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Author Topic: Avalanche Awareness patterns  (Read 5667 times)
Koda
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Avalanche Awareness patterns
« on: 02/18/14, 11:49 AM »

Sometimes I need to refresh my thoughts and so thought I’d subject myself to the collective community. The more I go the more I rely on the same pattern of habits and want to make certain I’m not setting a habit that is either wrong or could lead to a wrong choice in maybe a certain scenario….

I think looking for stability is misleading, my formula is to look for signs of instability within the avalanche triangle: weather, terrain, snowpack, human factor. I let the NWAC forecast influence my objective and then put most of the weight on my triangle observations in the field.

Using this formula, what are the traps that can still lead to the wrong choices?

One concern I have is treating a lack of finding any sign of instability as a green light, is that a concern and how to overcome that?
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WillderDude
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #1 on: 02/19/14, 08:33 AM »

Great questions to ask.  Using the public forecast and ongoing field observations are both essential places to start, but no obvious signs of instability does not mean everything is “green light.”

In short, traps to be aware of:

1.   NWAC forecasters get it right most of the time, but not 100% of the time.  Forecasting for huge zones is difficult.  Definitely start with the NWAC forecast, but realize it may not be perfect.

2.   Certain avalanche types (especially persistent weak layers and deep slab) may not show obvious signs of instability, yet you could trigger a weak spot in the snowpack.  Be extra conservative when a PWL or deep slab is present.  If there is a deep slab problem, you probably should not be traveling in avalanche terrain due to the difficulty of predicting the likelihood of triggering, and the devastating consequences.

3.   Be aware that we all suffer from the peril of positive outcomes.  Just because you have used the NWAC forecast and obvious clues in the past with success does not mean you have made “the right” decision each time.  You may have gotten away with it.

A few actions you can take to improve your decision-making in the field:

1.   Add ongoing informal tests as part of your daily routine!  Cut, stomp, kick, slap and tickle the shit out of the snowpack every chance you get.  Know how and when to use formal snow pits as well.

2.   Realize that even the most experienced guides, forecasters, etc make mistakes or misinterpret stability, because avalanches are complex.  Always evaluate consequences and alternatives before you commit to a slope.  Always practice safe travel habits and be well-practiced at companion rescue.

3.   Be humble, and when in doubt, reign it in.  Live to ski another day.     
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kerwinl
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #2 on: 02/19/14, 01:02 PM »

Two very influential sources of information that have shaped how I think about risk and traveling in dangerous terrain are as follows. I feel that both of these gentlemen has a large body of work that could be integrated our worked into the ideas of decision making under threat of large consequence, but have yet to see the knowledge applied in a specific way yet.


-Nassim Taleb Author of "The Black Swan", "Fooled by Randomness" and "Antifragile". Taleb's work mainly deals with the idea of small probabilities (events with small chance, but large impact), and the inability of the irrational human mind to deal with the likelihood of these events. Forecasting, probabilities and model development are all discussed in his works, and it makes you question some of your assumptions about risk taking. I would do it an injustice to summarize his work here.

-The Cynefin framework, by Dave Snowden:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8

The Cynefin framework is very useful in making sense of the environment around you, especially when traveling in the mountains. When traveling in avalanche terrain we are working with a complex environment, where doing the same thing twice can lead to two different results, this should be different then working in a simple environment, where cause and effect are known.
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Koda
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #3 on: 02/19/14, 10:19 PM »

Two very influential sources of information that have shaped how I think about risk and traveling in dangerous terrain are as follows. I feel that both of these gentlemen has a large body of work that could be integrated our worked into the ideas of decision making under threat of large consequence, but have yet to see the knowledge applied in a specific way yet.


The Cynfin framework sounds like an interesting study (best practice = keep it simple…) the best I can relate to that regarding complex avalanche assessment is what works for me is to approach the subject from the top down…. Essentially with the answers first even before understanding the details. Often, whenever I get into an in depth study or discussion of avalanche assessment the topic goes into great elemental detail that while good can get overwhelming and lose focus of the goal. My take is that by tackling the subject from the top down, I think it’s better for a person in the field to turn around from unanswered questions than try to compile complex detailed data into a go/no-go decision (“bottom-up” learning).  In other words, I’d rather turn around because I admit I don’t understand something than decide to continue because I unknowingly came to an incorrect conclusion.

 

WillderDude, all good points I am in tune with but can always learn more….

2.   Certain avalanche types (especially persistent weak layers and deep slab) may not show obvious signs of instability, yet you could trigger a weak spot in the snowpack.  Be extra conservative when a PWL or deep slab is present.  If there is a deep slab problem, you probably should not be traveling in avalanche terrain due to the difficulty of predicting the likelihood of triggering, and the devastating consequences. 


I think the symptoms of a weak spot are spread out, not always obvious like a CT failure but a combination of elements in the avalanche triangle. The most difficult demon is the PWL…. The only way I know to identify a PWL is there is to follow the weather/snowpack trend throughout winter and monitor the events. This is doable, but impossible in areas outside your home turf like a yurt trip in another region. Then it seems as if every year a PWL is created at some point early in the season from a hard rain crust froze over in a dry cold spell. Its hard to identify the symptoms of its weakness 2 months later.

Quote
3.   Be aware that we all suffer from the peril of positive outcomes.  Just because you have used the NWAC forecast and obvious clues in the past with success does not mean you have made “the right” decision each time.  You may have gotten away with it.
I think of this when I read about avalanches that happen on slopes that have been already skied a few times that day....
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T. Eastman
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #4 on: 02/19/14, 10:49 PM »

Learn to xc-track ski really well so you have good alternatives to making shaky conclusions in creepy snowpacks...

... it's not like you are going to lose fitness or snow touch.
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zestysticks
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #5 on: 02/20/14, 11:47 AM »

Finding stable snow as you go is not a concern.  Any favorable observations that you make that confirm the NWAC or CAC forecast constitutes a green light to ride what you climb. IMO. What else is there?  Over analysis leads to paralysis which is a condition better suited to an easy chair than the top of a run.  There is nothing worse than fear and anxiety (about dying) while you are out for some exercise and fun with your friends or family.

The more guiding principles that you have or use to make decisions (AKA justifying) the more difficult the decisions become.  Over the years I have distilled my thinking down to a couple of  factors. 1. I wait for the snow to settle and stabilize. I almost never ride for a couple of days after a storm cycle. I rely heavily on the NWAC and CAC. 2. I have partners that also feel that there is an awful lot to lose. We make conservative decisions because we have a relatively low tolerance for risk.  These two principles have kept me in-bounds and out of the BC for almost the whole winter and especially the last 2 weeks.  The silver lining, if there is one, is my discovery that X country skiing isn't as ridiculous as I thought. 
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CookieMonster
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Re: Avalanche Awareness patterns
« Reply #6 on: 02/21/14, 12:51 AM »

So many accidents start out with the wrong objective that it's pretty easy to consider the choice of objective as one of the most critical decisions, partner choice probably being second. Poor choice of objective and partners often leads to circumstances that beg for bad decisions. If you ever find yourself in a situation where your uncertainty is high, regardless of the reasons, just make conservative decisions and you'll never go wrong. This doesn't do very much to protect against the aforementioned black swans, but it will keep you out of serious trouble nearly all the time.
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