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Thread: The Human Factor

  1. #1

    Default The Human Factor

    This is a paper by Doug Fesler, Jill Fredston and Bruce Trempor entitled THE HUMAN FACTOR - LESSONS FOR AVALANCHE EDUCATION'/the%20human%20factor-lessons%20for%20avalanche%20education.htm

    It seems from the press reports that the human factor has played played a big role in the recent fatalities on the Kenai. The paper lists the factors and talks about decision making, hazard evaluation and lessons for educators. I have included the human factors that they have identified here.

    It sounds to me, by the way that friends and family spoke about the group of riders that there were several human factors involved.

    "He was really the prototypical invincible person who could do anything and do it well," said von Alvensleben's older brother, Johannes, who was reached at the family home. "He might get hurt. But nothing bad would really happen to him. Not avalanches. Avalanches are something that happen to other people, not us."

    "He's one of the last people I'd expect to get caught in an avalanche," said von Alvensleben's friend, Armbrust.

    His family used to find comfort in his extreme habits because he wouldn't go into the dangerous backcountry alone. He would go with a half dozen guys who were some of the best snowmachiners in the state, maybe even on the West Coast, said his brother.
    "These were not weekend warriors, they were guys who went out every day they could," said Johannes von Alvensleben. They were more dedicated to snowmachining and spent more hours doing it than many people do to their full-time jobs.

    "This group -- they like to push the limit," said troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen. "That's how we got to this point in the first place."

    In the course of just over a week, up to 8 feet of snow and 9 inches of water have accumulated on top of light-density snow, creating widespread avalanches in Girdwood Valley, Portage, Turnagain Pass and the Summit Lake areas, the avalanche center reported Wednesday.
    Despite that, the friends of the dead men have been out braving the dangerous conditions for the past three days to break trail and assess the safety of the area so they could reach the scene and retrieve the bodies, said Joshua Smith, one of the 11 members on the recovery mission.
    "Safety is always our first concern," he said. "We did everything as safely as could possibly be done."
    It looks like they were a group of experienced professional riders that pushed the limits a lot. It is unfourtunate and really sad that it happened. Take a look at the human factors and think about them next time you are out in avalanche terrain.

    I have highlighted the factors that may have been involved.


    Incorrect AssumptionsA classic perception trap is that if we believe or assume that the snowpack is stable, then we are much more likely to see signs of stability than of instability. For instance, survivors of avalanche accidents often say that, "the avalanche advisory said that the hazard was 'moderate' so we didn't expect to get caught," or "there were tracks on the slope so we assumed that it was safe. n Many travelers get positive reinforcement because they are able to travel to a given area many times with no problems. They eventually assume that the area is safe, but if the terrain is capable of producing an avalanche, then sooner or later it will and they will get surprised.
    Good science is built on removing subjectivity from the observation and often requires not only blind but double-blind tests to completely remove the tester's belief from the experiment. As avalanche instructors, we must teach students to identify their assumptions and check them out.

    The Herding Instinct
    Humans are clearly a very social creature. Safety in numbers has certainly served us well in the days where lions, tigers and bears were our major fears. But our herding instinct has just the opposite effect in avalanche terrain. More people standing in the same area means not only more triggers but more people to be buried with no one left to dig the others out.

    Most people will admit that they are more bold in a group than when alone. Often the larger the group the more bold we become. Yet the instability remains the same. Although avalanche education has done a good job of telling students to always go one at a time or spread out, education often ignores teaching how group size affects our perception of safety. Since hazard does not exist until we add people to the equation, the more people we add, the greater the hazard, not only because of the increased numbers but because of the shift in perceived safety. In other words, as group size increases, hazard increases yet our perception of potential hazard decreases.

    AttitudePride, ego, hubris--common traits in most anyone's weaker moments can easily produce unyielding behavior in the face of contrary evidence. We tend to filter information to suit our needs. People with high Ask-taking or "go for it" attitudes generally filter information about potential hazard and draw unrealistically optimistic conclusions which lead them to push the fine line even finer. People who are generally conservative by nature tend to use the same information to further justify their conservative approach. Attitude, ego and goal orientation are all tied together in a form of "tunnel vision" which allows the viewers to only see a small part of the big picture.
    TestosteroneIn Utah, even though females comprise over a third of the backcountry recreationists, since 1980, only one fatality out of 22 involved a female and she was a relative novice accompanying five other males at the time. This statistic repeats itself in most other regions of the country as well. Most male avalanche victims in the U.S. are between 16 and 35 years old. We can only suppose that testosterone is strongly correlated.
    We can argue at length about which behaviors and perception shifts testosterone produces. But a more fruitful and less bigoted approach for avalanche instructors is to encourage students to retain the more useful testosterone-induced behaviors and save the less useful ones for less risky endeavors.

