In this next excerpt from the upcoming Ski Guide Manual, Rob Coppolillo offers insights into the value of the often overlooked debrief. Want more? Pre-order your copy (scheduled to ship in early November) and check out past excerpts.
Ah, you caught that! I snuck in the word “valid” in the previous section. We receive feedback all day long, in everything we do. It’s how we change course, error correct, adjust our behavior, gauge results, and, yeah, improve.
But not all feedback is created equal. In environments with a “significant degree of uncertainty and unpredictability,” we begin to second-guess the accuracy or validity of the feedback. These are “low-validity” environments, according to Kahneman and others. In ski-guide terms, this means the feedback you get might not be the feedback you should get.
For example, we go ride on a deep day, getting fresh tracks, and return to the trailhead with stoked clients or buddies; maybe we even snag a fat tip. Oh, yeah, we’re good at this! What happens, though, after a “great day,” when you return home to read of four avalanches within a couple miles of your tour? Having seen your hero footage on Facecramp, a mentor calls and asks, “Were you comfortable all being on that slope?”
The following day you return to the field nearby; you get full propagation in an ECT and observe the debris of a skier triggered avalanche—same aspect, next drainage over from your original line. (I’m describing my own near miss in 2016. Check out my article in The Avalanche Review, December 2017; link in the “Suggested Reading” list.)
The smart money is on recategorizing the “great day” as a near miss. Rather than call the day a success, you recognize that you could have easily ended up involved in an accident.
We’ll talk more about near misses in a sec. The point here is that the backcountry doesn’t return valid feedback much of the time—and that’s not just tricky, it’s dangerous. Instead of learning a lesson and debriefing a near miss, we might high-five, head home to the family, and recount tales of our skill, heroism, and panache. The feedback we received—hero skiing—is not the feedback we should’ve gotten: You jokers barely survived!
As we acquire experience, it needs to be evaluated and cataloged, which is hard to do unless you slow down, engage your evidence-driven logical mind (or “System 2” thinking; more on this in the “Decision Making” chapter), perform a conscientious debrief with your crew, and listen.
Luck or Skill?
Running a marathon or throwing a javelin offer easy metrics—time and distance—for gauging success, improvement, and skill. But what about backcountry touring or mountain guiding?
Sure, we can look at how often we’re getting caught in avalanches or whether our guests survive days in the mountains with us. Those are obvious “metrics,” relying on obvious feedback.
But hang on a sec; that’s pretty risky feedback on which to focus. Further, we’re assuming any day we don’t kill a guest or get involved in an avalanche is a “success.” (That’s a terrible sentence to write, honestly.) If we gauge our mastery in the mountains with those metrics, when we finally do get some negative feedback—an involvement or fatality—it will be at the least dangerous and at the worst utterly tragic. No thanks.
What’s more, on those “successful” days, how do we know we didn’t just get lucky? The balance between luck and skill resists easy measurement, so much so that Dr. Michael Mauboussin wrote a book about it, The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. He argues two points that matter here: First, “deliberate practice” is essential for developing skill; second, valid feedback is essential for practicing deliberately.
Valid feedback, a solid team, and a thorough debrief helps us accurately perceive our lucky days versus our skills—and correctly identify our near misses.
Celebrate the Near Miss (avalanchenearmiss.org)
High-performing teams and organizations recognize that near misses are actually learning opportunities and blessings in their own way. This, of course, requires correctly identifying near misses in the first place. Failing to recognize a near miss, or dismissing it through a “no-harm, no-foul” attitude, is a lost opportunity for recreationists—and downright negligent for professionals.
Kahneman, in Thinking, phrases the risk thus: “If repeated exposure of a stimulus is followed by nothing bad, such a stimulus will eventually become a safety signal.”
Jonah Lehrer reinforces this sentiment in How We Decide, diving into the neuroscience and neurochemistry of it, discussing dopamine reward circuits in the brain. If our brain mistakes a near miss for a “safety signal,” we’re actually building in dangerous behaviors to our practice and mistaking it for “best practices.” Some writers have called this “normalizing deviance.”
The take home for us is that near misses, if themselves missed, can actually become “safety signals,” or tales of success and skill in the backcountry. Can you think of a worse outcome from the days when we just got lucky?
Firefighters in particular have profited from a culture of reporting, recording, and learning from near misses. Go to firefighternearmiss.org and give a look. Surprising, eh? Initiated in 2005, the organization has amassed thousands of near misses in its database, and tens of thousands of first responders and firefighters have learned from their colleagues’ experiences.
Avalanche professionals have adopted a similar platform at avalanchenearmiss.org. If you’re a guide, patroller, instructor, or forecaster, share your near misses with us there. Don’t be shy. Celebrate near misses and share them with your teammates. If you can’t, that’s a good sign that you’re not skiing with a team.
Canadian ski guide Dr. Iain Stewart-Patterson said it well in his PhD dissertation: “The role of the ski guiding environment is of particular interest, as it allows poor decisions to masquerade as good ones.” Don’t let a poor decision—and we all make ’em—masquerade as a success.
