5 Tips — Avalanche Safety Group Psychology


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  
Backcountry travelers gather at Cripple Creek Backcountry to discuss the psychologies of avalanche awareness.

An evening of camaraderie and spirited talk about avalanche awareness at Cripple Creek Backcountry, Carbondale, Colorado.

Group psychology and dynamics (take your pick for the more PC terminology) are topics that sometimes receive little attention in avalanche classes and lectures. However, in the last several years, some of our worst backcountry avalanche tragedies appear to have resulted at least in part from poor group dynamics — proof that avalanche safety means looking up from your snow pit and paying attention to what is going on within your crew.

How do we begin discussion on group dynamics in the backcountry? A few days ago we stuffed 40 ardent backcountry skiers into our ski shop (Cripple Creek Backcountry, Carbondale, Colorado’s own specialized backcountry retailer) and gave them the opportunity to share tips, tricks, and their own experiences. Although some incredible insights were provided from mediators, local avalanche forecaster Blase Reardon and big mountain climber Michael Kennedy, the open forum atmosphere led to profound words from many other members of Carbondale’s backcountry community. A summary:

Group size: Three to four people is an ideal size for backcountry travel. If the group exceeds four, group dynamics are hard to manage and one person may need to step up and take charge. Tip: initiating the transceiver test is a great way to exert some leadership as well as shift a group’s focus towards safety.

What's your group size? This tour in Europe is typical of the Alps but we see these sorts of large groups in the US as well: too many people for safe group dynamics unless firm leadership is provided by a guide or defacto guide.

What's your group size? This tour in Europe is typical of the Alps but we see these sorts of large groups in the U.S. as well: too many people for safe group dynamics unless firm leadership is provided by a guide or defacto guide.

Veto power! If one member of the group says no to a situation, the decision has been made for everyone. Consensus is not the goal of backcountry decisions unless it is towards the more conservative choice. Think about this. Choose partners with similar risk tolerance, but just as importantly ski with groups who agree on the veto power principle, and SPEAK UP if you feel uncomfortable. Conversely, if you “wear the expert halo” be sensitive to the tendency to over-sell your decisions once someone does speak up.

Herd mentality: If there is a skin track in, it will be followed and if there are ski tracks, it will be skied. But as we all know this doesn’t make it the correct choice. Think for yourself in the backcountry. This means stepping up and voicing your opinion in a group rather than deferring to the more experienced.

Ask questions don’t make statements: A simple change from, “This looks good. We should ski it.” to “Does this look good? Should we ski it?” really alters how the group approaches the next descent. Making statements closes down group communication while asking questions opens important dialog. (Editor’s note from Lou: What comes to my mind is the famed “feels really solid” stated by many people who subsequently got caught in avalanches, including myself.)

Recap your day: Whether it is in the car, in the bar, or in your personal backcountry journal, reviewing your decisions and situations is important. “Did we get it, or did we get away with it?” Don’t mistake the fact that you didn’t get caught for a good decision. Ask questions like “When were we at the most risk today?” to facilitate conversation evaluating decision-making.

The next step is opening the discussion to thousands of more voices on the web. Don’t wait until the next disaster to voice your opinion. If you have some group dynamics tricks you use to stay safe, or have an opinion, share your comments here!

(WildSnow guest blogger Doug Stenclik is co-owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry, the local shop only a few blocks from WildSnow HQ. While he’s working on his group dynamics, his tried and true solution to avalanche danger is to only skimo race when the danger rises too high. When asked about the group dynamics of racing, he says it’s all about who hands you a beer at the finish line.)

