Data Drunk -and a desire to ski-

John Mletschnig

To preface this post, it is written to shed insight on some of the issues decision making poses among higher level backcountry users and avalanche professional. It would be misleading to say that guides, such as those operating with Backcountry Pros, are immune to some of these same challenges. Operationally, Backcountry Pros operates with formal planning and forecasting procedures in place including an internal peer review process in regard to general terrain selection among it's guides, as well as other formal techniques, to help mitigate some of these exact issues.

It is without question that if a person is unaware of the potential hazards they may face tin the mountains that they are more vulnerable to being in harm’s way. Being oblivious to ones surroundings ensures luck as a first line of defense. Not knowing what problems are potentially at hand and being forced to make decisions around them, without time to react in the moment, are certainly a tall order for most everyone. Logically speaking, experience and understanding of their environment should help individuals be more aware of their surroundings and provide a safety advantage. But does awareness equate to better decision making? Maybe…

Enter a desire for the meaningless. In a true sense, an experienced avalanche forecaster should be able to take the information at hand and run with it, effectively mitigating all possible hazards at bey. If it snows a lot, skiing steep terrain is off limits (for instance). Easy. The problem, though, is that we still want to ski in the new snow and often preferably while in steep terrain. After all, if we really wanted to avoid things like avalanches we would just stay out of the mountain in winter altogether. For instance, a non-skier with a rudimentary knowledge of the idea of avalanches, may look up at the mountains after a big snowfall and have no problem staying away. Without the reward, like scoring deep snow as a skier, there is no incentive to even humor the idea. To take it a step further, why even go into the mountains at all in the winter if avalanches happen then.

Skiers then have to accept that there is inherent danger from things like avalanches if they ski at all. The question is, how much danger? How far do we push the limits of our decision making. Logically speaking, the better informed we are the better we should be able to mitigate this danger. Realistically, though, because we are trying to achieve a goal (in this case to ski) the more we know, the more we rationalize doing what we want to do, possibly by decreasing our margins under the pretense of a perception of understanding.

The world runs on data and seasoned backcountry skiers and avalanche professionals alike are no different, using it to hedge bets on where and when to ski to stay safe. The more data that is acquired, the better the perceived understanding of the situation. As a people in today’s world we expect answers at our fingertips. As much as we would like to believe, though, in the world of snow and avalanches we have far from perfect data. Really, we only have small windows into what is going on in a landscape ripe with spatial variability. Data when over applied can be a detriment. Data can only provide insight into the probability of a particular occurrence in a particular location, but it cannot say with certainty one way or the other what is to transpire.

Higher level recreational users and avalanche professionals are in a unique position which leaves them vulnerable to potential data interpretation woes, as they have enough knowledge to attempt to logically justify their decisions which may end in them doing what they want to do vs. what they should do. During known-to-be-dangerous conditions, such as during persistent avalanche cycles, where the most is at stake, it seems only more and more commonplace that accidents and near misses occur in these no-brainer conditions within these use groups. Deep-dives(into data) while under the veil of a greater understanding have the potential to provide a path for individuals to justify rash decisions, effectively shrinking their margins in an attempt to fulfill their desires. There is a time when more and more data can just add to the noise of what should already be quite clear and obvious. If not careful data can lure even the most experienced users closer to the edge.

Acknowledgment of uncertainty is a critical aspect of avalanche forecasting, though one that conflicts with each and every ego that makes their way in the mountains. A complete understanding of snow stability is never possible and as users we need to simply accept that as the case and act appropriately when conditions dictate. When consequences are really high, Id argue we need to be waiving the white flag more than not, and not looking at numbers to find a way forward. There are times each winter when conditions simply dictate a large step back (larger margins) due to the unknown and as users we need to be okay with that if we are to stand a chance longer term. Data resolution is often not as defined or is as widely applicable as we want to believe it is.

Greater knowledge of avalanches makes for a more informed backcountry user and avalanche professional. It doesn’t necessarily mean better decisions are made, though. The interpretation of information can be guided by personal desires unintentionally shrinking margins of safety. It is easy to get lost in the details; drunk on data.

Provocative side note: As the backcountry explodes with new users it is important that the hazards at play are understood. Avalanche centers across North America have done a tremendous job at shaping the knowledgebase of local communities and their statistically nascent users. In the short term there appears to have been great success in the prudent behavior of newer users by staying reasonably safe. The message is clear to new users, when conditions are dangerous , they act accordingly with wide margins. Where I question whether that message is as clear is to higher level recreationalist and professional users. More information (data) definitely equates to more confidence in the mountains and more ski runs had, but does it keep people safer with better decisions made? Would people make more prudent decisions if they had less information at their fingertips? Would they have larger margins to work with?

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