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?
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.
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.