I recently got word of the second tragic avalanche fatality of the season here in Utah, and while I didn’t know him personally, Stephen Jones was the friend of many friends. And while I didn’t know Douglas Green – the first fatality – I’ve known his guide (and Ascent contributor) Tyson for years. Even though it seems like there are a lot of people in the backcountry these days it’s a pretty tight community, and if you’ve been here for a while there’s a pretty high likelihood of having at least a loose connection to someone involved in an incident. And most of the folks you know in your community are smart folks, who have typically made it this far in their years of doing outdoor endeavors by making a tremendous number of good decisions. So Why are we so quick to condemn them for making a “dumb” decision? And potentially far worse…what are the implications of wrapping ourselves in the cloak of invincibility associated with the fact that “I would NEVER do that”….even though, statistically speaking, you probably have, and will likely again do something just as dumb?
I recently read a book called “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” that was referred to me by a friend who is struggling with his Mormon faith. It deals with the concept of “cognitive dissonance;” that is, having thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and decisions that are internally inconsistent. In his case, he is trying to reconcile a lifetime of living true to the LDS scriptures and faith while professionally being very practical, shrewd, critical, and calculating; not necessarily terms that are associated with the concept of “faith”. I was less interested in that concept than I was trying to understand my own decision-making process and answer the fundamental question: why do smart people do dumb things? Of course, we humans are not infallible, so we make bad decisions all the time. In hindsight, of course, the avalanche victims made “bad” decisions, and there are a lot of reasons why (there is a whole field called “decision theory”) and many books have been written about decision-making. Utah’s own Ian McCammon has wrapped some of those theories into several heuristics associated with traveling in avalanche terrain: “expert halo”, “familiarity”, “consistency”, “acceptance”, “scarcity,” and “social facilitation” and one that I like to add: “the visiting dignitary “ (gotta show them a good time!). If you’re not familiar with these, they are worth reading about, and beyond the scope of this column.
But tangential to the concept of decision-making is the concept of Monday Morning Quarterbacking questioning others’ decision making; yes, we all know that we weren’t there, we don’t know exactly what was going on, but we can’t resist passing judgment just the same. And we should; it’s important to dissect accidents and understand the circumstances in the hopes that in the future we can avoid a similar fate. But here’s the rub: we are never as good as we think we are.
In “Mistakes Were Made” they use the analogy of each of us standing atop a pyramid. Morally, intellectually, ethically, we “start” at the top. But because no one is perfect -we all fib a little, cheat a little, even perhaps with the best intentions -we take a step down from the top of the pyramid. And eventually we get convinced to take another step down, and another. Again, sometimes with the best intentions. They used the analogy of the Watergate break in: if the swearing in ceremony for those officials had been along the lines of “do you swear to wiretap your opponents’ phones, perjure yourself in front of Congress, and commit federal crimes in order for your president to get re-elected, so help you God?” the answer would be an indignant “NO!” at best. Yet within a year of their swearing-in ceremonies, a good number of public servants were doing exactly those activities. And as we take each step down the pyramid, we not only justify those steps easily, we conveniently forget how easy it was to take those downward steps, yet we still look backup and holler at others to “stay on top of that moral pyramid, you corrupt SOB!”
When I heard about the 2nd avy fatality I got a message from a friend saying “are you skiing 40 degree shots alone right now?” with the insinuation that the victim was naïve at best and reckless at worst by doing so. Ironically, I had skied a 40 degree slope…just that day (not alone; with another knucklehead!) and I had felt good about it, but some would have chastised me for it. And just over a year ago I triggered a huge slide on Kessler that came within an inch of killing me. So making a bad mistake…well, we all do it, and it’s important to really acknowledge the important fact: we all make mistakes! And when doing these silly recreational activities it’s important to have the humility to understand our fallibility and therefore endeavor to avoid mistakes when possible, but be ready to deal when the implications become real.
After these two accidents I made the mistake of reading some of the comments posted to the mainstream news articles, and it struck me that the level of righteousness, piety, and vitriol was directly related at the lack of knowledge about the activity. People who think an outdoor adventure is taking their dogs for a walk bray about these idiots who go out backcountry skiing when there is any avalanche danger and therefore deserve to die. But at the other end of the spectrum, the avalanche professionals…well, most of them say something to the effect of “yep, I’ve been there…I’ve compromised my values/heuristics/intellect and done something similar, but I got luckier.”
It’s so easy to look at others’ misfortunes and indeed say “mistakes were made (but not by me)” and fool ourselves into thinking “that will never happen to me”, but be careful and diligent about this…as my Mormon friend might say “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” The mistake someone else makes could just as well have been your own.