Comments

26 Responses to “5 Tips — Avalanche Safety Group Psychology”

  1. billy g February 10th, 2014 2:42 pm

    Can never overkill this subject. Good points to constantly consider. Don’t know if you’ve ever read this one, but a strong story with some well thought out lessons that echo the points in your above article. I always refer friends to this as well as Lou’s “Education of Littleski” post which was some of the best content I have read here.
    http://blog.mec.ca/2013/01/23/the-finger-of-god/

  2. Grant Alexander February 10th, 2014 3:21 pm

    This is by far the most under rated aspect of backcountry travel. I would argue that a group culture built on safety is the number one priority. It’s rare that groups don’t have the knowledge, but more frequent that those with the knowledge do not speak up because the group culture has succumb to group think. A great way to minimize this is to change the culture within your own group. Start from a place of safety and build from there. I sent a letter to my friends to this effect, it’s posted on Sportgevity and is very relevant to this discussion. The letter is in the second half of this article: http://sportgevity.com/article/killing-people-avalanches

  3. Brian February 10th, 2014 4:53 pm

    Agreed with Grant above. Lack of education isn’t what’s killing people. It’s decision making skills, risk tolerance, and heuristic traps. My avy I course only touched on these issues briefly. I would hope that in the future, introductory avy courses devote more time to these aspects of safety.
    (My favorite above is the veto power rule. My touring crew implemented this rule years ago)

  4. Stano February 10th, 2014 5:33 pm

    I would add two more “psychology” factors:

    Goals – I think goals inherently also speak for risk tolerance under given conditions/situations. Everyone should be clear on their goals for the day as perhaps they dictate the group dynamics the most.

    Familiarity with the place – I catch myself sometimes thinking I know what’s going on just because I have been there too many times. Terrain familiarity is a great asset but could also be a sucker hole if you let it.

  5. Larry February 10th, 2014 5:40 pm

    Human factors are the most important part of the avalanche triangle (weather, snowpack, terrain) as ultimately, a decision is made to ski or not to ski. If we have done proper planning before the tour, we are already aware of the risk factors and have already made decisions about which terrain to avoid skiing today. I see mistakes made when the group gets into the field and starts digging pits to counter those previously made decisions (i.e. when powder fever begins to take hold). Pits are great, but they should be used as confirmation of what we already suspect, not to change our safety plan for the day.

  6. Lou Dawson February 10th, 2014 6:53 pm

    Stano, thanks for bringing up the familiarity trap. That’s very real for those of us in place such as Colorado where access is limited and we tend to do the same tours over and over again. I try to guard against it in myself, but I’ll be if you were an outsider inside my brain you’d find it. This is when veto power comes into play. You’re up there with a guy who’s done the same tour 45 times. It seems like he’s forcing the route. Veto?

  7. Doug Cripplecreekbc February 10th, 2014 10:00 pm

    Stano, Speaking of goals I found many of my backcountry outings were focused on getting a certain amount of vertical in for a day of training. Combine that with familiarity to let my guard down and it is certainly a recipe for disaster.

    However, Blase brought up another point I did not mention “You can break a rule, but only one rule.” For example if you are going to be moving fast with little assessment through avalanche terrain, then you have to stick to slopes less than 30 degrees. I thought I would just mention that one to a fellow racer.

  8. Koen February 11th, 2014 12:11 am

    Hi Doug, i know that in a race you don’t have time to evaluate the avalanche risk and you trust the evaluation of the professional of the racing organisation. But basicaly what it comes down to is that you delegate the decision. This also has risks. The biggest avalanche i have been in was during a race (22 people in it and triggered by spectators skiing in a no ski zone). But on the possitive side help is never far away in an organized event.

  9. Lenka K. February 11th, 2014 3:00 am

    Really good points.

    I’d just add one thing: communicate not only WITHIN your OWN GROUP, but also with GROUPS AROUND YOU.

    This may be less of an issue in the US, where backcountry skiers are few and far between, but last year two massive avalanches resulting in two deaths occurred on popular routes in Tyrol, where one group simply ignored the presence of others (descending parties triggered avalanches that took down parties still on the climb, resulting in multiple burials).

    You’re tracking in steep terrain, keeping safety distances between the members of your group, when another group closes on you from behind? Tell them loud & clear to keep their distance and/or agree on a safe place to gather and overtake.

    You’re climbing up a couloir when you see a party getting ready to descend? Ask them to wait a bit until you can get out of the line of fire. YOU’RE standing at the top of a couloir, all psyched to ski the untracked jewel, when you spot a party below you? Wait for THEM to reach a safe place.

