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The “Human Factor” : Part 2 Skiers and Snowboarders

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In our last post,  the Human Factor part 1,  we heard the story of a snowboarder heading into the backcountry alone and triggering a slide after launching onto a wind loaded, shaded slope from a cornice. We considered what might have been the factors that influence someone to make such a decision. Obviously, a lack of knowledge or ability is possible, or the guy just had powder fever and was rushing to first tracks ahead of us at any expense?
The above analysis is termed a fundamental attribution error and is the popular go-to for those judging a  certain incident when those same “judges” would attribute the incident to circumstance.
As Ian McCammon states “we tend to blame others for the accidents that befall them rather than seek to understand the cognitive traps that fooled them (and might fool us ) into making a mistake”(1). McCammon has studied and published widely on decision making in the backcountry and his papers are an excellent resource.
He points out that we preferentially utilize heuristic decision making in certain situations, such as in avalanche terrain, over-analytical decision making due to the complexity of information processing. It is also known that an analytical approach is often flawed by using it to justify an already formed intuitive decision, especially in these complex situations.
He identifies from the study of avalanche accidents some key heuristic traps, the knowledge of which may aid the backcountry user to recognise their own intuitive failings in conditions where learning error may have grave consequences (1,2).
These have been simplified to the FACETS acronym: F= familiarity, A= acceptance, C= consistency, E= expert halo, T= tracks(scarcity), S= social facilitation (2) .

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So for our snowboarder, it is possible that because the Fourth of July Bowl can be accessed from the ski area that this was perceived as familiar terrain. Perhaps there were bragging rights to be had at the bar in town from where his tracks down the bowl may have been seen by his peers (acceptance). It may be that he had been committed to that particular line in the lead up to the outing and despite the wind. Maybe he saw us following with “all the gear” and perceived that there was some expert judgment on our part that this slope would be safe, then rushed ahead of us to get those first tracks and demonstrate his brilliant line (social facilitation).
This is a simplified example of McCammon’s FACET model and research suggests these factors are more important in groups of backcountry users. However, it highlights some of the common potentially lethal intuitive traps that we all can make, no matter what our experience level, when freeriding or backcountry skiing.
Stay safe out there.


  1. Decision making for wilderness leaders: strategies, traps and teaching methods. McCammon, I. Proc.WildernessRiskManager’sConf.Oct26-28,2001,Lake Geneva, WI pp.16-29.
  2. Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications. McCammon, I. Avalanche News, No.68, Spring 2004.

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