Low Frequency, High Consequence Events

January 4, 2018

It has been well documented that backcountry travelers, even with formal training, still are not impervious to avalanche incidents. In fact, clues of avalanche danger are often blatantly obvious, but somehow information gets overlooked all too often and greater risk is taken than was perhaps initially intended. Is it that if we want to do something enough that we will find a way to rationalize it? If so, then how can we put the odds better in our favor?

 

Gordon Graham, a policeman, says it best in the following video (watch it through it's a good one!):

 

 

 

One idea in managing risk is to start by thinking very broadly of each situation, disseminating the decision making process itself. Hopefully, if we know and recognize the actual amount of risk at hand we will make better calls in the end. If we look at a possible accident situation there are two primary variables that contribute to actual hazard; likelihood and severity. If the frequency is high and the severity is high it is pretty easy to say, ‘Today is not the day.’ In the avalanche world this could be seen on a day with a forecasted HIGH hazard. When danger is readily apparent most people have the sense to behave and try their luck another time. Statistics of avalanche accidents support this idea as most avalanche accidents happen during forecasted CONSIDERABLE or MODERATE hazard and not when danger is posted as HIGH. The trickiest combination of variables is when there is a low probability of an event but the consequence is high. A perfect example of this is when persistent weak layers are deeply buried in the snowpack. Numerous skiers could ski a slope uneventfully and yet all it takes to bring the whole slope down, and all of the tracks on it, is skiing over the wrong (weak) spot on the slope.

 

Low frequency, high consequence events are difficult for people to think through in realistic terms. If we lack firsthand experience seeing a problem surface ourselves we can make the assumption that our experience alone will be applicable and credible time and time again. We need adequate time to carefully process information in the decision making process with a calculated, highly objective mindset. When people rush they are far more likely to allow their desires to dominate their decisions. We are much better off if we slow down, ‘smoke a cigarette,’ (per say) and make our emotions secondary in the decisions we make.

 

Thanks Gordon for your insight!

 

 

 

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