The Normalisation of Deviance and how I nearly killed myself at an avalanche “safe” venue…

MOVE, MOVE, MOVE, we pushed forwards in towards the cliff as we were hit by the air blast. Pelted by chunks of snow I wrapped my arms around my head and waited either for the avalanche, or my life, to end…

Moments before I was gearing up at the bottom of the classic ice climb ‘Vermicelli’. I was looking up at pretty much fifty metres of vertical ice. Named after a thin strip of pasta, I could see the resemblance, the narrow smear of ice was aesthetic as well as compelling.

It Sounded Like an Avalanche…

There was a loud crack of trees snapping on the hillside above. Andy and I looked briefly at each other before turning our gaze upwards. It sounded like an avalanche. The sky was still visible fifty metres above, and we shared a split second of calm before the roaring torrent of snow appeared over the cliff.

Our situation was grave, with hundreds of tonnes of snow accelerating towards terminal velocity above us. MOVE, MOVE, MOVE, we pushed forwards in towards the cliff as we were hit by the air blast. We probably only managed a step before being knocked to the ground.

Pelted by chunks of snow I wrapped my arms around my head and waited either for the avalanche, or my life, to end…

The day had started like any other during another two week trip to the Briançon and the Hautes-Alpes department in the Provence-Alpes- Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France.

(Above) ‘Les Formes du Chaos’ at the popular cascade ice climbing venue of Ceillac

The conditions were ideal for ice climbing, with just enough snow to feed ice development and continued cold (but not too cold) temperatures for chewy ice. The avalanche hazard scale had been at Category 2 Limité (Moderate in English) for the last two weeks, partly due to the lack of snowfall. Generally it was well bonded and we had been able to climb in many places unconcerned by avalanche risk.

Cascade Ice Climbing

Ice climbing is a little bit different as the lines often follow water courses unsurprisingly, with snow in collecting zones lying on ice rather than snow or bare ground. So while the posted avalanche bulletin is relevant, often ice climbing relies on careful judgement on a route to route basis. As an ice climber you need to think about the overhead hazard all the time.

In France routes have an engagement rating of I-IV which in part give an indication of their seriousness. The home of the ice route ‘Vermicelli’ is a popular area above the village of Ceillac. Immediately next to a ski area, the ice climbing here is really accessible and a correspondingly popular location in the parc régional du Queyras. Most of the routes have low engagement ratings due to their short approaches, bolt belays and easy descents. These are in sharp contrast to the more committing venues in the Ecrins National Park such as La Grave, Fournel, Freissinieres and the Vallon Du Diable.

Given the stable weather conditions we had been climbing well, and decided to visit Ceillac again having climbed pretty much all of the other more accessible routes such as ‘Les Formes du Chaos’, and ‘Sombre Heros’. An ascent of ‘Vermicelli’ would have allowed us to tick the crag.

The Normalisation of Deviance

The normalisation of deviance was proposed by an American academic Diane Vaughan who investigated the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The normalisation of deviance is often linked to organisational management but can be used to describe any situation where deviations (or even drift) from rules and practicers become the new norm.

These sometimes have devastating consequences, but often further down the line. Especially in the mountains where the absence of a negative outcome frequently reinforces sub optimal behaviour. We operate in a wicked learning environment where the consequences often manifest themselves as a surprise years later.

Habit Forming

Your phone beeps when you are driving. You know the score, the temptation to check is immense. Perhaps you do, because after all it could be something important. It looks like a straight and quiet bit of road so you do a quick check. It was something minor, you put the phone down and continue without incident. And here in lies the problem – the lack of any negative consequence reinforces the use of your phone as being ok.

Maybe over time we don’t even consider the risk. It’s ok “i’ve got this”, “this isn’t dangerous” become the thought process. The deviation from the norm with no feedback probably means you do it more frequently. You are caught in a spiral of habit forming behaviour, and then bang!

The Normalisation of Deviance in the mountains

In the mountains the normalisation of deviance is likely to be more subtle, especially given the dynamic nature of the mountain environment. With an absence of rigid rules in the mountains we are left to make judgements which are supported by consensus, accepted practice and even norms that remain uncommunicated. But that doesn’t mean that the consequences are any less significant.

So perhaps think “drift” rather than deviance, but remember the quote in the Challenger Inquiry Report when describing Russian Roulette. In our dynamic environment we are not dealing with a fixed number of variables:

…We don’t even know how many bullets are in the gun.

Richard Feynman

Vermicelli

Back to ‘Vermicelli’ and the avalanche was a surprise. It should not have been, but I had drifted away from the normal behaviour after two weeks of ice climbing (and multiple trips).

Ceillac was well known to me, and was regarded by us all as an “avalanche safe” venue. More than that it was the “go to choice” and was relatively easy to utilise even in challenging conditions. We had been able to climb here before in heavy snowfall using protected stances with bolt belays. We were of course making our choices based on our previous successes.

My experiences here predate smart phones! We checked the Avalanche Bulletin from Metro France when we could, but we relied on a printed copy outside the Tourist Information office. I can’t remember if we looked at the avalanche forecast that morning, but in my mind it was Category 2 Limité (Moderate) and we had been climbing in higher risk conditions at Ceillac before.

Reflecting on it now, I think I read the avalanche forecast, but didn’t process it. How often do you read something, but actually it hasn’t really entered your head?! There had actually been fresh snow overnight on strong winds.

But the choice to go to Ceillac wasn’t made on the avalanche forecast, or any other defined criteria. It was made as a “go to choice” and one that had, up to this point worked for us before.

The Consequences

With a step forwards we body swerved possibly the biggest avalanche I have ever seen up close. Pelted with chunks of snow, we lost equipment rather than our lives. The ski area didn’t fare quite so well as the avalanche destroyed trees, crossed the road and a ski piste, luckily with no impact on anybody else. Make no mistake we were lucky!

How can we avoid the Normalisation of Deviance?

  • Don’t make choices based on previous success.
  • Try and make plans that build in safer choices rather than accepting risk.
  • Talk often and be prepared to listen to alternative perspectives of a situation. If you are on your own think about how you might explain your own perspective to a colleague or climbing partner.
  • Be clear about standards – talk about norms and acceptable practice. Address the elephant in the room (or on the mountain) and define under what situations you would feel like you were letting your colleagues, or the community down. If you are in a domain where professional standards and/or consensus statements exist, remember that they are there to help you do the right thing.
  • Set an example. If you are an instructor or guide forcing a day in challenging weather or stretching the norms remember it isn’t always the best picture for your clients.
  • Think about how we describe the situation to others. Do phrases such as “avalanche safe”, “benign”, “you can always get to or do x,y,z” really reflect the dynamic situations in the mountains?

If you liked this article you may wish to read Attentional Narrowing: Why mountain guides and pilots know it can put you in harms way. Check out Assured Training or E-Learning.

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