Hotlines and the Evolution of Communicating Avalanche Forecasts

Blase Reardon

The human coccyx is a vestige of the tail in our primate ancestors. Goose bumps are a vestigial reflex; raising body hair helped our ancestors look larger to predators. Wisdom teeth, the appendix, and the muscles of the ear also performed important functions generations ago. All lost their original function and importance as they became less advantageous to human survival. Now the coccyx is just something that really, really hurts after you fall hard on a heel-side snowboard turn. After a few more generations of snowboarders, maybe it’ll disappear altogether.

Recorded avalanche advisories on phone answering machines are also vestigial. When the forerunner of the CAIC started issuing avalanche advisories 42 years ago, “hotlines” were a cutting-edge tool for communicating current conditions. But their use plummeted as people adopted the internet, and the decline continued as people began relying on mobile technology. The CAIC has maintained six hotlines in recent seasons, despite little use.

The problem with vestigial structures and traits is that they still require energy. For the CAIC, recording the advisories is another task in an increasingly busy morning workflow, one with little pay off because so few people use them. So we’ve decided to pull those vestigial wisdom teeth. We will no longer record avalanche advisories for local phone numbers. Instead, forecasters will record 60-second summaries of forecast snow and weather conditions that will be available as mp3 files on Soundcloud.

Here’s how you can easily access the daily radio recordings:

  1. Go to our to the Radio Recordings page on our website
  2. Click on any of the recordings to listen
  3. You can download the recordings by clicking on “DOWNLOAD CAIC RECORDINGS FROM SOUNDCLOUD”
    or go directly to SoundCloud

The CAIC forecasters will make three recordings each day:

  • Northern Mountains: the Vail and Summit County, Front Range and Steamboat and Flat Tops zones
  • Central Mountains: Sawatch, Aspen, Gunnison and Grand Mesa zones
  • Southern Mountains: North and South San Juan Mountains, and Sangre de Cristo zones

Each recording will include overall danger ratings, special products like Watches and Warnings, and descriptions of avalanche problems, notable events, and general weather events. The recordings are available for local radio stations to broadcast at their own schedule.

We recognize that a few people still use the telephone recordings, either out of long habit, familiarity, or lack of an internet connection. We understand that this news might be upsetting. We hope you can appreciate the need to balance the cost of efforts we undertake in the busy morning work crunch with the benefits of how many people we reach. If you liked hearing the advisory over the phone, try the new SoundCloud files. If you can’t access the recordings via the internet, urge your local radio station to broadcast the recordings each day. Either way, give us your feedback so we can keep evolving.

Mr. Magoos, Puckerface, and Developing Expert Intuition in Avalanche Terrain

Blase Reardon

On January 17th, 2014, a pair of riders triggered a large avalanche on a steep, near-treeline slope in the backcountry behind Snowmass Ski Resort. The slope had previously been nicknamed “Mr. Magoo’s” after a ski patroller who sometimes acted like the near-sighted cartoon character. The riders escaped unhurt, despite an ugly terrain trap below. An hour later, the resort’s snow safety director watched a solo skier turn down the same slope and trigger a second slide adjacent to the first. He met the solo skier as he returned to the resort and asked him whether he’d seen the first slide—or the larger natural avalanche just up the drainage at the same aspect and elevation. The solo skier replied, “It’s okay; I have skied Silverton and I skied the path a couple of years ago.”

The slope where the January 17th incidents occurred is steeper than 35 degrees and faces southeast. On that day, it was blanketed with a foot-thick slab formed by a recent storm and subsequent cross-loading; the slab sat on a thin, persistent weak layer. It was a slope that closely fit a pattern of recent avalanche activity and that was highlighted in the CAIC forecast as the kind of slope where people were most likely to trigger slides. With the danger rated as Considerable, skiing that slope on that day was a risky proposition, especially alone and with a fresh slide visible.

The solo skier didn’t answer the question posed to him – did he see the other slide and, implicitly, was he concerned about avalanche danger on the slope? Indeed, he seemed to answer a different question altogether, one centered on skiing rather than avalanche conditions. Perhaps standing at the top of Mr. Magoo’s he asked himself, “Can I ski a slope like this?” And his answer seems to have been “Yes, because I’ve skied slopes this steep before. I’ve even skied this slope before.”