Rob Coppolillo is a mountain guide and writer, based on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.
There are many things we do that strongly inhibit recognizing, analyzing, learning from, and sharing incidents and near misses. Social media shaming and second-guessing, fear of lawsuits / fines, embarrassment, etc. The fact that avalanchenearmiss.org has so few reports and that forecast centers likely capture only a small fraction of incidents and near misses, speak to a resistance to openly share our mistakes. I’d be interested to hear what Rob and others think that the backcountry ski “community” can do to encouraging reporting and sharing of information openly. The risk management expert Sydney Dekker says that “Death does not arise from sudden failure, it hides in success”…
Great that you bring up Dekker! I discovered him researching the book and thinking about errors of process/etc….
In wondering what might prompt others to adopt an open culture of reporting/celebrating near misses, I’m thinking of my mentors who modeled that for me — Marc Chauvin, Doug Nidever, Tim Brown, Colin Zach — and that instilled the practice in me. I’m with you, though, I still see (am I wrong to say “especially on the Front Range”?) the predominant culture as discouraging reporting, rather than encouraging it. There’s still a perception that to admit ignorance or a mistake reveals some character flaw, or incompetence. Guide culture (am I wrong to say especially on the Front Range?!) is certainly no better — I can think of several incidents of very experienced guides in/around Boulder not reporting near misses and what’s worse — the routine of highlighting others’ mistakes and near misses. It’s toxic and dangerous.
My best guess at this is to create a team culture in which near misses are acknowledged/discussed/”celebrated”. This creates a good vibe within our little group. Second, applaud and support others’ reporting when we see it — especially with kindness and understanding. Maybe this “modeling” on social media and elsewhere will have an affect? It’s tough to combat the peanut gallery on mountain project and elsewhere, but maybe a small group of us can sway some behavior/opinion? Lastly, I think anybody in a leadership position is directly responsible for the organization culture around/”below.” I’m thinking of two organizations/businesses that still suffer from poor culture, years after toxic leaders left them — it’s really a bummer to see how entrenched mindset/attitude can get.
Thanks for the read on this one! I think outlets like WildSnow are really drivers of ski culture, too. Keeping the realistic, “pro” articles coming certainly helps. Doug and Manasseh are doing a great job of delivering high-level content. The Powder Cloud does a good job, too. I have nothing against ski porn, as long as it’s balanced with deeper thinking on the matter, too!
Hope you’re skiing, dude! We just went into another lockdown here in France. Dammit. Where you based? Turns? COVID cases? RC!
@Josh, as a fellow fan of Dekker I definitely hear what you’re saying, and I’m guessing you agree with him in that increased reporting lies in culture. But this phenomenon of confounding the near-miss with success isn’t limited to the backcountry – it happens every day in numerous industries as well. We rigorously investigate failure but we don’t do the same level of investigation with success; we just move on to the celebration and the next thing. However as the lessons of Dekker and other human performance thinkers make their way into organizations, the idea of the debrief is gaining strength and is allowing teams to identify if success was a result of robust processes, sound work practices, and good decision making; or if it was a result of dumb luck.
I’m no expert but my guess as to how we encourage reporting is the same way we do it in industry: Lead by example, share learning, support and celebrate those who share openly. A nice example here in NH occurred a couple winters ago when a local mountain guide was “kissed” by a slide in Oakes Gulf (he was on the edge of the slide but hung on to a tree, and was only buried hip deep). He made a point of making his experience very public and an opportunity for the community to learn.
We’ll know that the reporting culture is shifting when we see more reports on the near miss sites, and when public discussion sees more support and learning vs. arm chair experts and trolls spouting about how stupid someone was (sadly, a strong trend in internet culture).
Aaron–spot on. I think the internet-voyeur-expert, delighting in others’ mistakes and near misses, is our enemy at this point. I’m all for cat videos and provoking my less-commie friends on FB, but man—-taken on balance, I’m not sure social media is a net-win for society/ski culture. Damn.
I think you’re exactly right — it’s up to “influencers” (in all their different versions) to model the behavior, resist the bro culture of always being right/rad/in-the-know, and just keep pecking away at this…..
No turns in NH yet, eh? I’m on lockdown again—so scheming a way to stay out more than an hour and work off the camembert this morn……ack!
Rob, I really appreciated a recent IG post and takedown that you may have seen from an esteemed guide colleague of yours. He publicly explained why he took down an instructional post after some of his colleagues pointed out some better ways of doing his tech tip. And this was someone who is a top expert in his field. That kind of honest humility and transparency as an industry expert is SOOO cool to see and such good modelling.
I didn’t see it! Indeed, it’s that kind of commitment to accuracy (instead of being “right”) that goes a long way. Keep it up, brudda, and hope to ski with you sometime!
Great article Rob! I am loving seeing Safety Science and Accident Theory making its way into such a public, easy to understand forum.
