Learning from Mistakes

Learning from Mistakes: Train Your Intuition to Make Good Decisions in Avalanche Terrain

Last April we skied for a week on the icefields above Prince William Sound. It was an Alaska trip of a lifetime: great friends, perfect weather and mostly stable snow. We skied so many steep powder-filled chutes that we didn't bother counting.

It's tempting to pat myself on the back and say, "Well done. Your experience, conditions and partners came together for another ideal trip." The problem is, congratulating myself for a job well done doesn’t help me get any better. I want to avoid avalanches for another 30 years. I want to improve. And improving takes effort and practice.

***I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. It’s an easy read and full of decision-making nuggets directly applicable to backcountry skiing. While Lehrer isn’t Kahneman—the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the most popular book for avalanche psychology—Lehrer is a better writer. He eloquently synthesizes modern decision research into a usable fashion. What stood out most to me in How We Decide was how to train our intuition to make good decisions. In avalanche terrain, making good decisions can be difficult.

Lehrer starts the book by explaining the problem with our attempts to be rational. While some situations necessitate slow, rational decision-making, such as when planning a day of backcountry skiing, most of our decisions in the backcountry come from intuition. We make thousands of intuition-based decisions each day in the backcountry. Should I turn left or right around the trees ahead? We don’t have time to deliberate the pros and cons of each decision. We just do it.

The problem is that intuition can sometimes steer us wrong in avalanche terrain. Our brain doesn’t do well with randomness. Considering the uncertainty involved in avalanche release, avalanches can be considered random. It’s like winning at the slot machine. We get such a visceral thrill from winning the slots, which is similar to the visceral thrill of skiing a steep powder face that doesn’t avalanche. Lehrer says, “We trust our feelings and perceive patterns, but the patterns don’t actually exist.” Just like the casino eventually wins, if we keep succumbing to the powder, and perceiving that we’re making good decisions in the face of avalanche uncertainty, the avalanche will win.

So how do we train our emotion to make good decisions in the face of randomness?

According to research summarized by Lehrer, we can train our intuition by examining our mistakes. This research particularly follows the aviation industry and the work done by psychologist Carol Dweck. By studying mistakes, we can build patterns in our brain to expect certain situations.

Close calls with avalanches are one type of mistake that we can examine, learn from, and train our intuition to avoid those situations in the future. It’s also worth examining the many small mistakes that occur throughout a day of backcountry skiing.

What follows is a critical look at five runs on our trip to Prince William Sound. Rather than focusing on how bleeping awesome each run was, I’ve dissected the runs, looking for the mistakes I made. I also give a decision-making grade for each run. Some decisions I nailed. Some I bombed.

No Warm Up Chute. Self-critique rating: 20%

From Anchorage, we flew out to Prince William Sound, set up camp, and dashed out for some assessment runs on mellow, south-facing slopes. From our first summit, I looked north, down into a steep chute filled with shallow, soft powder. To me, the snow had that old, ultra-stable look. We skied it. It was amazing. But I bombed it.

These are my mistakes and how I can improve:

Mistake #1: I didn’t apply terrain progression.

I always preach “Apply terrain progression!" Start small and get on bigger terrain, if conditions allow. We planned to start small with some corn runs, but I got lured into the chute. It was like placing a salmon fillet in front of a cat and saying, “Don’t touch.” I couldn’t resist. Applying terrain progression takes diligence and self-control. Next time, I’m going to discuss terrain progression with my partners before putting on skis, so they can keep me in check. Then I’ll keep the self-control gun stuck to my head.

Mistake #2: I didn’t dig a pit.

Mistake #3: I didn’t listen to my partner.

As we assessed the entrance to the chute, one person in our group said, "I think we should dig a pit." Seems like a good idea. We had little information on this wild snowpack. Might as well get our hands in the snow and gather some data. Especially if I’m going to ignore terrain progression. But two of us in the group felt that the snow was stable. In my frenzy to ski, I brushed off my partner’s request to dig the pit. Big mistake. More data equals less uncertainty. Next time, I'll try and take 10 minutes to dig a pit. And I’ll try and listen to my partner’s concerns.

Mistake #4: I didn’t ski for weakest member.

Not everyone had 100% confidence in their ability to make turns in this chute. It was steep enough that a slip from the top could send you sliding to the base. With two 100-foot sections of rope, we belayed the initial ski cutter down the steepest section, and the second skier. The problem is, if I’m getting the rope out on the first run, I’m making a big mistake. Next time I’ll warm up with terrain progression. And I’ll do a better job at tuning into my partner’s concerns about steep terrain. 

Camp Gully. Self-Critique rating: 60%

This was an obvious pencil-thin chute above camp. One day we returned to camp from a big day of skiing, changed out kit, and booted up the chute. Two of us stopped about 100 meters from the top, feeling the consequences of a fall were too high for our ability. It was steep, about 53 degrees where we stopped, with cornices curling overhead. Plus, a fall would send you into the rock wall. Above, the chute tilted to 56 degrees. Two others in the group climbed up to the col.

These are my mistakes and how I can improve:

Mistake #1: I didn’t speak my concern.

