More thoughts regarding WYSAW

A portion of the public day at WYSAW was devoted to decision-making and debriefing.  Highlights from some of these talks include:

A Feel for Snow – Dr. Terry O’Connor

Terry wears many hats and has a good perspective to philosophize from.

Here are some of his opening words which speak to his message:

“I’ve been on the receiving end of many of these “what were they thinking?” incidents over the years. But as I’ve thought and learned more about the decision-making process, through personal experience, my review of the literature and conversations with friends and mentors I’ve begun to think perhaps a better question is ‘what were they feeling?’

And before their first turns “were they capable of feeling the consequence of their actions?”

Terry went on to look at fast decision making (typically driven by Recognition Primed Events or prior experiences) vs slow decision-making (analytical, checklist driven…).  His contention is that regardless of the process our “feel” for the snow/situation and emotions are the real drivers for what choices we make.   His very compelling stories showed how prior experiences and the emotions associated with them skewed his decision making in what became critical situations.

What implications does this have for us as backcountry travelers and as educators? Again in Terry’s words: 

For skiers and their partners out there.

If you are the less experienced know that it is easy to get caught up in the vast expanse of opportunity out there and indeed and you have a somatic sense of danger in

your situation, what’s the harm of sharing your concerns? Don’t want to rock the boat – perhaps there is more consequence if you don’t.

For the experienced partner, if you partner has concerns. Address them. Is there something there you don’t see. Are you trying to outfox the uncertainty of your environment. 

For educators out there:

Can we really teach a feel for snow? Can we really make our students feel the consequence of their actions if it hasn’t happened to them.

As educators we attempt to teach everything about avalanches from how the form, where they live, how to manage ourselves… But what can we do to convey consequence if someone has never seen the aftermath of avalanches with bad outcomes.

The Avalanche Gamble – How Do You Play Your Hand – Lori Zacaruk

Lori is an experienced, capable, and CREATIVE avalanche educator who focuses on snowmachiners.  She invented a card game with seven decks (avalanche danger, weather, group, terrain choice…) and all players (i.e. – students) got to pick one card from each deck and then had a minute to either replace their cards from those remaining in the deck or from the hands of the other players.  The goal being having a hand that is least likely to cause harm. 

The take homes for me were:

  • The ‘players’ were engaged and were critically thinking how they could lessen their exposure and vulnerability.
  • You can’t often change the snowpack or weather, so it your group and your terrain are your most controllable ‘cards’
  • This game was for AST2 students in Canada, but could easily be used at the end of a Level 1 or Level 2
  • Creativity can really fire up people and there can be new approaches to scenarios for decision-making

Gothic Couloir – Connor Nolan and Jim Ryan

These two former ski racers were pursuing challenging lines around JHMR for two years, before they were involved in a serious avalanche accident.  Their account of the accident AND the ensuing rescue really illustrated two points well:

  1. Good skiers can travel into serious avalanche terrain, but may have the sense that it is very benign. The 40°terrain that the incident on was viewed as an easy way to get back in-bounds. 
  2. After the slope released, the skier was caught in the trees near the top of the debris field under considerable hangfire. TCSAR responded and were on site despite the overhanging hazard.  That seemed to be the greatest guilt that they had about the accident and the message that they wanted to share with the audience.

Debriefing – Did We Make Good Decisions or Just Get Away with it – Lynne Wolfe

This talk started with a good look at a close call Lynne had in 2012.  The incident involved a large D3.5 avalanche that was started by a ski cut and could have impacted Lynne and other skiers for the 2800’ below the crown line. Lynne looked at it from a perspective of whether she had made appropriate decisions that day by being in the line of fire from other skiers AND her own party.

She wrote about this incident in TAR 30 #4 (April 2012) pp14-16 – available in TAR archives

One quote that stood out from her debrief was from Karl Birkeland:

Sounds like you guys ended up on the right side of the line. However, it also sounds like you ended up pretty close to the line. My experience is that if you are too close to that line too often, sooner or later you’ll end up on the wrong side of the fracture. The older I get – and the more I learn what I don’t know – the further I like to be away from that line!

Kudos to Lynne for her pursuit of effective reflection.  Many articles within The Avalanche Review (which she edits) address reflection and decision-making. 

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