This is a common “tool” utilized in other high risk industries. I would think of it more of a practice. You’re right, we need better debriefs, and I would argue we need better briefs as well! Do we talk about what the plan for the day is? Do we discuss our “oh shit” strategies? As far as culture change, it does start with the leaders. Is this information coming from CAIC? Guides? etc. I would also argue that we not focus on what went wrong, but focus on “how I would do it differently/better next time.” This has a far more positive connotation.
What is also far less common than reporting near misses and learning from our mistakes is learning from our successes. I would refer to this as “critical success analysis.”
I would bet that many of our briefs and debriefs do not include critical success factors either for the day ahead or the day we just completed. What do we plan to do well that can keep us out of trouble? What did we do well that kept us out of trouble? What did we do that we want to do again and again and again?
Cool, Ben, “critical success analysis”—interesting, too often we slay pow and then it’s high-fives and home to bed. Good point with that! Another tool for the toolbox.
The book has an entire chapter on trip planning, so I hope it encompasses what you mean about the “brief”. We shall see!
Good luck this season and I hope you get cold temps and that La Nina jet drops well into Colorado. Harvest some for me, brudda!
A critical look at successes or near misses is important. I’ll admit that I don’t do it often enough for mellow, “successful” outings.
Navigating avy terrain year after year without ever triggering anything does not necessarily mean one is making good choices, it just means that the odds have, up until now, worked out favorably. Sames goes, for example, in climbing when it comes to building anchors with gear: since climbers rarely take factor 2 falls on their anchors, one can be falsely led into believing that after 20 years (or pick your number) of never having an anchor fail that you’re good at building bomber anchors.
Anyway, since you’re in France, here are two websites I recommend (if you have not already seen them):
1) http://www.data-avalanche.org/ => started by Alain Duclos, France’s avy expert. It includes info about recent avy activity, from natural slides to skier triggered slides both fatal and non-fatal.
On a side note, be curious as to your take on the Munter 3X3 method, ANENA’s revised approach to analyzing avy risk, and ENSA’s approach to managing risk
2) https://www.camptocamp.org/serac => a database of incidents, accidents, and near misses. Also in French. People can post anonymously if they so choose to contribute to the database.
Cheers and thanks for posting excerpts from your book.
Salut Degaine! I look at data-avalanche during the winter, but I didn’t know about the C2C forum—I’ll give a look, for sure.
I’ve only just started looking more in-depth at Munter and 3×3…a Swiss colleague of mine said the reduction method works pretty well, as long as the snowpack is behaving like a “normal” or “usual” euro snowpack…but once it’s outside of that norm, it breaks down quickly. It’s been interesting and stressful watching how people manage different hazards here in Chamonix, vs. Colorado vs. Canada….
Your points about years of no-feedback are spot on, I think. How much is luck, how much is skill? We sure don’t get easy answers.
I’ll check out that C2C … and Anena, do they manage the data-avalanche site? I’m trying to get everybody straight over here!
Salut, mon pote! RC
Full disclosure: I work as a guide and as a risk management consultant, and in referencing Dekker, I consistently see that it is relatively easier (albeit still hard work) to change culture within a committed organization so that incident and near miss reporting, and processes of self assessment and organizational assessment, can thrive. In the broader culture of the “ski community” it’s a taller order to build and shift culture and I would agree with many here who have recognized the impacts that social media can have in building unhealthy culture that does not promote open and honest communication. I really appreciate the mindset of the safety differently folks – and we should recognize that no matter what we do (within reason), generally the outcome is acceptable, and the goal of debriefing, learning, sharing, should be to shift outcomes to the slightly better end of the spectrum (as opposed to having an impossible goal of eliminating errors or risk). I don’t have any great answers as to how to achieve that in such a broad culture as “backcountry skiers” but I really appreciate all of your thoughtful suggestions here. I’ve personally been trying to ask for direct feedback and questions from those I ski with – whether an experienced friend, or a brand new client. It’s useful for me, and hopefully it models a commitment to the process…and a recognition that we all make errors, even on our successful days. A bit of thin skiing possible here in the PNW, but in a moment of optimism, the kids and I waxed all our skis today.
I like that approach, Josh—just ask for it. I tell people “I was journalist before I was a guide, so I have thick skin—let me know!” I find many (not most, not all) respond in kind, and enjoy the debrief or any feedback geared towards “getting better.”
Good job, man, let’s keep steering the boat that direction….
May that new wax be used in deep, cold snow within the month! RC
Awesome article Rob (as usual!!!) thank you! I’ve neglected the debrief and categorizing “success” days objectively. No more. “Principles”, by Ray Dalio is a good read about systemizing decision making and assessing objectively. Keep it coming sender.
Baldo! Ray Dalio, “Principles”—haven’t heard of this one! On the list.
Lockdown 2.0 here. Dammit! Get this, though—this time they’re allowing guides to stay out as long as we want skiing/climbing—for training. Good!
See you this year, I hope! RC
My preorder arrives tommorow, can’t wait!
And it arrived. Fun to see your 2nd to last photo in my back yard (Burnie).
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