As backcountry skiers we are not as good as we think we are when it comes to making decisions in avalanche terrain. We constantly misjudge the hazard and overestimate our abilities. We convince ourselves that with training, knowledge and caution we can minimize our likelihood of an avalanche involvement. Yet every year the statistics clearly does not bear this out. Trained and seasoned professionals constantly get caught by avalanches.
The question is not whether these experts are well trained…the question is whether the world is unpredictable
Repeated exposure – Making decisions in the aggregate
While a single day’s exposure to avalanche terrain is considered a reasonable risk, Kristensen & Genswein’s ISSW 2012 presentation on repeating that exposure over a lifetime should have been a wakeup call within the ski guide industry which hasn’t come to pass. The author and former behavioural scientist Annie Duke is also concerned by repeated exposure and how it can dramatically affect outcomes over time. She uses a donut analogy to illustrate her point: nobody eats a single donut and thinks ‘this donut will kill me’. But we know that if you eat enough donuts day after day for 30 years you will get fat and likely suffer a heart attack at some point. Whilst this is a different form of repeated exposure to that of avalanche risk (it’s an accumulated risk) the point is made that if we do something repeatedly over an extended period of time then it becomes an unconscious decision in the aggregate.
A Simplified Visualization of Munter’s 2003 Elementary Reduction Method (ERM).
Ski Guide that constantly operates in green zone: risk of death over lifetime: 1:40 Regularly operates in yellow zone: risk of death over lifetime 1:20 Regularly pushes in red zone: risk of death over lifetime 1:10 (Lifetime = 100 days per season for 20 years, then 30 days per season for 20 years)
Due to the function of repeated exposure, it’s not enough to simply make good decisions. Making informed rational decisions, following protocols, and semi conservative terrain choices only gets us from Genswein’s 1:10 risk of death by avalanche over a lifetime for a ski guide down to a 1:20 or 1:30. We need to both make good decisions and find ways to moderate our behavior in high consequence terrain. Tom Grant, the Chamonix based IFMGA guide and extreme skier reflects that it’s not the gnarliest, steepest terrain that has killed the world’s best steep skiers for the most part, but rather their repeated exposure to the serious freeride terrain that they ride regularly.
A mental tool for high consequence terrain
In her book Thinking in Bets Duke argues that the decisions we make are simply bets on future outcomes. In an avalanche context, by allocating our decisions the value of a hand of poker, Duke’s bet theory has the capacity to be adapted to real time and at a slope scale:
Right here, right now on this slope that I’m about to ski: How good is the hand am I holding? How likely is it a winning hand? Is it four Aces…or on reflection just a pair of 9’s? Do I wanna bet everything on this hand of cards?
Wanna Bet? – Triggers us to vet & calibrate our beliefs
Because we are making decisions in the aggregate over many years, making small changes in our behaviors and the margins we adopt have a disproportionate effect to our outcomes over extended periods of time. Minor changes towards being more conservative add up over the years. Conversely, even being mildly more aggressive in our terrain choices will stack against us in the long run.
Asking ourselves if we ‘Wanna bet?’ when faced with decisions in the backcountry forces us to acknowledge uncertainty and that potential loss is present. It provokes the following questions without us necessarily being conscious that we’re even asking them and forces us to question our belief in an outcome:
How do I know this?
Am I missing something?
Do I have enough information & is it up to date?
What is the quality of my information?
What’s the consequence of getting this wrong?
‘Wanna bet?’ triggers us to take an inventory of the information available to us. Its beauty is that one simple two-word question at the top of a mountain slope has the capacity to jump start our cognitive reasoning. This would appear to be a powerful decision-making mental tool.
Whilst simplistic tools allow us to free up mental capacity, Andrea Mannberg from the White Heat Project at the University of Tromso warns that they are prone to abuse by the exact user group that they aim to protect. The more experienced we are, the better we are at finding reasons that what we do is the right thing. She argues that we will always try and fool ourselves into believing we are holding a Royal Flush at the top of every slope. In addition, the consequences of losing a bet when operating in avalanche terrain are on a different scale. While poker players like backcountry skiers, are both working with information deficit and uncertainty, poker players don’t die if the decisions they make don’t work out! Perhaps we can tweak ‘Wanna Bet?’ to counteract our biases and serve our purposes better…
Short Stack Strategy. How Poker Players operate in must not lose situations.
There are strategies for when poker players cannot afford to lose a hand. It’s referred to as Short Stack play. If the player only has a short stack of poker chips to play with, then they cannot afford to lose a single hand. Short Stack poker is do or die poker. Now we’re talking!
The commonalities of strategy between a Short Stack poker Strategy and operating in complex avalanche terrain are many. Like the ski guide, the poker player engaged in Short Stack Strategy can’t afford to lose a single hand. Rules that short stack players abide by are:
Make sure your risk is worth the reward – Only play if you have a great hand! How big is the reward…is this something special or can I get the same reward playing at a different table?
Only play the simple hand – Simple linear games that follow an obvious and expected pattern. The win is flagged from the outset. Wait for the obvious win – don’t play anything else.
Pre-Mortem – How will this play out? If I’m wrong, what’s the worst that can happen? What are my margins? What are my previous experiences of such a situation?
Know when to fold and walk away from the table – How strong is my hand? If things aren’t lining up in the anticipated manner then their default position is to abandon the hand. Walk away after the big win and don’t get greedy.
Choosing not to play a weak hand is our strongest tool in complex avalanche terrain. Ultimately, we win by not losing. Our strategy should not be to win playing the game, but to not lose when playing the game (Munger & Ellis). As Mannberg suggests, the skill is recognizing that we are holding a potentially losing hand and that we should walk away.
So when should we bail and walk away from the table? Using situational awareness within the context of a Short Stack Strategy we can hedge our bet. We can look for early signals of trouble and use them to initiate an exit when operating in high consequence avalanche terrain. We will exit the game when:
We see unexpected warning signals – not an avalanche problem that we were anticipating and have a strategy to manage, but something that has entered the day unexpectedly.
Notice an anomaly – anomalies kill experts and should be viewed as a red flag. Novel and unexpected situations or events should be viewed with extreme caution. Anomalies by their nature often initially appear as minor and insignificant, as glitches in the matrix, so are easily missed. Run away.
When the environment changes – An unexpected deterioration of weather or unanticipated snow conditions. A zone we thought would be very quiet is busy with other skiers.
When our margins run too thin – Our margins are our Ace’s. Count them. We lose an Ace when we erode our margins of time/ equipment/ weather/ health/ skilled partner.
It’s important to note that Duke advocates the complete abandonment of the game at this point and not use any of the above exit signals simply to trigger a reassessment. We know that we are subject to strong pressure biases when our goal is in reach, and that we don’t act well to new information in these situations. This is likely a different strategy to that a ski guide might take in more moderate terrain, where a single warning sign in isolation such as a shooting crack or another team heading for the same objective would trigger a simple reassessment of their day’s plan. Complex terrain is high stakes poker so we will walk away as the win is no longer a sure thing.
Because the house always wins – Danny Ocean
Whist situational awareness tools and hazard moderating mindsets can go some way to reducing the risk encountered by mountain professionals, ultimately, due to repeated exposure in the high consequence environment of the mountains where information deficit and uncertainty are the norm, we are presented with a simple option that we should all embrace: Our mindset should be much more conservative, and our willingness to step back more recognised when operating in complex terrain.