Snow scientists and social scientists are teaming up worldwide to link the disconnect between perception and reality in the mountains.
BY BAY STEPHENS
Doud Child slapped his skis down on the snow and clicked into his bindings, eager to get off the ridge and out of the ripping wind. He skated to the cornice where skiers had been dropping in all season long and slid just over the edge to wait for his partner.
It was a cold bluebird day in February and Child, a middle-aged woodworker and server in Bozeman, Montana, was up early to beat the crowd and ski a lap on Saddle Peak, just outside Bridger Bowl Ski Area’s southern boundary.
A sweeping storm had dropped two feet of dense snow the previous 48 hours, and locals were already hiking the ridge to cash in on fresh powder. The bootpack trail they followed gave wide berth to the massive cornice that had grown throughout the season on Saddle Peak’s leeward side. The slope beneath the cornice was largely untouched and had remained so for most of the season.
That area, known colloquially as the Football Field, was an avalanche waiting to happen. A weak and rotten layer of faceted snow from an early season storm lurked beneath a bulletproof wind slab, now weighed down by several feet of snow deposited throughout the winter. In a December 17 video published by the local avalanche center, an avy forecaster said skier compaction would do nothing to mitigate those facets. They would lurk at the bottom of the snowpack until enough weight pressed down and a trigger let loose the slope. According to the avalanche center, this was the most unstable snowpack in more than 20 years.
Avalanches kill an average of 27 people each year in the United States.
And last year was worse. The 2020-2021 ski season saw 36 people lose their lives in slides, the highest number of avalanche fatalities in more than a decade. An explosion of backcountry riders last season played a role in these numbers as hordes of riders traded lift lines for backcountry lines due in part to COVID-19-related factors. Indeed, backcountry-related gear sales were up 76 percent over 2019, according to a study conducted by market research powerhouse NPD group along with Snowsports Industries America.
But the sport itself is also dangerous. Skiing involves inherent risks and sometimes the actual risk we expose ourselves to differs from the risk we think we’re dealing with. This difference between actual and perceived risk can be a matter of life and death, especially when it comes to avalanches. Around the globe, snow scientists are teaming up with social scientists to better understand the crucial role the human mind plays in fostering this disconnect between what we think we know and the reality beneath the snow.
Andrea Mannberg, a behavioral economist of the Arctic University of Norway in the city of Tromsø, teamed up with Montana State University political scientist Jerry Johnson and MSU snow scientist Jordy Hendrikx to study decision-making in avalanche terrain. The collaboration is part of a larger effort called the White Heat Project, which researches risk and risk perception in avalanche terrain.
“Avalanche terrain is very fertile soil to grow overconfidence in our ability to mitigate avalanche risk,” Mannberg said.
This may be why the median age of avalanche victims has trended upward since 1950, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.
“And most times, we don’t cause an avalanche and we don’t die so we think we made a good decision.” – Jordy Hendrikx, MSU Snow Scientist
Some scientists posit that the increasing age of avalanche victims could, ironically, have to do with their experience. That is, it’s possible that more experience in avalanche terrain leads to poorer decision-making in the backcountry. This isn’t necessarily due to some deficiency on the part of backcountry riders, but more likely relates to the learning environment.
Psychologist Robin Hogarth categorizes learning environments as “kind” or “wicked” to help explain why in some realms repeated practice leads to increased skill, while in others, greater experience provides no additional advantages.
Take a kind learning environment. In chess or ping pong, for instance, the more you play, the better you get. You learn what works and what doesn’t because for every action you take, your brain receives immediate and accurate feedback on how effective that action was.
Then, there are wicked learning environments.
“In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both,” science journalist David Epstein writes in his 2019 bestseller Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
In the most fiendish learning environments, feedback may actually reinforce the wrong behavior. And avalanche terrain may be one such environment.