According to Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, substitution like this is a nearly automatic cognitive response to complex, irregular environments. Our brains produce what Kahneman calls “off-the-shelf answers” to difficult problems by answering simpler, more familiar questions. It’s a sub-conscious process, and it provides solutions that leave us feeling very confident in our assessments and choices. Assessing the risk of triggering a slide on a steep slope covered with new snow is a complex task, fraught with uncertainty. Faced with that, our brains quickly default to questions with simpler answers, like “Can I ski this slope without falling?” or “Will the skiing be as good as it looks?”

Marketing provides numerous everyday examples of this pernicious tendency. When faced with a question like “Is this the best pair of skis for me to buy?” we often answer a question more like “Do I like this brand of skis?” or “Do I like the graphics?” In situations like these, substitution often provides adequate answers, because the alternatives aren’t that different and the consequences of not answering the initial question aren’t severe. And substitution has the advantages of saving us mental energy and time. Once we’ve substituted a simple, seemingly coherent answer to a complex question, we can confidently summon numerous arguments supporting our choice without recognizing the substitution.

That leads us back to Mr. Magoo, the cartoon character referenced in the slope’s nickname. Mr. Magoo stubbornly refuses to recognize his near-sightedness. He doesn’t have to, because situations always work out for him. Magoo mistakes an airport for a movie theater, takes a seat on a departing plane—”It’s like I can feel the plane taking off!”—wanders around on the wings, unknowingly leads the police to a bank robber, and when the plane lands, tells the flight attendant he really enjoyed the film. The tension in the Mr. Magoo cartoons derives from seeing how lucky the character can get yet be oblivious to the dangers he’s facing, thanks to his near-sightedness . They’re funny because we know his luck will never run out.

We can all be Mr. Magoos in the backcountry. When nothing bad happens, it’s easy to finish a day of skiing or riding in avalanche terrain feeling confident we made good choices. So it’s easy to take the wrong lessons from our experiences. We’re sure we really liked the movie, unaware of how close we came to falling off the wing. The three riders involved on the slides on January 17th might easily conclude that they judged conditions correctly. More correctly even than the forecast, which called slopes like Magoo’s dangerous. None of them were hurt. The answer of “Yes, I can ski this” seemed to work, so the solo skier might be more likely to rely on it the next time he’s faced with a slope where the stability is questionable.

The winter backcountry is no cartoon, however. Substituting an easy question for the relevant one can kill our friends, our loved ones, or us. Our luck can run out. Or we may not get lucky at all. It’s what Kahneman and others have termed a “wicked environment”—an environment in which a lack of regular, reliable feedback allows us to develop habits and patterns based on faulty correlations, or luck.

So, what’s the alternative, given our brain’s hardwired proclivity for substitution and the wicked nature of the backcountry? How do we keep from being Mr. Magoo?

The avalanche on Magoo's

The avalanche on Magoo’s

In previous section of this article, I noted that the winter backcountry is an instance of what Nobel-Prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and others describe as a “wicked environment” for developing expertise. In part, that’s because expertise in the backcountry is a collection of skills. We have to master the individual elements—technical skiing and riding skills, route-finding, and stability assessment among them—while simultaneously learning which items in the set to prioritize and apply in a given situation. It’s also because in the winter backcountry, we don’t get much immediate, consistent feedback on our decisions and actions. We rarely know how close we are to triggering a slope, so it’s easy to develop habits and patterns based on faulty correlations, or luck.

A real-world example of the rarity of immediate feedback in avalanche terrain surfaced a few years ago, in a video posted on YouTube that’s since been pulled. It showed a skier finishing a run on Puckerface, a steep slope near Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The soundtrack includes lots of whooping. Then a title card appears, reading “Second Run. 10 minutes later.” A snowboarder starts down the same face, and makes a hard first turn. The entire slope fractures several feet deep, and slides. The snowboarder claws into the bed surface and stops. The camera shakes and jerks, accompanied by lots of cursing. The snowboarder walks away on the ridge. The video shows the slide a second time, in slow motion.

Let’s put ourselves in the boots of the first rider on Puckerface on January 2, 2012. We choose to ride the  slope for some reason—maybe a well-considered assessment of stability, maybe by substituting a question that’s easier to answer, like whether there’s enough sun on the face for good video. When it doesn’t slide, we conclude our rationale was correct. Given enough similar experiences, we could start to feel very confident in our skills. But the slide triggered by the second rider reveals a more accurate conclusion: we got lucky. And instead of developing skills, we might just be getting lucky, a lot.

Puckerface, just after the 2014 fatal avalanche. Photo courtesy Alex Do.

