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The Human Factor: Chapter Three

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Despite hours of training and years of experience, it happens. Somewhere between digging pits and assessing terrain traps a lapse in good judgment occurs, and avalanches entrap even the most experienced skiers. And we are left asking, why? In the third chapter of a five-part series exploring five separate slides, the editors of Powder elucidate The Human Factor.


Photograph: Gosta Fries


One-Armed Bandit—by David Page

IN FEBRUARY 1995, IAN MCCAMMON’S FRIEND and climbing partner, Steve Carruthers, went for a backcountry tour with two buddies above Big Cottonwood Canyon. It had dumped two feet the day before and the avalanche danger was rated as high. But the route they decided to take was a popular one leading to relatively safe, low-angle terrain. On the way up, they met another party. Before they continued their separate ways, they discussed the hazards, and the need to be cautious in their route selection. Ten minutes later, Steve’s group triggered an avalanche that caught all three of them. Two survived. Steve did not.

“In the aftermath of a less-than-perfect decision,” McCammon wrote in a pivotal paper he presented at the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) in Penticton, British Columbia, in 2002, prompted by the questions raised by his friend’s death, “it’s natural to search for a simple explanation.” When a plane goes down, we want to know: Was it pilot error? Was it mechanical failure due to negligence? Was it a terrorist attack? Or was it just bad luck, an aircraft caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, randomly coincident with the unpredictable trajectory of a large bird or a lightning strike? In an accident like the one in the Wallowas: Was it the guide’s fault? Was it the outfitter’s? Did a client not follow directions?

With a background in physics, geoscience, mechanical engineering, and robotics, McCammon has recently become something of a man of mystery in the world of avalanche science. He was off-the-grid on the Salmon River when I passed through Salt Lake City in July, so I ended up hooking up with him later by telephone. Tremper had told me that, as far as he understood, McCammon had been working on something top-secret. McCammon preferred, “to keep it simple,” that I not mention his current employer, which he only vaguely alluded to anyway. “I try to bring the mindset of engineering—scientific discipline and problem solving—to decision-making and psychology,” he said.

Clearly, his nearly two decades of research on human factors in avalanche accidents has proven deeply relevant to other high-consequence fields, and a solid basis for designing solutions. Still, he says, “the avalanche world is in many ways a unique laboratory.” Compared to other fields—“aviation, security management, combat, emergency room decisions,” where there are rigorous structures and hierarchies—backcountry skiing does not lend itself to rulemaking. “People who are skiing the backcountry are not doing it because it’s a job. You give them a long checklist or a complicated flowchart, they’re not gonna do it. I ski to get away from that stuff,” he told me. “So designing for that environment is very different than designing for industrial operational environments.”

As McCammon quickly discovered, avalanche accidents don’t lend themselves to simple explanations. A general first reaction is to blame them on the ignorance or recklessness of the victims. In the case of his friend Carruthers, McCammon knew there must be another explanation. Carruthers knew the terrain well—he’d even skied there the previous week. He had extensive avalanche training and years of experience in the backcountry. And just the week before, on a chairlift, he’d told McCammon how he’d gotten to a point in his life—with a wife and a 4-year-old daughter—where he was done taking big risks. And still, he overlooked clues he should have recognized, and made choices, just as Sunshine and Jake Merrill did years later, that led directly to a fatal accident.

To read the rest of The Human Factor: Chapter 3, visit