As Hendrikx puts it, in avalanche-prone terrain “we make a decision but we don’t get feedback on the veracity of that decision, whether it’s good or bad. And most times, we don’t cause an avalanche and we don’t die so we think we made a good decision. And then one time we make a really bad decision, you might die. By the time you’re in your late 30s, into your 40s and 50s, chances are you’ve had a lot of input that’s told you that you make good decisions and that you’re really good in the backcountry.”
With little to no corrective feedback, this can lead backcountry-goers to venture further afield into increasingly exposed terrain.
To be clear, the dataset from the 2020 study can’t say why the age of avalanche victims is increasing; it’s likely a variety of factors in combination, such as the fact that backcountry recreation is expensive, so middle-aged individuals are more likely to have the means to enter the sport. Still, viewing avalanche terrain as a wicked learning environment may prompt more seasoned backcountry travelers to ask the question: Am I a smart decision-maker, or a poor decision-maker who has gotten lucky thus far?
It took a half-second for the collapse to propagate hundreds of feet in both directions, cutting like lightning across the slope 40 yards below where Child stood.
Child, who would turn 43 in April, leaned into the cornice out of the wind. Two skiers dropped in nearby and made a few turns before stopping to check in with each other. More hikers on the bootpack drew nearer. Child wanted fresh powder but his ski partner, a patroller he had met in the Schlasman’s lift line, was taking forever.
Child muttered under his breath as the guy took a leak, then adjusted his boots, and finally stepped into his bindings. Child didn’t want to be on the slope with a bunch of jamokes above him who might send down an avalanche. He had his tried- and-true route planned out, which would take him and the patroller down a gentle nose that skiers and boarders had been riding all season. Though he considered his run safe from a slide—he’d probably skied it a hundred times—he’d have to traverse back under the Football Field at the bottom of the run to re-enter the Bridger Bowl boundary. And he wanted to clear that traverse as soon as possible.
A hiking snowboarder took a few steps off the bootpack toward the cornice for a breather and a photo. When he swung down his pack to the snow a crack shot in both directions, opening a chasm into which he plunged six feet straight down. Child watched stunned as the 1,500-pound chunk of cornice broke loose and began sliding down the slope.
For three or four breathless seconds, the VW-van-sized cornice slid like an iceberg. Then, about 40 yards down the slope, it buckled the snowpack, crushing the wind slab and collapsing the weak facets at the ground.
It took a half-second for the collapse to propagate hundreds of feet in both directions, cutting like lightning across the slope 40 yards below where Child stood. The slope shuddered then slid, crumbling and transforming into a river of snow rocketing toward the valley floor. It pulled to the ground, four to six feet deep and 1,000 feet wide, taking all the snow from the shoulder where Child and the patroller planned to ski just moments later. The torrent careened over a 50-foot cliff, letting loose a white mushroom cloud as it pummeled trees 2,000 feet below.
“Economic research does not have to be about money at all,’ Mannberg said during a 2020 Avalanche Conference. ‘The core of economics as a science is decision-making, regardless if the decision-maker is a banker or a backcountry rider.”
Before Mannberg joined the team in 2016, Johnson and Hendrikx took a primarily geospatial approach to studying humans in the backcountry. They used GPS data from a mobile app called SkiTracks, that volunteers downloaded on their phones, to see what terrain choices folks made on a given day. They could then compare those decisions to the avalanche hazard posted for that day and assign an approximate level of risk. While this approach has an elegance and veracity to it—“A ski track can’t lie,” as Johnson put it— pulling back the curtain of the mind to see what factors affect people’s decisions is tricky.
Mannberg’s background in behavioral economics lends a new perspective to the issue. Pairing up with her allows Johnson and Hendrikx to leverage decades of behavioral economic theory to investigate the nexus of humans and backcountry travel.
“Economic research does not have to be about money at all,” Mannberg said during a 2020 avalanche conference. “The core of economics as a science is decision-making, regardless if the decision-maker is a banker or a backcountry rider.”
While classical economists view humans as rational decision- makers, a behavioral economists’ footing is atop a mountain of empirical evidence proving that’s not always the case. According to Mannberg, a well-documented set of biases lead us to make decisions that aren’t optimal for our own personal interests or for society. Many of these biases may apply to how we interact with avalanche terrain.
