Human Aspects of Avalanche Safety – Heuristics

Written by David Roberts

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the importance of terminology. The interpretation of particular words can affect how we think about our safety in the off-piste environment:

  • Dangers/Hazards: Things that are always there, regardless of people
  • Risks: What we create when we choose to work or play where there are hazards
  • Heuristics: Shortcuts that are often useful but can lead to us ignoring or skipping vital information or thought processes.

But what are “heuristic traps”? Are there different types? Can we avoid them when travelling in the snowy mountains?

Alex Chester-Master above the Grand Chateau, Ovronnaz, February 2018

Alex Chester-Master above the Grand Chateau, Ovronnaz, February 2018


David Page, a journalist for Powder magazine, examined the traps that we can make for ourselves in a series of articles and case studies called “The Human Factor” and “The Human Factor 2.0“. This video from The Human Factor introduces the idea of heuristic traps and the six categories they are often put into:


This can be especially dangerous for instructors, guides and seasonaires who ski in the same places regularly. Familiarity can tempt us into shortcutting our risk assessment process. Part of the challenge and enjoyment of off-piste skiing is how the snow changes from day to day or even hour to hour. Each descent of we do of a regular off-piste run is different, which is one of the reasons we keep returning.


Peer pressure is a powerful thing. It can be very hard to be the one who speaks up about their doubts or concerns. It can be awkward to be different. Something to be especially aware of is the atmosphere that we create as leaders and instructors. Do we listen to others? Do we explain what we’re doing in order for others to be able to understand and possibly challenge those choices?


You’ve just boot packed for 30 minutes up onto a ridge and looked down the other side. The snowpack looks dangerous but you’ve come all that way. It can be hard to turn around and ski back down the way that you’ve come up. Imagine spend thousands of pounds to fly to other of side the world and spending days climbing a peak. The pressures can be huge. Have we chosen a route where there are other options? Have we given ourselves enough time that we can just come back tomorrow or next week or next year?

Expert Halo

Instructors, Guides, locals and seasonaires can all be very experienced and knowledgeable. However, we are all human and we can all make mistakes. Just because you’re skiing with an “expert” does not mean that you can switch your brain off.


This also called Scarcity or Competition in Bruce Tremper’s essential book, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”. Attitudes such as, “There are no friends on a powder day.” can cause us to rush and prevent us from taking the time to stop and think about what we are noticing about the snow and weather. People might rush in as a group, rather than skiing one at a time. If we only have one day off per week, we can feel like we have to go and do something “good” that day, regardless of the conditions.

Social Proof

Bruce Tremper calls this the “Herding Instinct”. To quote The Cranberries, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?” People are skiing in the places that we thought it would be dangerous to go, so surely it’s safe, even though our knowledge and experience say otherwise. Bigger groups can accentuate this, putting pressure on people to deliver or making it harder for others to speak up.


Whilst dangers are always present in the mountains, with or without us being there; risks and heuristics traps are things that we create for ourselves.

In the final part of this series, we’ll take a look at some planning tools that might help us to think more objectively about the dangers of a day out. By thinking ahead, sitting safely at home, can we spot and avoid the hazards and the F.A.C.E.T.S.? Can we also begin to learn from our own adventures and change how we operate off-piste?

For more Mountain Safety articles, check out the dedicated section of our Journal here.

Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.

Rite Mae Brown

Mandy Martin contemplates the Grand Combin from the Combe de Drône, Bourg St Bernard, March 2018

Mandy Martin contemplates the Grand Combin from the Combe de Drône, Bourg St Bernard, March 2018