Death on snowmobile: part 2

I’d like to talk about one or two things I’ve noticed that can help shed light on why 200 people would go out into such obviously dangerous conditions, and expose themselves to what would seem to be obvious risk.

These are not exclusive to the snowmobile community by any means; they are well-studied aspects of risky behaviours that are, for instance, used to determine the causes of such accidents as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. There is a wide body of academic research in this area, and these are just some musings I have regarding the subject as applied to this scenario.

The first is something I’ve noticed from being an assistant teacher for several avalanche courses directed at snowmobilers.

Most of these guys had been sledding for years, and have quite a bit of experience under their belts. When told some of the facts of avalanches; that they are predictable, avoidable and that there are some basic procedures and best practices that can help people avoid being caught, they have a certain reaction. They basically feel that they have been sledding for years and they have never been caught, so they must be doing something right. They probably also feel that me, not being a sledder, couldn’t possibly be able to teach them anything about being safe in the backcountry.

The core of the attitude is what’s called Survivorship Bias. When applied to the act of driving a car it takes this form: everybody thinks they are a good car driver. If they have a close call, they attribute their avoidance of the accident to their skill, not to luck. After many years of driving with possible bad behaviours, the reinforcing effect of multiple incidents without reflection on their cause, makes the driver believe ever more strongly that they have a certain skill that makes them very good at driving.

For the snowmobiler or skier, they may over time take greater and greater risks. Slowly increasing the risk leads to early good results, reinforcing the sense of skill in surviving those situations. At a certain point however, survival becomes merely good luck. In the case of snow sports, increased risk often means increased consequences in the form of bigger terrain, larger avalanches, and higher consequences. These are the people who, when questioned about their risky behavior, offer comments such as “well, it’s a dangerous sport” or, “you gotta take some chances”; these indicate a very low awareness of the exact nature of their exposure.

In my experience, nothing, even the death of close friends, changes this attitude. Surviving merely increases the sense of skill. I do not know how to change this kind of behaviour other than a complete change in the attitude of the entire community, and even then there would be individuals who would continue to act as always.

The second observation is that the most dangerous behaviours happen in groups larger than about 4-5 people. There are a lot of names for this: bandwagon effect, herd behavior, etc. I myself have been a part of this effect multiple times. I’ll related one incident in general here.

A group of friends and I (6 or more) went for a ski trip into an area near Cerise Creek. This was an overnight trip which involved skiing for most of the day, and setting camp. I don’t recall being able to get any ski runs in on the day we approached the area.

In the morning the group started getting ready. I believe we had had a discussion of the avalanche risk over dinner the night before, however, there was no discussion in the morning. There was some frustration at the how slow some members of the party were in getting ready to ski, so the few that were ready struck out ahead to break trail. The slow members followed the broken trail.

Here’s the first example of herd behaviour: following the broken trail. It’s easier to follow the trail because it’s a huge amount of work to ski in new snow. There’s a similar effect for snowmobiles. In addition, the broken trail is in effect a series of route decisions. I can go into this another time, but the decision on what route to take in avalanche terrain is really the only tool you have than can prevent you being caught in an accident.

Following someone else’s trail is letting them make your terrain choices for you.

While those of us following the trail tried to catch up some made some snow observations. We noted new snow and rising temperatures. However, this was not communicated to the leader(s).

At the top of the slope the leaders were rested and ready to ski down so we hustled to take off skins and prepare for the descent. The group skied one by one, spaced well and using the best practices to avoid an avalanche taking the entire group out. We selected a good location to stop and prepare for the ascent for a second run.

Now once a track is set, it seems silly to not re-use it for a second run. Again the leaders, having descended first were the first ones ready for the second ascent. While earlier I was attempting to catch the leaders in order to have a safety talk and take part in route finding decisions, on this run that talk seemed moot since we had a track set. Still, no avalanche conditions were evaluated, and no safety talk was done.

Near the top of the track, while traversing below a convex roll, we triggered an avalanche. At this point I was directly behind the leader. I had just stamped my right (uphill) ski down in order to gain traction, and as I stood on in the fracture split between my feet, along the track. I lifted my left (downhill foot) as I felt the slab move and yelled “avalanche” as loud as I could, and attempted to ascertain the location of all of the members of my party.

The slide was about 25 meters wide, 40 meters long and 20-30cm deep. This is about a size 1-1.5 (barely enough to bury someone). It ran on a north aspect in a small clearing below a convex slope and between two small treed ridges. My party, either hearing my yell or seeing the moving snow had moved off the main track of the slide. We heard calls for help from one member who was wrapped around a small tree where the pressure of the snow had pinned her, and she required help getting free.

This was a small slide, and about the only way it could have hurt or killed anyone was by mechanical injury. It was barely enough to bury someone. However, it almost injured one member by pushing her against the tree; it could have killed her through suffocation had she been caught in a tree well.

My analysis of the accident was that we had all of the information necessary to predict and avoid this accident. Conditions changed overnight with additional loading and warmer temperatures. A combination of herd instinct, powder fever and a bit of survivor bias (overconfidence) led us to neglect our morning discussion and any semblance of snowpack and weather observations.

On the plus side, our training to maintain spacing between party members, skiing one at a time and response to the avalanche did work well. We reduced our exposure so that only one members of caught, and we very quickly got her free.

Large groups are hard to control. Unless there is a designated and recognized leader, and that leader is well trained and knowledable, a large group will come to grief much more often than a small group who can reach a consensus easily.

In summary, it’s not enough just to say don’t go out there. This is like telling car drivers to stop driving, it’s the 6th leading cause of death (US).

However, there are simple things you can do to prevent an accident from happening, and to reduce the damage such an accident would have.

The accident this weekend has many causes, but among them are certainly the two listed above. Most of the attending members believed that they were prepared, and knew how to stay safe. Many, like me, probably had avalanche courses under their belts. However, even if one or more recognized the hazard of observing from within the runout zone, there was no way for that individual to command 200 people to get out of the way, and no opportunity to do so.

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  1. […] Falling into the trap that you or people like you have some sort of magical ability to stay out of trouble, and to avoid hazard or injury just leads to complacency. There's the assumption that since you've done risky things and managed to come through, you must be better than other people at whatever risky activity you did. […]

  2. […] Falling into the trap that you or people like you have some sort of magical ability to stay out of trouble, and to avoid hazard or injury just leads to complacency. There’s the assumption that since you’ve done risky things and managed to come through, you must be better than other people at whatever risky activity you did. […]

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