One economics-derived concept the team has studied among backcountry goers is positionality, which holds that we derive satisfaction not only from how possessions benefit us directly, but also how they denote our social position relative to others.
For instance, you might be perfectly content with your camper van—until you see someone else roll up with a built-out 2021 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter with solar panels and custom ski rack. If your eyes narrow with envy, you might be positional about vans. And if you’re driving the souped-up Sprinter, and you notice in yourself a certain smug satisfaction as you drive by that beat-up campervan, you too are likely positional about vans.
It all depends on what we care about. Some of us are positional about cars and houses, others, how rad we ski on the slopes, a concept Mannberg, Johnson and Hendrikx have data to back.
Positionality, then, is keeping up with the Joneses, or, as the White Heat trio cleverly titled it in their 2018 ISSW conference proceedings paper, “Keeping up with Jeremy Jones.”
Using an online survey of 648 North Americans, the paper found evidence that around 33 percent of backcountry riders are positional about their riding. Their research question? “Do aspirations for social status drive risk-taking behavior among backcountry skiers?” Their answer: Yes.
If you’re positional about skiing or splitboarding, a good day in the mountains is even better when a scroll through Instagram reveals that you sent the most badass line of your peers. On the flipside, that same great day can be dampened if you learn a buddy sent a way gnarlier line than you.
We all have unique risk preferences, and some people have a greater tolerance for risk than others. There’s nothing wrong with a measure of risk. But positionality comes into play when you choose to take on more risk than you’re comfortable with in order to impress others— to be cool, to be accepted.
Positionality for riding bold terrain can lead to rampant one-upmanship, wherein the backcountry community races to send bigger and more dangerous ski lines. This is a problem because even if you tag the biggest line, the glory is fleeting; your epic ride today will become tomorrow’s normal. So, we risk getting killed or injured in an avalanche for a few seconds in the spotlight.
What we post to social media affects others, said Mannberg, who has her own rules governing what she posts to Instagram. She tries to resist the temptation to post from her steep, challenging days, but requires herself to post whenever she turns back from an objective.
Applying her research into positionality, Mannberg is trying to counteract the phenomenon for herself and for the benefit of her broader backcountry community.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget most of that day … that guy taking forever definitely saved my life.” – Doug Child
In time, the trio hopes to develop effective interventions for when our biases lead us astray and closer to danger than we ever intended, as was the case for Child.
That day on Saddle Peak etched itself in Child’s mind. He didn’t return to Saddle for more than a year-and-a-half after the slide. And even today, he only goes out Bridger Bowl’s southern boundary on special occasions. He’s not afraid of Saddle anymore, but he’s not quite comfortable with it either.
Perhaps for good reason. It’s been a long time since Saddle Peak slid, and the 2010 avalanche wasn’t even close to the biggest event recorded on that slope.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1980, Saddle Peak loosed what snow scientists call a “full-track” slide, meaning it was a maximum-size avalanche for that slope. While the 2010 avalanche had a max crown depth of six feet, the 1980 slide boasted an 18-foot crown. It was nearly 2,000 feet wide— double the width of the 2010 slide—and pulled the entire Football Field, shattering full-grown trees on its way down.
You can still see the scars of the St. Patty’s Day slide some 40 years later. In fact, this 1980 avalanche “[cleared] out trees to create the run we ski today,” reads a 2010 paper produced by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. Saddle Peak went again in 2007.
“I’m telling you, this stuff slides,” Chabot told the crowd in 2010 after the Saddle Peak avalanche. “The key point is to not forget that.”
It’s been more than a decade, but Saddle Peak will slide again. It’s just a matter of when. Experts hope the confluence of research, education and deliberate decision-making practices in the backcountry will ensure no one gets caught when it does.
Bay Stephens is a freelance writer and former associate editor for Mountain Outlaw. He and his wife are building out a short school bus to live and write on the road full time.