Most Common Missteps In Avy Terrain

Every two years the largest and most comprehensive group of avalanche professionals, snow scientists, backcountry guides, ski patrol and snow-related industry professionals gather to share their newest discoveries and field experiences with the goal to merge theory and practice for the betterment of snow science as a whole. The International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) helps shape avalanche education, safety practices in the backcountry with new ideas for professionals, and the public at large for winter recreation and safety. Although the workshop can be invaluable, it can also be a bit daunting to wade through all the information during the weeklong workshop. Thankfully, I’ve spent some time doing that for you! Here are the top three things I took away from the ISSW 2016 hosted in Breckenridge, CO this past October.

If you are reading this, I can make a good assumption that you are human. We as humans are complicated beings, with emotions, desires, fears and social constructs. Ever heard the term heuristics? To put it simply, these are the mental shortcuts we use to make quick decisions in complicated situations. While heuristics can be valuable to us, they can also be detrimental in certain situations where we can miss key factors—in this case when it comes to backcountry skiing, riding, sledding, etc. Ian McCammon (2002 and 2004) set the bar recognizing heuristic traps in the backcountry, so if you haven’t read his papers, I highly suggest it. But this year at ISSW a lot of scientists and practicioners went further with that theme and really explored in depth some of the key issues. In particular, Todd Guyn (2016) studied the “10 Common Missteps of Avalanche Practicioners.” And even if you’re not be an avalanche professional, the message applies to all of us who travel in the backcountry. Here are the 10 common missteps laid out:

  • Misapplication of terrain
    This means going into terrain that’s too dangerous for the avalanche hazard for the day, or pushing the terrain beyond your party’s ability, or selfish reasons for skiing a line that may be too dangerous that day.
  • Being impatient with conditions
    Slow down and take your time assessing conditions, weather, changing conditions, etc.
  • Trying too hard to outwit the avalanche problems for the day
    This means overestimating your ability to read the avalanche problems on a variety of terrain, being overconfident when you should be cautious, convincing yourself you should go when maybe you shouldn’t.
  • Acting too much on emotion
    Our desires or emotional state during that day or that moment all have the ability to affect our rational and informed decision making.
  • Not being vigilant to changes in the environment
    Not constantly asking: What am I missing? What has changed that is critical to my safety and choices?
  • Letting familiarity influence your mindset
    This means getting too comfortable with the terrain to observe hazards. Being overly confident. Start your day with saying, “Today is a new day—what don’t I know, or what is new?”
  • Information overload
    This is a relatively new issue with the onslaught of multiple websites, apps, weather forecasts, social media, etc. Focus on what is truly essential for your hazard assessment for the day.
  • Underestimating consequence
    Look at past incidents for learning opportunities. Make sure to look at all your hazards, primary and secondary, like secondary exposure, terrain traps, etc.
  • Underplaying of uncertainty
    If you don’t know something, or you are uncertain of your snowpack, etc., don’t ignore the uncertainty. Instead, get to the bottom of it before you make critical decisions.
  • Lack of communication
    This can be between you and your backcountry partner(s), between you and your loved ones, etc. Never underestimate the power of good communication in the backcountry—it can save your life.

We all want to know, will this slope avalanche on me if I go into this terrain? There are many factors that go into assessing this factor, and it’s an ongoing topic of study. However, there were some interesting advances regarding this topic at ISSW that may help us further understand avalanche release. Studies by Karl Birkeland, et al, Johan Guame, et al, Jürge Schweizer et al, and Edward Bair, et al, really went deeper into understanding the avalanche slab and fracture properties of avalanche release. Here are a few of the highlighted points.

-Slab failure on a weak layer is a result of a combination of shear and collapse, and this depends greatly on the properties of the slab above the weak layer of concern.
-If you rapidly load a snow pack, the study specifically by Karl Birkeland, et al, proves that the weak layer (under a variety of slab types) generally has a higher chance of propagation propensity, i.e. higher chance of failure leading to avalanche release. This would explain why it’s common to see an avalanche cycle immediately following a big storm, or why people tend to trigger more avalanches immediately following a storm as they step out onto a slope and add to the rapid loading of the event.
- In all cases, the slab property plays a big role in how the weak layer reacts. We will be sure to see more around this topic in the future.

There is a big focus on improving avalanche education for the broadening backcountry user demographic. With a worldwide trend of increasing backcountry use, everyone recognizes that education and awareness is more important than ever.

-Programs like ‘Know Before You Go’ and high school outreach programs such as the American Avalanche Institute’s are aiming to get basic avalanche education to younger generations and general public without having to sign up for an official avalanche course.
-There is an increased focus on judgement and decision making-based education within avalanche education. Rather than starting with the facts regarding terrain, snow science, companion rescue etc. there is more focus being directed toward human behavioral patterns, decision making, risk awareness, etc. You will probably see more of this in avalanche education as we move forward.
-Finally, we’re seeing some real progress for snowmachine/snowmobiler-based avalanche education. Brian Lundstedt of Fort Collins is at the forefront of this movement and is trying to collaborate and create effective snowmobile avalanche courses which focus on the realistic sport-specific situations that snowmobilers encounter while traveling in backcountry terrain, and the decision making process as well.

Thanks for tapping in to some of the latest snow science news. If you are interested in exploring these or other topics from ISSW 2016 or past workshops, you can go to to access these papers for free.

Photos by Doug Marshall.