Puckerface, just after the 2014 fatal avalanche. Photo courtesy Alex Do.

The image above also shows Puckerface on an early-winter day, this time nearly two years later, on Dec. 26, 2013. On this day, a rider wasn’t so fortunate; he was killed in the slide visible in the image. That’s the potential penalty for substitution, inadvertently relying on luck, or just plain making a mistake. Each day in avalanche terrain, each run or route we chose, is unique and novel; we have incomplete or ambiguous data, we get one chance, and the cost for choosing badly can be fatal.

An alternative to relying on luck is expert intuition—distinguishing familiar cues in a new situation and choosing an appropriate response. As Kahneman notes, “Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not…[It] is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” It’s Mr. Magoo with eyeglasses, a prescription that lets him recognize an airplane instead of confusing it for a movie theater. In his classic essay “The Ascending Spiral”, pioneering snow scientist Ed LaChapelle echoes that point; intuition “is not some sort of extra-sensory perception.” He describes it as a “lifetime accumulation” of observations about snow, avalanches and weather. That doesn’t just happen, because the backcountry is a wicked environment. We help develop it by adopting simple habits that, over time, make the backcountry environment more regular and expand the base of stored cues necessary for expert recognition.

Below are examples of practices  that can improve the quality of our observations, our communication, and the feedback for our decisions.

It’s all about the up: Most—at least two thirds—of our time in the backcountry is spent going up. It’s our best opportunity for observing and communicating. It’s also when most miscommunications and mistakes occur. Set a low-angle, meanderthal skin track that takes advantage of the terrain to investigate different aspects and slope angles, and that allows relaxed discussions of your observations without having to stop. Steep skin tracks make it hard to see much beyond your ski tips, and even if you do notice something important, it’s hard to communicate it when you’re anaerobic. If you’re breaking trail and can’t hear the group behind you talking, your track is too steep for easy observations and communication.

Give it a rest: Take breaks at decision points. Fiddling with your clothes or gear randomly just slows you down yet provides little information about snow conditions or route choices. Stopping to drink, eat and layer up when you’re faced with a decision is productive; it allows you to look around when you’re comfortable and talk about what you see. More often than not, you’ll pick up nuances in the terrain that you didn’t see while moving and out of breath—as will your partners. And you’ll make better decisions when your brain isn’t starved for oxygen or nutrition. Pace your group so you’re moving steadily and don’t feel rushed when you stop at decision points.
You are not the Captain now: Encourage feedback within your group. You’re looking for ideas that can save your ass, not aiming for agreement. It helps to rely on questions rather than declarations. “Does that side of the slope look wind-loaded?” instead of “Most of the slope isn’t wind-loaded.” Listen for contrarian opinions rather than trying to silence a squeaky wheel. Acknowledge that anyone in the group has veto power.

Write it down: Keep a field notebook or submit observations to your local avalanche center after each backcountry trip. It’s a sure way to notice and remember details about snow and weather conditions.. Summarizing them for a field report forces you to make sense of what you observed, to sort what’s most important from what’s irrelevant. And it gives you something besides dim memories when you’re checking impressions of past events.
Debrief: When we talk about a day in the backcountry immediately afterwards, we often focus on the highlights—the great run, the funny fall, the beautiful light or snow. You provide otherwise unavailable feedback on your decisions by including an opportunity to talk about how you did things and whether those actions put you at risk. Guides often do this formally, in afternoon meetings in which they can identify when they were most at risk during the day. A friend’s more informal approach, is to ask, “Well, did we get it done, or did we get away with it?” Find a way to expand your end-of-day conversation to more than high fives. If something nags at you a day or a week later, talk with your partners so everyone understands and learns from the experience.

Find a mentor: Years ago, I spent a day traversing a high peak in the Wasatch with a mentor when the avalanche danger was high.  It was a lesson in micro-route-finding. Near the end of the day, when it seemed we’d mostly passed the hazards, I took a few extra turns on a small slope I now recognize as a terrain trap. I looked up to see my mentor giving me a look that said, “That. Was. Dumb.” That look still floats into my consciousness when I encounter similar slopes. Though the look clearly communicated stupidity of my move, it was much more forgiving feedback than triggering the slope. Or another like it, because without that mentorship I might have gone much longer without learning to take small slopes seriously. You learn from (and with) a mentor in an iterative process, the goal of which is your becoming equally skilled and knowledgeable, perhaps more so, than your mentor. This relationship is different than that with a guide, who may pass on some useful tips but who is a leader.

