Highlights from WYSAW


WYSAW 2016 was a very worthwhile day indeed!  The main focus of the day was on human factors.

backlit-skinningHere are highlights from a few of the talks that stuck with me:

Blase Reardon

Blase spoke of uncertainty in the snow and avalanche world.  It is an environment where we often do not know the probabilities of something going wrong. There is a huge amount of information, and few definitive clues as to whether or not a slope is stable.  And, to make the situation more challenging, being wrong can often feel right… ie. we ski a slope that was dangerously close to avalanching, but doesn’t avalanche.  We may never know how lucky we got, and it just felt like great powder skiing.  This pattern and lack of good feedback can reinforce bad habits.

Blase referenced a personal story from early in his backcountry ski career in which he was wrong in his assessment and got good direct feedback.  The senior guide was taking them on a circuitous route to avoid slopes above them.  Blase was frustrated that they were not traveling more directly to their intended destination.  Just as he was about to speak up and complain about the wide detour, the slope avalanched, and crossed over the his intended, more direct route.

Blase talked about the fact that we cannot process every observation or piece of information around us in the backcountry.  We need to simplify by using a “limited search” and focus on the most important data.  If we have recent avalanches or collapsing in the snowpack, we don’t need all the other data. Our decision should be easy.  This is called “satisficing”— limiting your search and focusing on the most important information.

Blase closed with five points for a long life of traveling in the backcountry:

5.Rely on rules, ritual, and checklists. Simplicity works.  If you are going to break a rule,            break one at a time.

  1. Don’t ride solo, or not often. There is no back-up and no partner to call you out on a bad decision.
  1. Keep learning— which is a form of humility.
  1. Don’t try to outsmart the danger— we don’t really know the odds/probabilities.
  1. Play not to lose. Satisfice, focus on the important information.


Roger Atkins

Roger is a longtime heli-ski guide in Canada and has offered some great insights on the human mind and influences on decision-making in avalanche terrain.

Roger referenced 2 questions by a ski client early in his career that he still thinks about 25 years later.  After a ski run that he deemed an aggressive terrain choice for the day, a female client asked, “How did you know it was safe to ski there?”

Later that same day they skied thru an aspen forest.  Roger swatted some aspen branches out of the way and steered clear of other branches that would have knocked him over like a baseball bat.  The client asked him, “how did you know which branches to break and which to avoid?”

He used these questions as a springboard into how we gather and interpret information and how our mind stores and uses that information. The first question referred to choosing to ski a slope in which timely feedback is rare.  In the aspen scenario, feedback was ongoing.

He drew a distinction between the conscious and unconscious brain.  We can overestimate how much our conscious/rational mind is in control.   In reality, our decisions are often influenced by our subconscious brain.  The subconscious brain is heavily influenced by emotion.

Roger then spoke of his development of strategic mindsets, which is part of the morning guide team meeting at his heli operation.

When the avalanche danger rises, it is rational to adjust the objectives and choose safer terrain.  But, Roger argues we need to go deeper and adjust our desires to fit the conditions.   This is a change in mindset.  When we change our mindset, we change the way we see the world.  Roger and his team have a spectrum of “strategic mindsets” that they choose each morning to help them dictate their desires and objectives for the day.

Roger closed with these take home points:

-Get out a lot

-Look in the snow

-Seek mentorship

-Think subjectively.  Not, “what is the exact amount of snow?” But, “did we get a lot or a little snow?”

-Be aware of avalanche character

-Expand your selection of desires

-Use Strategic mindsets


Iain Stewart-Patterson

Iain has written about the challenge of developing expertise in an environment with inconsistent feedback and high consequences.  Feedback allows us to react and modify our decision making.  In the avalanche world, lack of feedback can fool us into thinking we are making good decisions.  This can be a dangerous trap. This lack of an incident, when in fact it was a bad decision, is known as the illusion of validity.

Iain referred to a near miss as a gift.  It is direct feeback, which is rare. Direct feedback allow us to learn, adjust our decision making, and potentially avoid and accident with high consequences.


An emphasis on human factors and decision-making was a continuation of highlights from this year’s ISSW in Breckenridge, CO.  There were two references at WYSAW to an ISSW paper by Russell Costa from Westminster College in SLC.  He researched the top selling avalanche reference books and determined that an overwhelming part of the content was on snow science with much less focus on decision-making.  An “ah ha” moment for me was the revelation that snow science expertise and decision-making expertise are two different skills.  They develop at different rates and are not necessarily directly connected.  It is an important distinction for all of us to be aware of, as decision-making skill is what will ultimately keep us safe.


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