Written by David Roberts
In the second half of the twentieth century and on into this century, the science of snow and avalanches became increasingly understood.
As folk who ski & ride in the mountains, the avalanches that interest us are the ones that involve people. Statistics show that 90% of the people in avalanches have caused those avalanches. But how did those people end up there? What were the decisions that they, or those around them, made? What were the influences that caused those people to make those choices?
From the turn of the 21st century, these questions have become an increasingly important part of avalanche studies. Ski instructors (who are human!) – who are paid to lead and be responsible for others in the off-piste environment – understanding what might mould the behaviour of us and our clients is an important tool. The more self-aware we are, the less likely we are to fall into some of the traps that might be waiting for us in the mountains.
Words, Words, Words
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Chapter 6, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”, Lewis Carroll
The words danger (or hazard) and risk are often used interchangeably, even though they have quite different meanings. In the snow safety context, this probably hasn’t been helped by French language forecasts giving levels of risque d’avalanche and English speakers mistranslating this into avalanche risk, when it is actually avalanche danger. Interestingly, there has been a move in some Francophone forecasts to talk about the danger d’avalanches instead. Examples include the Swiss SLF and the Vallee d’Aoste but not Meteo France (see our Snow Reports for examples of their work).
So what’s the difference between hazard and risk and does it matter? The United Kingdom’s Health & Safety Executive uses these definitions:
“A hazard is anything that may cause harm, such as chemicals, electricity, working from ladders, an open drawer etc.”
“The risk is the chance, high or low, that somebody could be harmed by these and other hazards, together with an indication of how serious the harm could be.”
An unstable snow pack is a danger which becomes a risk when we choose to ski on it. Cliffs might be a hazard on an off-piste descent. Whether we choose to jump off them or ski around them creates different levels of risk. By being aware of the choices that we make, we can choose what level of risk we create for ourselves and others. If we are unaware of our decision making process, we can create traps for ourselves to tumble into.
So why take those risks? Why not just stay safely in the pub? As skiers and as professionals who lead others on and off-piste, we understand that taking these risks can deliver amazing, life-enhancing benefits for us and our clients. It means that our job is so much more than teaching people to turn left and right. It can be hard to quantify or put a monetary value on these benefits but they exist nonetheless. We go into a bit more detail about this in our post about why ski instructors should learn about avalanches for this very reason.
“There’s something really cool about getting scared. I don’t know what.”
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, Douglas Adams
Life is complicated. It is governed by chaos theory and the butterfly effect, making it very hard to predict what is going to happen. Just think about how accurate your local weather forecast is. Our brains use simplifications, rules of thumb, and previous experience in order to formulate the questions we need to answer in order to live day-to-day.
These processes are called “heuristics“. The mathematical processing power required to calculate precisely how and when to cross a busy street would be huge. Instead we use heuristics to get us across the road safely. Despite this, heuristics have gotten themselves a bad name in snow safety. Shortcuts can prevent us from evaluating the whole picture or lead us to deliberately ignore signs of danger.
In Part 2 of this series we will identify some of the heuristic traps. On a day in the backcountry they can trip us up, so we’ll look at how we can avoid them.
If you want to know more about avalanche safety, check out our Mountain Safety guides here.