Others with extensive expertise in the backcountry can offer up other practices like these, which may work better for them or better period. The point is less the specific habits than making an effort to maximize the quality of our decisions and the feedback we get for them, so we have the best chances of seeing our Mr. Magoo-like close calls and learning from them, without the too-painful learning that comes if our luck runs out.  Time in the backcountry with that kind of reflection is what leads to the lifetime of accumulation and instant recognition that Kahneman and LaChapelle identify as expertise.

This is YOUR avalanche center.

2 years ago I was traveling in India with Water For People. I was lucky enough to spend time with my amazing colleagues, who really opened my eyes to the importance of ownership, co-investment, and public-private partnerships. My colleague from across the world, Satya, and I walked through one of the poorest communities I have ever seen, and we discussed why this community was flourishing. Water For People had catalyzed the relationship between the State government and the people of this community. Water was flowing, and a public-private partnership had been developed to ensure that it continued to flow in the future. The community invested in their water system and the sustainability of it. They invested in something they wanted and saw a need for.

6 years ago, I started fundraising for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. I read about a chain of events that was going to cost the center $25k in funding. My initial thoughts about what was happening were negative and also incredibly unproductive. However, my second thoughts, and a discussion with a friend, made me realize that I can help. This is our avalanche center, and we can’t afford to see it lose any funding or decrease the backcountry forecast operations in any manner. This one article 6 years ago is what started the CAIC Benefit Bash, an event that now raises $100,000 annually to go toward avalanche forecasting and education throughout the State of Colorado. Then I was a volunteer. Today, I am the Executive Director of the Friends of CAIC and asking you to help us reach our fundraising campaign goal of $150,000.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Backcountry Avalanche Forecasting program is small but mighty. The program has grown over the past 10 years but with only 6 forecasters operating in 10 zones, we still have a long way to go to provide the service needed by the backcountry community. Colorado is a very big place and there are more and more people enjoying the State’s spectacular winter backcountry each year. Our goal is to provide the best avalanche center in the country. To achieve this goal we need everyone’s support. The State of Colorado is incredibly supportive and has increased the CAIC’s funding this last legislative session. But to really expand, we need every user involved as well. This partnership is the best way we can grow the CAIC’s backcountry forecast program, and I am personally asking you to support avalanche forecasting and education throughout the State of Colorado.

This is your avalanche center and to ensure we continue to have the best avalanche center in the country we need your help. These public-private partnerships are solving the world’s toughest problems. We have developed the same model to create the best avalanche forecast center in the United States.

Join us by donating here: http://www.crowdrise.com/StayInformedStayAlive

Aaron Carlson
Executive Director
Friends of CAIC

Likelihood and Consequences

We tend to think about hazard on a spectrum of both likelihood and consequences. The likelihood that a given incident will occur can range from low to high. If an incident does occur the resulting consequences could range from low to high. An example of a high likelihood low consequence event is when you forget to put on sunscreen and you get a sunburn. Similar to likelihood is the frequency at which an event might occur. A high frequency event is one that we often have lots of experience with. Take driving for example. Most of us drive all the time, sometimes at very high speeds and on treacherous mountain roads. But how often do you get in a car accident? This is a high consequence activity that we have lots of experience with and generally can manage to do safely.

So what does this have to do with avalanches? As backcountry travelers our level of experience, training, and the systems that we employ can determine our ability to effectively choose appropriate terrain for the conditions. Backcountry travelers with decades of experience have seen many high frequency or high likelihood events over the years. Novices who have been traveling in the backcountry for only a couple years may have little experience with even the high frequency events. We generally do a good job at making decision in situations that we deal with on a regular basis. Examples of a high likelihood lower consequence problems are Storm Slab avalanches and Loose Dry slides or sluffs. Even on the high likelihood high consequence end, experienced travelers are still pretty good at making decisions. Take for example Persistent Slab avalanches during an active cycle. For someone who only has only a few years of experience this situation may sound terrifying and unmanageable. The best options for this person may be to avoid avalanche terrain in the backcountry. A backcountry traveler with many years of experience and training in these same conditions can understand the nuances of the problem, plan out an appropriate route that minimizes exposure to terrain prone to this avalanche problem, and effectively facilitate their group in making decisions that will keep them safe. It’s important to have an awareness of your experience level with different situations and recognize when you are dealing with conditions in which you are inexperienced.

