Human Aspects of Avalanche Safety – Planning Ahead

Written by David Roberts

In Part 1 of this series we got to grips with meanings of some words that help us to describe how we think about safety in the mountains. In Part 2 we looked at a way of categorising the heuristic traps that we can make for ourselves when we choose to ski off-piste. The final part of the series looks at some of the things that we can do to avoid the traps and improve how we operate in the backcountry.

Murray Whyte on the north face of the Tete de Ferret, Swiss/Italian frontier, January 2018

Murray Whyte on the north face of the Tete de Ferret, Swiss/Italian frontier, January 2018

“Prior Preparation & Planning Prevents P*ss Poor Performance”

British military adage


“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Field Marshall von Moltke

Useful Planning Tools

Now that we understand a little about what the traps might be and how they work, are there any tools that we can use to help us avoid them? Sitting at home, the night before a powder or touring day, can we make some slightly more objective, uninvolved choices before we get out on the hill?


One example of a system that we could use at home or carry in our pocket on the hill is Roberto Bolognesi’s NivoTest. It comes free with his book, “Avalanche!” This is a weatherproof card device, where the user answers a series of questions. If the answer to any questions is “yes”, the user turns a dial to add the given number of points onto the total score. At the end of questionnaire, the user turns over the card to get a smiley, straight or unhappy face. This is a very basic device but at least it might make us stop and think.


Other tools use modern computing power: either in our smart ‘phone or in the cloud, via 3G. Fatmap is an app that works like an enhanced version of Google Earth. You can run it on your laptop or smartphone and subscribers can download maps. Users can fly through their proposed routes and add overlays showing slope angles or aspects that help to highlight where avalanche dangers might be.

White Risk

White Risk is an app that takes users through the whole process of planning a day’s ski touring. Users can put their route onto a map that has shading for various slope angles on it. They can then identify crux sections and get some analysis of the hazard with regards to snowpack, angle, aspect, altitude etc. There are also questionnaires to complete about the day’s weather & avalanche forecasts and also the group of people. The app then generates a summary, which can be printed or downloaded into the mobile app for use during the day.


Staying in Control

Whilst tools such as these are useful self-checks, they’re still no replacement for knowledge, experience and gathering good information. When we’re out on the hill, probably under the pressures of more than one of the F.A.C.E.T.S., it’s very important that we stay self-aware.

Can we stop and take a moment to step out of the situation and think about what is happening and where it might lead? Can we float above things, almost as though we were sitting at home and watching drone footage on TV? We’ve all had the experience of watching a TV quiz and shouting the obvious answer at the contestant who is unable to bring the answer to mind. If we can recognise when this is happening to us, perhaps we can then do something to regain control.

Confirmation bias can be a strong factor when we reflect on what we do, so we need to be aware of this too. There is also the heuristic trap of coming home from another day in the office, which was “just the same” as the others and doesn’t need to be thought about. Every day is different with something to learn. Talking with other people can also be very useful, as this can give us a more objective view and bring new ideas to the table.

Tom Hillebrandt in the Combe de la Rosette, Val d'Heremence, February 2018

Tom Hillebrandt in the Combe de la Rosette, Val d’Heremence, February 2018

Time for Reflection

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Life of Reason“, George Santayana


If we come home from skiing, post our photos on Instagram and head for the pub, we perhaps waste one of the most valuable things from day, especially if we are working as mountain professionals. It is always worth stopping and giving our day a quick critique and asking questions such as:

  • What went well and what didn’t work so well? Why?
  • Was the snow and weather as forecast and as we expected? How & Why?
  • Did we learn or see anything new today?
  • What would we do differently next time?

This isn’t a comprehensive list. By answering these few questions honestly to ourselves (and acting on the answers) we can change the way that we operate in the mountains for the better.


The greater our awareness of both the objective dangers and the risks that we choose to create by exposing ourselves and others to those dangers, the safer we are likely to be. The greater our awareness of what drives us to take particular decisions, the more likely we are to be in control of the process and better able to choose our risks. There will always be times when we get things wrong. Off-piste skiing is a risk sport. If we can learn from our mistakes we should become safer and better equipped to go out and enjoy splendour, excitement and rich rewards of skiing in wild mountains.


“Staying alive in avalanche terrain probably has more to do with mastering yourself than mastering any knowledge of avalanches”

Roger Atkins, Canadian heli-ski guide in “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”, Bruce Tremper.

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

Gordon Porteous looks across the Argentiere Glacier, Chamonix, April 2017

Gordon Porteous looks across the Argentiere Glacier, Chamonix, April 2017