Heuristics and Avalanche Safety

15th September 2023|2min

Heuristics, also known as mental shortcuts, play a critical role in our lives every day, providing easier pathways for our brains to make decisions quickly and efficiently.  

A lot of the time heuristics can be beneficial, but in a dynamic and unforgiving environment like the alpine backcountry, making decisions using these mental shortcuts can lead to disaster very quickly. 

This winter we’ve seen some of the most complex and challenging snowpack conditions for many years. The wide-spread presence of a Persistent Weak Layer (PWL) has resulted in numerous very large human and naturally triggered avalanches.  

As we move into spring, it is important we don’t let heuristic traps creep into our mindset. The first step in avoiding these traps is to be aware of them and recognise when they are influencing your decisions. 

There are six common heuristic traps:  

  • Familiarity 
  • Acceptance 
  • Commitment 
  • Expert Halo 
  • Tracks (Social Proof) 
  • Scarcity 

Familiarity – just because you successfully descended that backcountry line a month ago or climbed that route before, doesn’t mean the conditions are the same today. Approach each attempt with fresh eyes and thinking. Complacency can kill.   

Acceptance (or Conformity) – group or peer pressure is nothing but trouble. If you’re not feeling good about the conditions, or you’re seeing things that make you think twice, always speak up. If you’re not comfortable, back out. Choose trustworthy partners who will listen. 

Commitment – that slope isn’t going anywhere, and neither is that summit. Don’t let your motivation, a long approach, or time and money spent get in the way of smart decision-making. Goal #1 should always be to make it home safe. 

Expert Halo – no matter your level of experience, or the technical expertise of others, speak up and share your thoughts. Everyone’s voice is valid. Don’t let perceived experts make decisions about your safety if you’re not totally comfortable.  

Tracks (Social Proof) – the presence of others doesn’t mean it’s safe or smart to be there. Assess every situation using the evidence available to you, not based on the presence of others who may not know what they’re doing. If no one was around, would you still want to be there? 

Scarcity – Fresh powder and good weather windows are awesome, but so is getting home safely. It can be very hard to turn around when sketchy conditions are getting in the way of a rare chance. Remember, you will go back again, and future opportunities rely on you being around to take advantage of them. 

In some cases, these heuristics sound so simple you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’re even a big deal. However, they have played a very influential role in many outdoor incidents and fatalities.

Keep them in mind. If you notice they are influencing your decisions, it’s time to stop and think carefully about your next moves. 

Learn more about mental shortcuts (heuristics):