    Weather and PerceptionWe know that most natural avalanches occur during or immediately after storms. But very few victims are killed by avalanches they do not trigger. More importantly, a disproportionate share of avalanche accidents occur during blue-sky days in between storms. It is true that more people are out during sunny days, but we feel that sunny days have a more important effect, namely, sunny days make us feel good. We get into trouble when the snowpack does not share our opinion. Most of our non-avalanche related experience teaches us that the danger is over when the storm is over. But avalanche hazard is notorious for lingering after storms especially with faceted snow and surface hoar as weak-layers. Once again, our perception of the hazard is out of synch with the actual hazard.
    Travel during foul weather can also be just as dangerous but for the opposite reason. Being cold and wet makes us feel gloomy and we would rather be home by the fire. We tend to cut corners and rush decisions. Just when we need to pay attention the most, the weather pushes us to do the opposite. We often call this the "horse syndrome," a rush to get back to the barn.

    City thinking versus mountain thinking
    Another common perception trap is to bring our human culture into a non-human setting. In other words, city thinking and mountain thinking are very different things. The avalanche doesn't care if we have a meeting on Monday or that we paid $600 to fly in to a particular spot. The avalanche doesn't care if we are lost in conversation, tired, or hesitant to drop back 50 meters in elevation only to have to climb back up again. We have only one job in the mountains: to perceive the mountain on its own terms and adjust our behavior accordingly.

    Avalanche Skills versus Travel Skills
    We have noticed for years that most people getting caught in avalanches are very skilled at their sport. They may be excellent skiers, climbers, snowmobilers, or snowboarders. Newspaper accounts often report that they were very "experienced". But experienced at what? True, they have excellent travel skills but their travel skills almost invariably out pace their avalanche skills.

    The greater the difference between travel skills and avalanche skills, the more likely they will eventually get caught in an avalanche because of their ability to access dangerous avalanche terrain. We have found that people highly skilled in their sport tend to consistently overestimate their avalanche skills, often they vastly overestimate them.

    Poor communication is a common denominator in almost all mountaineering accidents. Poor communication typically takes several forms: 1) one or more people fail to speak up for fear of being the "nerd," 2) incomplete communication leads to incorrect assumptions or limited sharing of data, 3) misunderstanding of the plan or the potential hazard, and/or 4) there is no communication at all. Any mountaineering party can only accomplish what its weakest member is capable of. Often the weakest member doesn't speak up or the decision-makers fail to adequately consult everyone in the group. Members of the party may also have different levels of acceptable Ask, expectation, travel skills and avalanche skills and these are often not communicated.
    Copyrightę 1998-2001 WestWide Avalanche Network
    All Rights Reserved.

    I hope that this is the last avy fatality in Alaska. Hopefully this helps your decision making out in the mountains.

  2. #2
    Member nooksack's Avatar
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    Aug 2006


    I copied this from another forum, I lends it's self well to this subject.

    "I work in the mountain guiding industry, which as you might imagine, involves exposure to risks and dangers of many sorts. Some of these dangers, such as avalanches, ice fall, weather, and falling into crevasses, are objective. Other dangers and risks are much harder to define, predict, and prevent could be considered more subjective. Decision-making factors and abilities play a huge part in mitigating these dangers. When there are errors and breakdown in the decision-making process, a few common themes or patterns, particularly with regard to the human elements, have been studied and well documented. A common concept is the idea of a "heuristic trap" or notion that there are a few commonly followed decision making patterns that get people into trouble in the outdoors. The most commonly identified patterns, summarized by keyword or concept, are:

    1. Familiarity
    2. Consistency
    3. Acceptance
    4. The Expert Halo
    5. Social Facilitation
    6. Scarcity

    I would also add "ignorance" and "positive reinforcement for bad decisions" to that list.

    The idea is that there are certain things that can lead to someone, or a group, compromising their values or safety while making decisions on the fly. In a controlled environment without many outside factors or considerations, most folks will arrive at what the safest and or most practical course of action would be. When these influences are in place, even experienced folks with good decision-making ability can compromise their safety and that of a group without knowing it."

  3. #3

    Default Good Video

    Here is a 15 minute video that deals with an avalanche death in Montana. Really good video, I think. I picked up some stuff from it and it definitely highlights the human factor in the decision making process. I got this link from another site but I think it's worth watching.

    The recovery of one of the victims is truly remarkable.


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