This blog is a copy of an article I wrote and will be published in the November 2018 Avalanche Journal, the professional journal for avalanche workers in Canada. I introduce some content from the new Avalanche Skills Training Handbook, the text for AST students starting winter 2018-19. I wrote the book with James Floyer from Avalanche Canada. I will also share a couple of the personal lessons I learned while participating in this challenging project.
That human factors often play a role in decisions leading to avalanche fatalities is widely recognized in our field. As an avalanche educator, it has been a challenge to teach human factors in a way that has real impact on students’ decision-making. By nature humans are susceptible to falling into the heuristic traps that can lead to accidents.
Working in the field of psychology, I have learned that helping people find their areas of strength is preferable to solely focusing on their areas of weakness. With that in mind, I have incorporated positive human behaviours into the lessons I teach to AST students. (ref: 2012, “Bringing Human Factors to AST Courses”, Canadian Avalanche Journal, vol. 102.) In the new AST Handbook, we describe human factors that lead to accidents as well as positive human behaviours that help make good decisions when choosing terrain: communication, leadership, patience and discipline.
Follow the Professionals
In the professional domain, we also limit the impact of heuristic traps by following a structured approach to decision-making. For example, at the ‘Guides Meeting’, conditions are discussed and some choices about terrain are made. By tapping into the expertise of the guide team in an environment where communication is relatively easy, the planning that happens at a Guides Meeting helps reduce the chance for errors caused by human factors in the field.
Decision aids such as the Avaluator have been developed to help the recreational public avoid similar heuristic traps. In the book, we wanted to highlight the Avaluator inside a larger decision-making process that mirrors the one used by professionals. We came up with a seven-step design that is called the Daily Process. Here is an excerpt:
“Surgeons, pilots and firefighters have one particular thing in common: they use structured and systematic approaches to their tasks to reduce the chance of human error. It turns out the higher the consequence of an error, the more important these well-defined processes are.
Travel in avalanche terrain is a high-consequence undertaking and as such, we benefit greatly from a structured approach to backcountry travel. In this course, you will learn a method similar to that used by avalanche professionals, who navigate avalanche terrain on a daily basis and are continually aiming to reduce the negative effects of human behaviours.
The daily process for backcountry travel in avalanche terrain (Figure 1) includes all the steps to go through to ensure you continue to enjoy your backcountry pursuits day after day, year after year.”
Great Minds (Don’t) Think Alike
I came into this project knowing there would be some challenges in the process of collaboration. However, at times I was astonished by how difficult collaboration could be! It was a real challenge to work through the sometimes-opposing ways that James and I looked at avalanche education. Luckily there were two areas where we thought alike. We both have an eye for detail, which is important when writing a book. We also brought a sense of humour to the project by laughing at each other’s jokes (or at least pretending to)!
Conflict is BadGood
I don’t like conflict. I try to avoid it. When James and I didn’t agree about an idea for the book, I started to get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I recognized as fear of conflict. Eventually we would find time to discuss the reasoning for our different approaches. We always found a compromise without one person feeling he had to give up his beliefs. Instead, the compromise would create a new way of looking at the issue and forge a better way to write that aspect in the book. The fear of conflict never completely went away, but I learned to trust the process. I think we created a better book because we were able to face and resolve our conflicts.
It has been my great honour to write this book with James. I hope it will inspire students to enjoy the backcountry and make good decisions using strategies similar to what is practiced in our professional community. I also want to thank the more than 1500 students who have taken avalanche courses with me over 28 years. You taught me while I taught you, and I am proud to share our collective learning.