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Why Short Avalanche Courses Might Harm You.
Posted 2017 10 19 by Fred
(...and why ours might actually be good for you.)
As a skier, autumn means that winter is soon around the corner, and this is as well when the social medias start telling you that it’s time to get ready, buy some gear, book your trips, get some training…and learn something about snow, safety and avalanches. My social media, at least, is showing me a great variety of courses, and not all of them are good.
Actually, very few are good. I know some of you are thinking « but it cannot do any harm to learn, even just a little ? »
But it does,
because the danger doesn’t lie in ignorance, but in the illusion of knowledge.
And this is not something I made up recently in order to write this blog, but it has been scientifically studied, not yesterday but a few decades ago.
-Back in 1980, Ray Smutek (USA) wrote this article where he was already pinpointing the fact that short formal avalanche education was obviously not the right answer to avalanche accidents, because a significant amount of victims were described as "experienced". Smutek’s idea was that a wrong focus in the education, combined with the process called « negative events feedback » , which means the wrong certitudes taken from non-avalanche events, was the perfect recipe for disaster.
-Ian Mc Cammon, an american scientist who’s been a pioneer in avalanche research and more specifically in the study of human factors, started a publication in 2000 by asking this shocking question :
« Does avalanche education really make a difference ? »
This was not sounding too good for us guides, avalanche instructors of all kind and ski touring enthusiasts. How not to be puzzled by an article that basically proved that we’ve had it (almost) all wrong for so many years ? That formal, traditional avalanche courses were counterproductive, and that the students sent on their own to the backcountry after a few days education were not safer than before.
Actually the study proved that they might even be less safe than before…
We had to get better, but how ?
First let’s define what is a « formal and traditional avalanche course »
-Usually short, from a few hours to a week end.
-Education given as a lecture, only little interaction between the teacher and the students.
-Focus on complex science : snow observation, snowpack physics.
-Focus on rescue operations
-Very little topographic work, on the map or out on the terrain
-Too little focus on group dynamics and human factors
-No fun (ah those power points…), and rigid. The program is studied with very little flexibility regarding the conditions of the moment.
Beyond the obvious provocation of the question, Mc Cammon's work, conducted on not less than 344 accidents involving backcountry recreationists, brought up some interesting figures and indisputable facts :
-groups with basic training often exposed themselves to higher levels of hazards than those with less training
-the ones who considered themselves to have higher levels of avalanche training also had formal avalanche training.
-formal avalanche training gives backcountry recreationists a much higher confidence in their level of avalanche training.
So here we are, you had one of these courses.
Even though you’ve not been given the right tools, you received a type of education that is making you confident in skills you don’t have.
You combine it with some experience of non-events and wrong conclusions.
To make the concept of non-event more clear, think about shooting a bow and arrows in the dark : you can shoot a thousand time without knowing if you did reach the target, or if you improved. It's the same when you're out skiing in the backcountry :
When everything goes well it doesn't mean you took only good decisions.
Remember when you were less educated, you were basing your decisions on heuristics, but now that you’ve learned a bit, it seems to simple to rely on basic rules. You’re willing to use expert strategies, but you have no training for that.
Once out on the snow, if the situation is getting more complex than expected, you will, like anybody else making decisions alone, have the tendancy to ignore the obvious signs of danger that should make you re-evaluate the situation.
Mac Cammon calls it « ballistic reasoning » : you stick to your first idea, no matter what.
Now you’re ready to take more risks, in total confidence.
And honestly, only luck will save you. Or ?….
Let’s get positive again, and find how a good avalanche course might look like :
-out on the field !
The time sitting inside should be limited to a minimum, and should happen before or after skiing hours.
It’s happening out there !
-flexible and dynamic !
We are dealing with a complex environnement, where all the parameters are interacting all the time. It's pointless to isolate them too much one from the other.
So these are both he conditions of the moment (snow, weather), and the profile of the participants (level, experience, expectations…) that will shape the content of the course.
It’s time to move from a kind of lecture to a more dynamic workshop where different situations are creating an infinity of learning possibilities.
-to search for a beacon or not to search for a beacon?
That is the question.
Knowing what to do when things are going wrong is fundamental.
But honestly, since the death of analogical beacons, my 6 years old daughter is able to train for searching without my help. Why would you spend precious hours of your avalanche course to do something you have the skills to train alone ?
Why not using this precious time to focus on not getting into troubles ?
The whole crisis management thing is so important, but talking here about short avalanche courses, this is simply not the right time. Period.
-no hard science !
We all know that using pseudo scientist’s lingo, hardcore physics and brutal power points will make the teacher feel more intelligent, and the student will, even though not really understanding anything, get the instant impression that he’s getting what he paid for.
But this is far back in your priority list.
Later in your « career » you will have to go through it, and being a snow nerd is actually good, but for now you simply don’t need it.
As a beginner science won’t keep you safe from avalanches.
So you want to focus on the following.
-focus on topography
A great avalanche awareness course will learn you the love for maps. They are the most reliable source of informations. They will tell you all you need, terrain shape, steepness, orientation, terrain traps and so on.
Being able to read them and find the correlations out on the field, will be a huge step forward, and one of the most important key to a better safety.
n brains > 1 brain, that’s easy maths.
So there will (almost) never be too much talking and no stupid question.
This is true in the classroom, on the terrain, when preparing tomorrow’s trip, or just before crossing that slope that doesn’t look quite as you thought…
Yes, all the time ! And bad weather, wind, cold, stress, fear should encourage you to talk more, because you don’t want to be alone facing complicated problems and making decisions.
By keeping the discussion rolling, you will have more options, and more doubt.
Remember Descartes, « si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis ».
Cogito ergo sum.
Forget about hierarchy, guides, teachers…make you and your group a perfect exemple of Scandinavian social democracy !
-Focus on human factors and group dynamics
Their importance has been underlined since the beginning of avalanche education history,
They’ve been ignored.
Then they’ve been invited to the party (yes,a party, remember that avalnche workshops are fun !) an got progressively more attention.
Now it’s time to put human factors in the center,
for the simple reason that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, as long as your decision making process is polluted by the way you deal with yourself and with the others.
Bottomless subject that will be the purpose of another blog.
-Focus on skiing
...because going out, having fun and being able to repeat this is the most important !
As a conclusion...for now.
So which course should you choose ?
The Ski Og Skred workshops are among the best ones. And I dare saying that because, even if I'm participating, somebody else is the brilliant mind behind this concept. Join us in Norway (Skjervøy, Sogndal), Switzerland (Davos), France (Maurienne) or Colorado and see for yourself !
Wherever you are, get the right education, there are many courses that are worth your time.
Remember to avoid the too conservatives, the ones that doesn't imply being anywhere near some snow, don't hide beepers under a pile of dead leaves .
And don't book an avalanche course delivered at home in your living room, that's an insult to your intelligence...