On the descent, seeking a safe-zone in the complex terrain, my partner tucked up against the rock wall. At the base of the rock wall I halfway recognized a mini half-pipe of firm snow. In hindsight I should have known it was a garbage chute, formed by debris falling from above. From alpine climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps I’d learned these garbage chutes can offer solid ice for climbing, but if sun hits the upper slopes, or people knock stuff from above, the garbage chute becomes a funnel for high speed rocks and ice.

Like I halfway expected, some debris knocked loose from our partners above, came rocketing down the garbage chute and thumped my partner in the backpack. Shocked and creeped out, my partner climbed out from the false security of the garbage chute and joined me on the other side of the gully.

Why didn’t I say, “Probably less exposed on this side of the chute”? Maybe because I didn’t recognize the garbage chute. More likely though, I didn’t say anything because I’m so damned worried about what people think. Speaking my concern in the mountains, in an assertive manner, to non-clients about safety is one of my weakest skills. I need to work on saying what I’m feeling, right away, so it doesn’t build into an explosion of awkwardness, or lead to an accident.

Cracks and Avalanches. Self-critique rating: 30%

On our fourth day, two friends flew out for the day from Anchorage, bumping our group size to seven. A great number for socializing, but an unruly number in avalanche terrain.

We started that morning by carving down a frozen, south-facing run. Next, we headed toward a prominent summit with a glaciated north face. While gaining the summit we were spread out over a half mile, partially regrouping at the summit. The skiing and views were off the hook. But I bombed this one also.

These are my mistakes and how I can improve:

Mistake #1: I changed my plan.

While skinning the ridge, we saw a recent soft storm slab avalanche between a series of crevasses. Because of the recent avalanche and crevasses, I decided I wasn’t going to ski the face. I used my photographer excuse to linger by the side and take photos. I watched each skier ride the sluffy, dreamy powder far above the icefield. Nothing avalanched on the top pitch. I raced over and skied the face and joined the group. On the second pitch, I was fourth down. A pocket of snow 30 by 30 meters, 30 cm deep ripped out and followed me slowly down the face to the runout below. The benign avalanche was obvious in hindsight, but still, I didn’t call it out before dropping in.

Why didn’t I stick with my plan to avoid skiing the face? I saw the avalanche and cracks. I got suckered in by the powder and snow. I became your typical stupid sheep, following the herd. Next time I’ll be more diligent about listening to my negative gut feeling. And then acting upon it.

Mistake #2: I deferred to the knowledge of a partner.

One person in our group had 25 years of snow safety experience at one of the most avalanche-prone ski resorts in the US. Knowing that his avalanche experience dwarfed mine, I differed to his knowledge. That’s not the right thing to do. No matter how much experience a partner has, they’re still human, not a robot. They’re just as susceptible to powder as I am. I need to make my own decisions about avalanche conditions and share my fact-based opinion with the group.

Falling Chute. Self-critique rating: 90%

On the sixth day we returned to a beautiful chute we scouted days earlier. Forty-degree powder dropping into a distant basin. During the week, we discussed the run, it’s conditions, and how to go about skiing it. Standing above the run we came up with a plan we agreed upon. We made two ski cuts. We spotted from two safe zones. We leapfrogged from safe zone to safe zone.

This is my mistake and how I can improve:

Mistake #1: My inability to think of a mistake.

I’m sure I made some mistakes. So what are they? There must be some. It’s impossible for me to do everything right. Hmmm, the unknown unknowns.

Final run. Self-critique rating: 75%

On the last day the sky went grey and the light dead flat. Our energy was low from a big week of skiing. Just over the ridge from camp was a series of mini chutes through rocks down a big face. I’d first seen the chutes on a trip to the region five years earlier. We’d been scoping the face all week.

From camp we skinned and scrambled through rocks until we stood above the run. After an hour of deliberating we returned to camp with no prize. Or was it a big prize? Turning around can be more difficult than skiing the face.

This is my mistake and how I can improve:

Mistake #1: I didn’t participate in the decision-making.

The four of us were on the same page: tired, satisfied from a week of great skiing and thinking about the avalanche we triggered a few days earlier. We all felt on the verge of clicking in and making the first ski cuts. But something creepy kept us from doing so. Probably our condition combined with the flat light and high consequences if even a small avalanche.

Feeling we were on the same page, I hung back and didn’t participate as much in the decision making. My partner’s discussion was putting me at ease. Is that a cop out, or is that one less cook in the kitchen? Either way, I should have clearly stated my opinion backed up by facts: “I feel this face doesn’t have the storm slab problem we saw yesterday. But the face has shallow-trigger zones and round the rocks. If something does avalanche it would be bad. And the flat light makes assessment difficult.”

My 2017/18 System for Learning from Mistakes

Examining my mistakes, and talking about them openly, is a solid technique improve my ability at avoiding avalanches. This winter I’ll make it a habit to examine my mistakes after each day of skiing. Not just to my myself, but out loud to my group, if it feels right. I’ll be aware to not state my mistakes in a seeking praise, self-deprecating way, but rather in an honest, self-examination way. In a way that promotes discussion to help myself and our group. And avoid avalanches in wild Alaska for another 30 years.

-Joe Stock, IFMGA, Stock Alpine

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