¡Hello! I would like to start telling a brief experience we had a few years back:
After a series of avalanche accidents, an avalanche technician and colleague, was being interviewed on a TV program where the conductor asked him if it was necessary to go out in the mountain when the avalanche risk is high. “Do you have to go out when avalanche risk is high?” she asked. Most probably, this question was intentioned, and the expected answer was probably not far from banning alpine sports when the risk is high.
How to answer concisely and briefly to that? not easy indeed. First –this is how I approached the answer- you need to know that every human activity constantly involves taking risky decisions. Second, it is important to understand that all activities we take on in our daily lives -ordinary ones like driving our car, and some leisure activities, such as ski touring, we face challenges that often imply a certain risk. Seeking and facing such challenges is part of the human nature -psychologist confirm this- life becomes more interesting and fulfilling through them. Finally, it has to be considered that these situations need to be faced with formation and information.So when we speak about accidents and their causes, we do it from a pedagogical and educational approach, avoiding inculpation. Learning from our own mistakes! I wish this article would be understood in that sense, as it is a compilation of everything we have read and heard on avalanche accidents from experts around the world. I hope you like it!
What is the human factor?
When it comes to deciding if we drop on a face or not, we should evaluate and predict how stable the snow is. This evaluation is based on four points: 1) evaluating snow 2) evaluating terrain 3) evaluating meteorology 4) evaluating ourselves and our group, the human factor.
The evaluation does not necessarily have to follow the afore listed order. In fact, the human factor, comes last but not least.
According to research on the accidents occurred in Switzerland, USA and Canada, the human factor comes out as their main cause. Conclusions reveal that mistakes in decision making were crucial. Despite that all involved had some knowledge and education on avalanche security, and they had even been aware of obvious symptoms of instability on the snow, they nevertheless decided to drop in a high risk face, despite the unfavourable meteorology and the avalanche prone terrain. Why do such things happen? Basically because we end up not evaluating evidences, which imply a longer reasoning process, and in exchange, we make decisions based on some unconscious shortcuts, named heuristic traps.
Which are the human factors that lead to accidents?
There are several ways to classify and typify human factors. They can be summarized as follows:
- Personal attitude
- Excess of self-confidence
- Mistaken assumptions
- Group pressure
- Tunnel vision
- Incapability to face reality and accept it
- Rejecting or denying evidence
- Lack of planning
- Poor communication within the group
What are the traps our sub-consciousness may cause?
Heuristic traps are what our sub-consciousness analyses in a gutted way, leaving aside danger awareness or evidence that we might have been aware of.
Avalanche accidents in the Catalonian Pyrenees over the past two seasons have proved that in 75% of cases, victims had followed heuristic traps similar to these:
Usually when we mention this list in an avalanche course or talk, we observe that many of us recognise themselves in one or several of the mentioned points.
What can we do regarding human factors?
Nowadays, any serious avalanche course, no matter the level, studies the human factor and ways of minimizing it. This is why we encourage everyone to take a good avalanche course. They consist of theoretical and practical sessions that deal with the following subjects regarding the human factor:- An individual study of the risk: planning the tour, level of individual risk acceptance, goals, etc…
– Study of the group: group goals, knowledge and formation, level of collective risk acceptance, etc.
– Identifying potentially dangerous situations.
– Risk reducing methods: Werner Munter 3×3, NivoTest, Avaluator, SnowCard, etc.
Finally, we wish to encourage you to get out there and practice securely everything you learn. There is no better schooling than putting into practice information from courses, personal experiences and those of friends.
Glòria Martí i Domènech. Geologist, Snow Science and Avalanche Specialist (IGC avalanche forecast, partner and member of ACNA Board)