Managing Risk in a Group Setting

December 28, 2016 D'Arcy McLeish

Every time we go into the backcountry we face some form of risk. Managing our own personal risk is one thing, however, (notwithstanding being with a certified ski guide) managing your own personal risk in a group is where things can get tricky. The last ten years have seen a massive increase in the amount of people heading into mountainous wilderness. Parks Canada, which instituted a winter park use permit for backcountry skiers in 1995, saw 124 percent increase from 2009-2012 in permit requests. In Canada alone, 7000 new people every year sign up to take basic avalanche courses. New avalanche safety equipment, education and reporting have all contributed to this uptick in skier traffic behind the boundary. With that increase has come an increase in avalanche incidents. And while there is a mountain of information and data about how snow moves, works and becomes something that can kill a skier, researchers are seeing that presenting users with the right information is only half the battle in managing risk.

Getting this requires managing risk.  Photo - Reuben Krabbe
Getting this requires managing risk.
Photo – Reuben Krabbe

We are human. Which means when we make decisions, we fall prey to our emotions, needs, desires and instincts. And unlike, say, an ACMG Ski Guide, most of us aren’t trained and on the lookout for how those things affect us. These ‘things’ are what researchers call heuristics, or human factors. A heuristic is a method we use to problem solve. The simple way to define this is a rule of thumb or an educated guess based on our previous experience. So for most of us, instead of taking a bunch of hard information like avalanche observations, stability test results or the forecasted avalanche hazard, we tend to use heuristic methods to make decisions. We use these methods to collate what is too great a cognitive load in our brains and turn them into quick, mental shortcuts.

A great series of articles on risk, avalanches and heuristics, presented by Powder and Black Diamond Equipment. Worth the watch and the read. 

An example of this would be skiing the same line frequently. You know the terrain, a little history of the slope and so create simple rules of thumb or habits based on your own experience. Maybe you always dig a pit in the same spot, or ski cut the same way or drop in at a specific part of the slope. For the most part, these little tricks we use work. We take in information and instead of using logic and reason, we use heuristic methods to problem solve. Those human factors are where much of today’s avalanche research is focused (you have only to visit various avalanche organizations’ websites like the Canadian Avalanche Association or the Utah Avalanche Center to see this). And therein lies one of the great challenges for skiers and boarders to manage our risk in the backcountry.

avalanche danger scale
Last Frontier Heliskiing Guide Colin Moorhead getting some hard data from the snow pack.
Photo – Steve Rosset

Those human factors influence everything we do and can make things a little messy sometimes. Nowhere is that more of a problem than in avalanche terrain. Researchers describe avalanche terrain as something called a poor-feedback environment. What that means is unstable slopes tend to not avalanche most of the time. So when we do make poor decisions, we usually get away with them. That re-enforces our bad decisions and sometimes even rewards us for them with face shots and high fives. And that’s fine, right up until that familiar slope rips out higher than you expected and you find yourself in an avalanche.

Milking the risk vs reward equation. Photo - Grant Gunderson
Milking the risk vs reward equation.
Photo – Grant Gunderson

These challenges are even larger when managing risk between individuals and groups. Earlier this year, there was a study published by Wilderness and Environmental Medicine that presented evidence to suggest that you are safer travelling alone (or as a group of two) than in larger groups in the backcountry. Really? Alone is safer? But think about it; as a solo backcountry user:

  • All decisions lie with only one human brain.
  • There is no outside influence on decisions from other human brains and their emotional biases.
  • Because you are alone, you have no backup. If something goes awry, there is no one to dig you out. That’s a big motivator to stay safe and take conservative decisions
  • Things like ego will have less of an affect when you are alone

According to the research, a solo user or pair of users tend to be more cautious and make better decisions. It may seem counter intuitive, but it makes sense. Basically, less is more.

One of the main reasons to ski with a guide is to be able to have a wider margin for error and a professional managing your risk. Plus you get to do this.  Photo - Dave Silver
One of the main reasons to ski with a guide is to be able to have a wider margin for error and a professional managing your risk. Plus you get to do this.
Photo – Dave Silver

In larger groups, human factors are compounded and the study suggests you are more likely to get caught in an avalanche in a larger group. “We found higher avalanche risk for groups of 4 or more people and lower risk for people travelling alone and in groups of 2.” How many of you have been in situations where your spider senses are tingling and you’re seeing evidence that you shouldn’t be going on a particular slope, but the group vibe is saying “GO!”? Maybe you’re excited to shred or backing off will add hours to your day, or that cold beer at the car is calling your name; all of these things make managing risk in a group more difficult. More people, more egos, more risk.

In a group, especially among peers or friends, human factors are compounded. You also have to share.  Photo - Randy Lincks
In a group, especially among peers or friends, human factors are compounded. You also have to share.
Photo – Randy Lincks

In a guided group, these conclusions aren’t as concrete. With a ski guide, there is a defined command structure in that group. There is one person in charge of making all the important decisions. In that setting, there is less of a chance of peer conflict, group pressure or a clash of egos between friends. And as mentioned, guides, much like ski patrollers, are trained to deal with and manage risk in a more conscientious way than the average backcountry skier or rider.

Practice, practice, practice. Photo - Geoff Holman
Practice, practice, practice. Photo – Geoff Holman

So how do you manage your own risk within a group setting? It’s difficult. For myself, I rely on a few different things:

  • What have I seen in my pits, tests, and avalanche observations throughout the day? I make assumptions, before heading out, based on forecasts and avalanche reports of what I think the hazard will be. Were my assumptions right or wrong?
  • I try to keep snow addiction and peer pressure from being a factor in any decision I make. Being aware of these challenges is a huge first step.
  • I try and listen to the little voice in my head.

None of these are fool proof, and they’ve created conflict on multiple occasions. And because avalanche terrain is a poor-feedback environment, I have often been the one to back off, while the group goes ahead, and nothing happens. This has led to being called several different expletives that I can’t mention in this article. But the important thing is I am alive.

When you come skiing at Last Frontier, not only is there an ACMG Guide, you get one of these for the day, too.  Photo - Last Frontier Heliskiing
When you come skiing at Last Frontier, not only is there an ACMG Guide, you get one of these for the day, too.
Photo – Aurelien Sudan

Managing our risk is always a challenge. Everyone has a different personal risk tolerance. Some people are happy pushing the terrain, some are overly cautious. Finding a balance and learning to make good decisions requires time and effort. It also requires making the right choices before you head out in the mountains. Who are you ski touring with? Are you heading out with a group where you are the most experienced person? Will the entire group be relying on you for guidance? Is there someone in your group who is known to be a cowboy and likes pushing the terrain, sometimes to the detriment of others? Are you skiing with a bunch of mountain guides who think they are snow whisperers?

Tools of the trade.  Photo - Last Frontier Heliskiing
Tools of the trade.
Photo – Last Frontier Heliskiing

All of these factors have to be taken into account. Going against your own heuristic tendencies can be strange, but it’s important to make decisions, especially in the mountains, based on logic and reason. The key thing to remember is to ask yourself what you see and what you have learned. Did you see specific slopes avalanche that day? Did your pit tests tell you something you didn’t think of? Is the snow settling in places you didn’t expect? Is your group really stoked and motivated to hit a specific line? Will that desire influence how you and your group interpret the data around you? Remember that no one is invincible, from the first time backcountry skier to the seasoned Swiss Guide. Everyone can make mistakes. Complacency, ego, fatigue, snow addiction; all these things influence how we make decisions. Being aware of that is half the battle. Training for it is the other half.

Be safe, ski hard.