    Oftentimes the other party involved will mumble and grumble if you tell them what to do/not do, but if you’re polite and reasonable, they’re usually concur, to everybody’s advantage.

    Lenka K.

  10. Dan Powers February 11th, 2014 7:12 am

    The skin track point is a favorite. On one of my common tours the most recent skin track had been going straight up the gully rather than on the easy ridge just to the right. We put a new track in, and today the old one is under a pile of debris.

    Seems as though people turn their brains off on an old skin track.

  11. Lou Dawson February 11th, 2014 8:08 am

    Dan, the skin track issue is definitely my favorite peeve. In fact, I had to dial back my whining after getting some “meaningful glances” from a certain skiing companion of mine (grin).

    But yeah, yeah! If you want an illustration of just how unskilled some people are at route finding, just look at the skin tracks they make. This is not to disparage them as an individual, as I’m glad they’re out there having fun and doing the best sport on the planet. But as an “Elmer” of the tribe I’d encourage anyone setting track to work on the concept of excellence, and think think think. Beyond setting an efficient track, think about micro route finding that avoids avalanche exposure.

    Perhaps the problem is that route finding and setting track are not the snazzy stuff that makes it into the Gopros, so folks tend to work on their ski turns or how their clothing looks, rather than how their skin track skis. I don’t know… but some of the stuff I see is just really bad, dangerous.

  12. Lou Dawson February 11th, 2014 8:15 am

    Just yesterday we had an avalanche fatality near here in Colorado. Snowmobiler. Condolences to all involved. No read on causes, experience of party or anything else for that matter except that avy danger was off the chart. It is fair regarding such such instances to ask yourself the question “would I have been there?” And to think about the decision making processes and group dynamics that could have led you to be there, or not.

    http://avalanche.state.co.us/caic/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=523&accfm=rep&view=public

    http://www.cbavalanchecenter.org/page.cfm?pageid=34325

  13. OMR February 11th, 2014 9:42 am

    BC skiing is a social event, with skiing serving as an excuse to be with friends. It’s all great until that sense of community overrides common sense. All my ‘close calls’ have occurred in a group (yes, I often ski alone), and the larger the group the greater the risk.

  14. Matt Kinney February 11th, 2014 9:42 am

    Checking beacons at a busy trailhead with skiers all over the place is problematic as everyone is focused more on gear issues and just getting on the trail. I’ve seen beacon checks ignored in the hustle for first tracks by some really experienced people.

    I like to wait til we are well away from the trailhead distractions preferably at a nice test slope. stop, group up, do beacon checks and then have an open discussion about stability issues for about 10 minutes. Good time to dig around in the snow a bit despite the “expert” in the group who says it’s a waste of time. This allows everyone in the group to focus on the avalanche game without distractions of a roadside parking lot.

  15. Stano February 11th, 2014 11:14 am

    Matt, I am with you on the beacon check a bit later without the crowds, HOWEVER, I believe the guides are right when demanding to do it right at the parking lot (or a hut).
    Because if your beacon doesn’t work at the car you are not going anywhere, or you know about it so you will adjust right there. Once you find out much later your beacon doesn’t work (and traveled up to that point in no avalanche terrain) your judgement on whether to continue or not will be skewed, especially if snow is blower pow and “everything looks pretty solid”.
    Please don’t take the “you” and “your” personally, I am talking about us all.

  16. Stano February 11th, 2014 11:20 am

    Doug, in general I agree with your “if going fast stick to less than 30″ rule but I always let the conditions/current situation dictate that my choice. Here in Canada, the moment you go to backcountry there is no help coming and hazards are plenty :) so when I want to pound intervals I stick to the hill or if conditions are safe I skin to some lower angle slopes/glacier and then do laps there. However, if I want to move fast on an endurance day (not head in the sand) I will go more adventurous and adjust as needed.
    Also, I see myself more as a bc skier that also races than a racer that also bc skis. If I didn’t get my regular adventure fix I wouldn’t be racing :)