Low likelihood high consequence situations are challenging to both novices and seasoned veterans. Currently most forecast zones around the state are dealing with avalanche problems involving deeply buried persistent weak layers that are difficult to trigger. If you do manage to hit the right spot and trigger one of these Deep Persistent Slab avalanches, the result could be a very large slide. This low likelihood high consequence situation is scary stuff. A resulting avalanche from these conditions is something that we don’t often experience and would leave little chance for survival. Last year’s Ptarmigan Hill and Sheep Creek accidents occurred during similar conditions. As backcountry travelers, we are bad at “managing,” or making decisions, in these kinds of conditions. We don’t have much experience with them and when we make a mistake the consequences are grave. We can easily be lulled into confidence and complacency when we don’t see signs of instability or recent avalanches. It’s important to remind ourselves of the consequences of the current conditions and our inability to “manage” them. Strive for conservative terrain selection, giving your group a very wide margin for error. Go to areas where you are confident that your group can make sound decisions and select appropriate terrain to stay safe.

–Josh Hirshberg

Avalanche Danger as a Continuum

It is human nature to draw discrete boxes and categories around things. “That book is not science fiction,” “I’m a Mac person,” “that’s just a class III rapid with big waves,” or “that’s a 5.11.” Then we pick and poke at the borders when things do not quite fit. “McCarthy writes lit-fic,” “but I use Gmail,” “at low water it’s got a class IV- entry” or “no, it’s only a 10c”.

Avalanche forecasters are no different. In our morning staff discussions, we will sometimes describe the danger to each other with phrases like “LOW side of MODERATE” or “on the cusp of HIGH.” It is like thinking of Avalanche Danger Ratings as a continuum instead of discrete boxes.

Partly that comes from the Avalanche Danger Scale itself. The five danger levels include multiple elements. There are five sections of travel advice describing how we think you should approach the snowpack. The Likelihood includes both triggered and spontaneous avalanches, and there are multiple combinations of expected Size and spatial Distribution. We can mix and match from the categories as necessary to arrive at a danger rating. That gives us many options to end up with a final danger that looks like a discrete category. For example, we can select a MODERATE (Level 2) danger when it is unlikely travelers will trigger an avalanche, but it will be very large (D3).

It might be worth visualizing the danger since late January. I’m going to generalize, but most of the forecast zones followed a similar pattern. At the end of the January dry spell, the avalanche danger was MODERATE (Level 2) near and above treeline. The problems were concentrated on just a few aspects.. The danger started to rise as snow accumulated, climbing quickly through CONSIDERABLE (Level 3) to HIGH (Level 4), where it remained during the Avalanche Warning.

Slide1

The danger fell into CONSIDERABLE (Level 3) the first few days in February. Wind events kept the danger at the upper end of CONSIDERABLE (Level 3), with natural avalanches possible as the winds drifted snow and overloaded some slopes. The danger eased slightly as the wind loading decreased. Starting February 3, modest amounts of snowfall provided additional loading and snow for transport. The snowfall was not sufficient to cause natural avalanching. Human triggered avalanches remained likely, well demonstrated by observers.

Slide2

Another storm is on the horizon. Snowfall looks more impressive than the last few days, and it will come with winds. We are anticipating the avalanche danger to rise again. How quickly is the question—will it jump on Friday or Saturday night, and skyrocket or slowly build?

December 23rd Website Changes

We have been working to redesign our avalanche forecasts for almost two years. Over the process we have collaborated with other avalanche centers, communication specialists, and public messaging experts. You can see the result starting on December 23rd. We will be publishing more in-depth guides and explanations in the coming weeks, but here is a brief introduction to some of the changes:

  • Design: we have updated the look of the website. not only should it look more modern, but information should be easier to find.
  • New Observation Form: streamlines the process for submitting observations. If you log in, the form pre-populated based on your Prefs
  • New Forecast Format: the second-most obvious change. We will publish more detailed changes and guides to using the forecasts soon. Avalanche Danger will now be forecast for three elevation bands, rather than elevation and aspect. We will forecast avalanche danger for today and tomorrow, useful for planning. We have moved a lot of the text to graphics. This will display the information in a consistent format every day. In the graphics below, you can see that we are not reducing information, just re-arranging it and displaying some graphically. This streamlines the process for our forecasters, so forecasts should be out earlier.
  • Forecast Discussion: the second tab on the forecasts. Forecast Discussions are issued daily, but not on a fixed schedule. Discussions have no fixed format, and may include analysis of relevant observations, technical details on the snowpack, and musings on the impact of future weather.

NSJ_avy_prob2