Your Heart and Brain Are Working Against You in Avalanche Terrain

 
Photo: Bruno Long

Photo: Bruno Long

 
 
Forthcoming study show cognitive processes undermine otherwise good judgement in the backcountry
 

Powder Magazine, January 8, 2019
By Clare Menzel

If you're a backcountry skier, you spend a lot of time thinking about the snowpack. You pay attention to the impacts of weather and time on the layers hidden below surface. You anticipate where there may be strengths and weaknesses, and then you dig big holes in the snow, seeking evidence. You investigate, rigorously, because you know your life depends on it. But how rigorously do you investigate the universe of cognitive principles hiding beneath every thought you have in and about avalanche country?

In Whitefish, Montana, one skier is digging into the rich fields of psychology and economic theory to advance the entire ski community’s understanding of backcountry behavior.

Every winter, Dr. Sara Boilen, a licensed clinical psychologist, teaches skiers in local avalanche workshops about decision-making. This includes a lesson in the human factors, a theory that dates back to a 2002 paper published by the engineer and avalanche researcher Ian McCammon. In an analysis of more than 600 avalanche incidents, he observed certain reoccurring mental shortcuts that undermined otherwise good judgement: familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, scarcity (tracks), and social proof. Acknowledging the presence and danger of these heuristic traps, commonly referred to by their acronym FACETS, has become an essential element of safety dialogue over the past 16 years.

Read the article »