  17. Matt Kinney February 11th, 2014 11:55 am

    Like most, I insure that everyone’s beacon works at the trailhead. But it always seems incomplete or too quick as the human factor to get on the trail and not hold anyone up, not be the slow one, be the fast one, get ahead of another group, dogs, car exhaust, sledders, weather, or worse, having a tele skier in your group futzing with getting into his bindings. :-)

    What I might do a bit different is do it again but much more focused. A parking lot is a poor place to get your avalanche eyes adjusted. Once on the trail it doesn’t take long to assess ski skills, pace of others in your group. Let everyone get on the trail, warm up a bit and collect their own independent snowpack assessment, then stop and collect everyone so that we can share what we have learned skinning up the trail. It’s a good practice and allows an educational component for those less traveled. Typically with me its about 10 minutes into the trip or as is commonly stated, “it depends.”

  18. chase harrison February 11th, 2014 1:51 pm

    You guys bring up a great point about the skin track being a tell tale sign of a persons knowledge about risk management and minimizing exposure to avalanche terrain. Something that has not been talked about is the latest gear ei. avalung and airbags. I am sure there are people out there who have the newest and latest gear and that gives a false sense of security. So they might take more chances. These more than likely would be people that are fairly new to the sport.

    I saw where somebody said in an earlier post to ask questions. I remember in one of my avy courses the instructor said to always ask yourself and the group will this slope slide?

  19. Doug CCBC February 11th, 2014 3:31 pm

    Lenka really good points on the group dynamics of multiple groups. Another point that I am guilty of is competition between groups effecting decision making on the up track. It is always exciting to be the first team looking down the white canvas, but do that by getting up early not by rushing decisions on the up track just to catch a group.

    Stano, I agree completely and have switched most all of my training to super low angle roads or the resort.

  20. Lou Dawson February 11th, 2014 4:43 pm

    Thanks Doug for organizing these get-togethers! And thanks for the excellent guest blog!

  21. Dave Field February 13th, 2014 9:25 am

    Thanks for sharing the topic and encouraging a worthwhile discussion. Lou, I’m curious what it takes to become an “Elmer of the tribe? :)

  22. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2014 9:36 am

    “Elmer” is an old slang term from amateur radio. It refers to the elders who really know their stuff combined with many years of experience — and are willing to help other people learn.

    As for what it takes to become an “Elmer.” I’d say it’s pretty hard to put on paper, but you’ll know them when you see them. 48 years old or older would probably be one criteria. As would a long career with lots of ski mountaineering, say over at least a 25 year span. Things like guide credentials or celebrity would have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    Lou

  23. star February 16th, 2014 5:16 am

    really I think two is good size group anymore makes… for problems I don’t like…one is better no need to make decisions and the need to stay… clean is paramount. since you know no one is gonna dig you out!

  24. Scott Nelson February 16th, 2014 8:13 pm

    Another tragedy yesterday in colorado, in our neighborhood nonetheless. A large group was caught. Condolences to the families of the two that were killed.

    Large group ( media reports 7 ), unstable snowpack…. Not sure of all the details yet, but the herd mentality issue may have been a factor, don’t know. Simply tragic.

  25. Lou Dawson February 16th, 2014 8:35 pm

    Indeed Scott, been tracking that all day, pretty disconcerting but not much info yet. Have to admit I was pretty surprised to hear a group of 7 was in that terrain on that particular day, but saying anything more than that without knowing much about the situation would indeed be rude. I just have to think there must have been some extenuating circumstances. Condolences to all involved, I have a feeling we might know some “friends of” or something to that effect, since we’re a pretty small community. Lou

  26. Jesse May 15th, 2014 1:35 pm

    A little late but…

    Stano’s point on objectives is one I share. I always think the best thing to do is remind everyone that the most important objective is to have a safe and fun day. Also, unless conditions are super stable I think the phrasing of objectives is important. Saying “Ski the Suicide Couloir of Mt Death” is much more conducive to risky choices then “Find some safe lines on or around Mt Death.”

    The skin track thing is another pet peeve and Im glad Im not alone! A state avy forecaster once commented that he could tell the difference between experienced backcountry skiers and the rest by the way they put in a skin track. I have never found a reason to dispute that statement.

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