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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

After All The Ambulances Go

After all this time, and after all the ambulances go — Arcade Fire

Are we putting too much emphasis on human factors?

Or, is the list a bit too short?

Should we expand the list of commonly accepted human factors to include a few unflattering, but honest, additions? I have a friend here in Seattle who is a registered nurse, and a few years ago he clued me in to a wonderful practice called evidence-based medicine. I've been thinking about that for quite a long time now, and I feel like I'm ready to open the discussion.

Powder Magazine has a new series on avalanches. In the first part, they discuss a serious accident that occurred on February 11th, 2014 in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. The discussion ends with the now-familiar ( to many ) discussion of human factors. To be honest, after reading the entire article, I was unsure why there was any need to discuss the human factors. The story could just as well have been titled "Pushing Your Luck In Shitty Conditions".

The second incident that I'm going to add is the accident that took place on December 16th, 2013, in the backcountry at Jackson Hole Ski Area in Wyoming. After that accident the survivors had many things to say about what went wrong, and their remarks included comments about additions to avalanche education. If I'd written an article on this accident, I'd have given it the title "The Link Between Incompetence And Death In The Backcountry".

I'm interested in why we so often choose to view avalanche accidents exclusively through the lens of human factors, and if we are going to do this, I am going to propose a few additions: stupidity, laziness, and incompetence. The long and short is that both of these accidents are textbook examples of what not to do, and no amount of education is going to overcome the inertia of laziness, stupidity, and unacknowledged incompetence.

Avalanche education gives participants a foundation with which to develop the scientific and psychological tools to travel safely in the backcountry. Yet you and I both know that many participants fail to follow established best practices, and that many accidents occur as a direct result of such failures. So while it might seem awful to propose adding "laziness", "stupidity", and "incompetence" to the list of human factors, are those words not applicable for backcountry skiers who fail to properly apply their training? Haven't we all walked down that road a few times? Those of us who have been lucky enough to survive should try to remember that it only takes once.

Before this comes across as judgmental or snarky, please allow me to add a few caveats: I'll put myself at the top of the list of people who have gotten themselves into trouble through laziness, stupidity, and incompetence. Second, if we aren't going bother challenging ourselves in this regard, then who will? No, really, if we aren't going to bother challenging ourselves in this regard, then who will? Why should we be afraid to call incompetence what it is, especially if it is our own.

( FULL DISCLOSURE: I was asked by the editor of The Avalanche Review to review the article about the Pucker Face accident. My remarks here are not a result of my participation in that regard. )

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