Avalanches: The Human Factor
THE HUMAN FACTOR: Larger Groups in the Backcountry Make Riskier Decisions
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.