Technical information, news, research, and opinion on avalanches, snow safety, and winter backcountry travel.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dancing Around Uncertainty

But it's one missed step ... one slip before you know it—Sarah McLachlan

There is an interesting article on Friends of Berthoud Pass web site.

Our Friend Bob Berwyn at the Summit County Voice wrote recently about the growing need for basic avalanche awareness among “sidecountry” skiers in Colorado.

Avalanche awareness programmes are wonderful, but many of them do not present balanced thinking frames for beginner recreationists. Programmes that focus entirely on "avalanche awareness" do so at the expense of "avalanche uncertainty", which leaves students with only half the mental model that they need to make good decisions.

The winter snowpack is conditionally unstable, and very often this means that it can be difficult to determine the extent of instability and its parameters. Of course, this is often the point where human nature steps in and people find their own ways 'manage' the uncertainty.

Failing to proactively manage uncertainty is at the root of many avalanche accidents for the following reason: a highly uncertain mind is very susceptible to biases, speculation, rationalisation, and the disregarding of facts.

Since some degree of residual uncertainty always remains, and since the degree of uncertainty is often inversely proportional to the skill of the recreationist, it seems strange to focus so much effort on awareness without addressing the other side of the coin as well.

We've all seen this take place during online discussions, at avalanche awareness events and during level 1 classes. Someone asks a question and the instructor provides additional information along with a qualification or two. This leads to additional questions and qualifications, as the instructor and students dance around the uncertainty.

I believe avalanche awareness programmes and level 1 classes must explicitly address uncertainty and teach students that decisions should retain a conservative character when their uncertainty is high. This would present a much more balanced mental model to beginners, and it would also help smooth out the cognitive dissonance that arises when observations of the terrain, snowpack, and weather don't provide clear answers.

Further Reading


  1. Excellent and well-founded points.

    At Friends of Berthoud Pass, we are working on how to impress this uncertainty upon our students. We tell them repeatedly, that all their knowledge and observations are only a small part of their overall decision-making strategy.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. You wrote:

    "We tell them repeatedly, that all their knowledge and observations are only a small part of their overall decision-making strategy."

    Do you still observe the uncertainty dance during the Q & A session?


    The link above "Futher Reading: Backcountry Avalanche Forecasting" describes a very minimalist set of integrated thinking frames that can serve as a very good generic strategy for the process of backcountry avalanche forecasting.

    ( These integrated thinking frames are derived from work by Laura Adams, NJ Digiacomo, and The Avalanche Handbook et al. )