Studying skiers’ risky behavior to improve avalanche safety

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     A lone skier climbs Cedar Peak, just outside of Big Sky, Montana. (Jerry Johnson/MSU Snow and Avalanche Lab)

    A lone skier climbs Cedar Peak, just outside of Big Sky, Montana. (Jerry Johnson/MSU Snow and Avalanche Lab)

    Snow scientists at Montana State University are tracking risky decision making in the backcountry.

    The ski season began in December. By late February, avalanches had killed nine people in the United States. Most were skiers.

    With improvements in high-tech equipment, such as lighter skis and bindings, more people are choosing to travel outside ski resort boundaries in search of untouched powder and serene settings.

    Blase Reardon was one of them.  

    He was in his 30s and skiing with three friends in Canada when he was nearly buried in an avalanche. They set out from a cabin, and the snow got deeper and visibility worse. Suddenly, an avalanche came barreling downhill.

    “You know, it was pretty terrifying,” he said. “That’s really the only way to describe it. [We had] just enough time to see the snow coming, and were all tumbled and thrown down the slope. I definitely was pulled by my skis until they came off.”

    Amazingly, no one was hurt. Reardon says he overlooked signs of danger. At one point, his ski pole pierced a hollow layer of weak snow. Many skiers fall into similar “thinking” traps.

    “I actually don’t like to talk about it,” Reardon said. “Not because I’m embarrassed, but because I don’t want the memory to get weakened. I’d like to keep it and make sure it keeps me out of trouble in the future.”

    Scientists are studying skiers’ behavior, and in the future, that information might be used to better design safety training that steers people away from mental pitfalls and toward safer terrain.

    Today, Reardon is an avalanche safety instructor with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The agency gives local forecasts and warns residents about dangerous geography.

    On the way to one training workshop, big peaks rise up in the distance, and Reardon pointed out slopes where there’s already been a snowslide this winter. 

    During a class for forest service workers, Reardon and a colleague asked everyone to power up their beacons, the handheld electronic devices that send out radio signals when someone’s buried in the snow. The beacons talk to each other. The receiving device tells the searcher her distance and direction from the buried skier.

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    A group of students in an avalanche safety course practice rescue skills in the mountains near Rifle, Colorado. (Marci Krivonen/for WHYY)

    People or weather can trigger an avalanche. Wind, rain, snow, and sun can stress the snowpack to its breaking point causing it to fracture and release. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, some avalanches travel up to 80 miles an hour and can release enough snow to fill 20 football fields.

    Researchers at Montana State University are trying to understand why people take mental shortcuts and put themselves in the path of that danger. Professor Jerry Johnson studies human judgment and his team is collecting GPS data from the smartphones of skiers. The project is called Tracks.

    “The logic behind this is that your footprints are really a track of your decisions,” Johnson said.

    The Tracks data show a map of each skier’s route as well as information about decisions made along the way. Users in 15 countries have submitted 4,000 reports from the Tetons in Wyoming to peaks in Scandinavia.

    “There’s a group in Norway that is very active,” Johnson said. “They send us these very long tracks from the middle of December and January. They go out and do all of their backcountry skiing in the dark.”

    Just a handful of scientists are studying skier psychology in hopes of bringing down the avalanche death rate. The researchers aren’t just studying the mistakes skiers make but successes.

    Skiers are human decision-making machines on the slopes. What makes people choose a dangerous route, even when they know better? What went right when a skier does make it home safely?

    “By combining a couple methods, we think we have a pretty good not only pathway, but sort of the psychic state of people,” Johnson said.

    Emotions can drive decision-making. After a big snow, a skier or snowboarder may ignore avalanche-warning signs in order to get to untouched powder. It’s like a sort of “powder fever.” Or, people sometimes overlook danger if they’ve successfully skied the route before. Getting too caught up in the moment can be fatal.

    Safety instructor Blase Reardon says after his close call with an avalanche in Canada, he now uses a checklist before he leaves the house to avoid emotional decision making in the backcountry.

    “That’s definitely an experience that’s shaped how I approach things,” he said. “That awareness is really important.”

    At the safety workshop in Garfield County, Colorado, it’s cold, but in the Central Rockies, you get used to deep snow and dressing warm. Everyone has on down coats, hats, gloves and snowshoes.

    Student Jen Austin is poking at the deep snow with a long metal pole hoping to uncover a cardboard box. The box is a stand-in for a buried body. The exercise is fast and meant to mimic real life. And when Austin hits her target, she’s relieved it’s over.

    “I could definitely see how in a situation where somebody’s life is on the line, this could be pretty intense,” she said.

    Avalanches kill about 25 people a year in the U.S.

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