look that said “That. Was. Dumb.” That look still floats into my consciousness when I encounter similar slopes. It was much more forgiving feedback than triggering the slope.
Ed. note- This article originally appeared in the Avalanche Review, issue 32.4