Back To Experience

The Human Factor: Chapter Five

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 fifth and final chapter of a series exploring five separate slides, the editors of Powder elucidate The Human Factor.


Photograph: Trent Bona


The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Human Factor

Tied to the Mast—by David Page

As we’ve seen, awareness on its own is not enough. No matter how much experience we have, no matter how much knowledge and understanding, we’re still prone to making bad decisions in the field. And so we need to find ways to take emotion and intuition out of decision-making. The way to do that, it seems—based on successful risk mitigation strategies developed in other high-risk industries and activities—is to take high-consequence decision-making out of the field. In other words, to make rules.

In hospital operating rooms, for example, in war, in commercial aviation, even in rock climbing, there are rigorous protocols and checklists that have been developed to override mental shortcuts and to keep awareness at the fore. Tremper points to what he calls The Ulysses Contract. Ulysses, you will recall, devised a way to hear the sirens’ beautiful singing without dashing his ship against the rocks. He had his crew put beeswax in their ears and lash him to the mast. No matter what he might say, he told them, they were not to listen. They were to steer the ship straight on until they were out of danger. In other words, Tremper explains, Ulysses made a firm decision about how he was going to mitigate risk before he was actually in danger.

If you’re not sold on the idea of lashing yourself to a set of rules, Tremper recommends running through what’s known in the security business as a “pre-mortem.” In the simplest terms, consider what the accident report and newspaper articles will say in the wake of your death about the obvious hazards you overlooked.

The important thing, says McCammon, is not so much that the rules be hard and fast. The environments and social circumstances involved in backcountry skiing are fundamentally dynamic. Which is one of the primary reasons we do it. And also what makes it such a unique and complex laboratory for risk mitigation. The important thing is to have rules. And to make sure everyone in the group agrees what they are.

If the rules need to be broken, so be it. But when you cross the line, you'll do so consciously, with full awareness of the risks you’re taking. If you don’t have that line in the first place, you're far more susceptible to what's called “risky drift.” You start out saying, Hey, we need to play it safe today. And then before long, without thinking about it, one thing’s led to another and there you are, like Jake Merrill: a thousand feet above a deadly terrain trap with a storm slab shattering all around you....

To read the rest of The Human Factor: Chapter 5, visit