Avalanches: The Hu­man Fac­tor

THE HU­MAN FAC­TOR: Larger Groups in the Back­coun­try Make Riskier De­ci­sions

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Jean Arthur

To help un­der­stand the role that hu­man de­ci­sion-mak­ing plays in avalanches, re­searchers from Mon­tana State Univer­sity (MSU) in Boze­man, Mont. stud­ied group dy­nam­ics and avalanche safety through their ter­rain choices. Their re­sults show that larger groups make riskier de­ci­sions – and groups of young men make the riski­est of choices.

Jordy Hen­drikx, an earth sciences pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of MSU'S Snow and Avalanche Lab­o­ra­tory, and Jerry John­son, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, be­gan their Tracks Project in 2013. They crowd-sourced the re­search par­tic­i­pants by invit­ing back­coun­try skiers and snow­mo­bil­ers to use smart­phones or sep­a­rate GPS de­vices to record ski­ing and snow­mo­bil­ing routes in the mountains. Post-ad­ven­ture, the back­coun­try users an­swered sur­vey ques­tions to help the re­searchers bet­ter un­der­stand the de­ci­sions that peo­ple make in the mountains.

“What we can see, and again based on the sub­set of data we have worked up, larger groups tended to be on steeper ter­rain as part of their trip – and thereby are more ex­posed to the haz­ard,” says Hen­drikx. “The larger groups also tended to be more males, and fewer fe­males, but we don't have enough large groups to tease out any sta­tis­ti­cally mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence as a func­tion of gen­der. Cer­tainly prior work by Ian Mc­cam­mon (who con­sid­ered only fa­tal­i­ties) showed an im­pact where groups had one fe­male.”

Adventurers pur­chased a $0.99 [US] app called Ski Tracks – no re­la­tion to Sk­i­trax – and take their phone or de­vice on the ski or snow­mo­bile trip. Once a user turns on the app, the routes for the day are recorded. The user later emails the tracked mountain itin­er­ary to the re­searchers who re­ply with a de­mo­graphic and par­tic­i­pant sur­vey, which is how the re­searchers dis­cover group size, par­tic­i­pant ages and ex­pe­ri­ence.

While most back­coun­try users take steps to pre­vent be­com­ing en­trapped in roil­ing snow, Hen­drikx and John­son found that when “recre­at­ing” in a group, de­ci­sion-mak­ing is dif­fer­ent and po­ten­tially more dan­ger­ous.

Pre­lim­i­nary find­ings make sense: un­der the same avalanche con­di­tions, older recre­ation­al­ists make more con­ser­va­tive

choices, es­pe­cially if the snows­ports lovers have chil­dren. A group of young men takes risks.

Hen­drikx rec­og­nizes that un­der­stand­ing the de­ci­sion-mak­ing ma­trix and how group dy­nam­ics af­fect it could im­pact the back­coun­try com­mu­nity pos­i­tively, po­ten­tially sav­ing lives. He has lost sev­eral friends and one stu­dent to avalanches.

Ap­prox­i­mately 140 peo­ple die each year in avalanches in North Amer­ica and Europe. Ac­cord­ing to Hen­drikx, nearly all of those vic­tims trig­gered the avalanches that en­gulfed them.

“We gen­er­ally see that 90% of avalanche vic­tims trig­ger the avalanche them­selves – i.e., they were the ad­di­tional load that caused the avalanche to oc­cur,” says Hen­drikx. “Few avalanches are ever ran­dom acts of na­ture – and in most cases, the per­son trig­gers it them­selves. While this is ob­vi­ously tragic for the per­son in­volved, it also means that we can do some­thing about it. Avalanches are not just ran­dom acts of na­ture.”

John­son him­self was caught in an avalanche, “up to my neck trapped, but not com­pletely buried.” Much of his re­search re­gards pub­lic-lands is­sues, in­clud­ing tourism in the “New West” econ­omy. His own back­coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­est in avalanche re­search are paired with “or­ga­ni­za­tion the­ory and the work that avalanche pro­fes­sion­als are do­ing.”

John­son says that more than 1,000 peo­ple from 17 coun­tries are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the study: Canada, New Zealand, South Amer­ica, the Alps, Scan­di­navia and the U.S., lo­cally in Mon­tana and Wy­oming's Te­ton Mountains, where John­son trig­gered his slide a cou­ple decades ago. “Even be­ing in a small avalanche is eye-open­ing.

“We have a group in Nor­way that re­ally gets af­ter it,” says John­son. “The in­ter­est­ing thing about the Nor­we­gians is that when you look at their Tracks, it's clear that they skied a lot of kilo­me­tres to get to a lot of ter­rain. They are do­ing long ski tours in the dark. That's re­ally in­ter­est­ing.”

Their re­search also shows that peo­ple are ad­just­ing back­coun­try be­hav­iour.

“We have enough in­for­ma­tion to show that avalanche ed­u­ca­tion works,” says John­son. “Fore­cast cen­ters are im­por­tant to safety, and peo­ple are pay­ing at­ten­tion. They are learn­ing from the avalanche cour­ses. It's the big rea­son that in­ci­dents are go­ing down. We know the pop­u­la­tion of back­coun­try skiers is go­ing up at a high rate. If we plot ac­ci­dents on yearly ba­sis, it's true for Canada and the U.S. for skiers and snow­mo­bil­ers that ac­ci­dent rates are flat. Rapid growth, but flat ac­ci­dent in­ci­dents.”

Snows­ports In­dus­tries of Amer­ica's most re­cent statis­tics in­di­cate that in 2015 sales of alpine/at boots in­creased 27% per­cent from 2014 in units sold and an increase of roughly 360,000 pairs. Ac­ces­sory sales of bea­cons, probes and shov­els in­creased 12%. In­bounds re­sort-skier and -boarder vis­its to­tal more than 56 mil­lion vis­its, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Ski Area As­so­ci­a­tion.

“We'd like to increase the num­ber of snow­mo­bil­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Tracks Project,” says John­son, who is cur­rently fine-tun­ing rid­ing skills to meet more of the two-stroke-en­gine crowd. “We see a lot of Mid­west­ern U.S. snow­mo­bil­ers com­ing to Cooke City, Mont. (just out­side the north­east cor­ner of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park). They are not complacent in their avalanche ed­u­ca­tion. It would be great to track them – I'm try­ing to crack into the cul­ture to acquire more data.”

Hen­drikx and John­son cur­rently have ap­prox­i­mately 5,000 tracked trips, and hope to se­cure fund­ing for deeper in­ter­pre­ta­tion and a longterm project. While some of their data has been an­a­lyzed, there is a wealth of data to be un­cov­ered and ex­am­ined fur­ther.

“De­spite these suc­cesses, re­search into ter­rain use and de­ci­sion-mak­ing could help us to re­duce the fa­tal­i­ties fur­ther,” says Hen­drikx.

For more in­for­ma­tion: www.mon­tana.edu/snow­science/tracks.

Ap­prox­i­mately 140 peo­ple die each year in avalanches in North Amer­ica and Europe – in most cases, the peo­ple trig­ger it them­selves.

MSU'S Jerry John­son (l) and Jordy Hen­drikx started their Tracks Project in 2013 to study the hu­man fac­tor in avalanches.

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