Alison shouted AVALANCHE, as the wet slide exited the hidden couloir well above us. The volume seemed to build exponentially until the snow hit the frozen lake below. Breaking the ice, the debris started a tidal wave across the lakes surface.

Seconds earlier we had faced a “go or no go” decision. We were fully committed, around three quarters into a 40 kilometre ski tour. To add to the pressure we had a flight to catch out of Tromsø the following day.

The day had started innocently enough with the aim to explore the Jiehkkevárri massif on Lyngen. Our plan to circumnavigate the highest summit in Lyngen on ski was based on a small passage in the current guidebook, referencing its first completion in 1979 with 2800 metres of ascent. Starting at 1 am was made slightly easier with close to 24 hours of daylight in the Arctic Circle.

Swipe Right - Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain
Swipe Right – Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain

Decision Making

The world of decision making in avalanche terrain is punctuated by the idea of making good or bad decisions. I would go further to say that we talk about decision making, but don’t really talk about the decision making process.

Those experienced in the winter mountains know that there may well be no negative consequences to a questionable decision, reinforcing our choices, when we were simply lucky.

Case study examples give us a window into the decisions made closest to disaster. But I would argue that we don’t really know what “good” looks like in the wicked learning environments of the mountains. We are all too often focused on the outcome rather than the process.

The well used phrase “hindsight is always 20/20” is used to describe the fact that it is easy to be knowledgable about an event, after it has happened. Remember that decisions nearly always make perfect sense to the people involved. We really need to be asking ourselves the question: why did it make sense at the time?

Grey Scale Decision Making

The intention here is not to take a scientific or theoretical approach to decision making but to consider how decisions are made in practice on the mountain. For a more detailed analysis Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is worth reading for anybody who can finish it!

In the mountains we can consider decision making as a continuum. Decisions require more time and mental effort on the left and less time and mental effort on the right.

Rational decisions require effort and time to come to logical conclusions. In the middle quick decisions are assisted by short cuts e.g. heuristics saving time and effort. Intuitive decisions take place pretty much instantly by “gut feeling” in the moment.

Continuation of decision making – modified from Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Rational Decisions

This theoretical example highlights some of the issues with rational decision making. It is easy to suggest that on the mountain we should make rational careful and unhurried decisions i.e “thinking slow”. The reality is that we can only do this effectively with time and significantly conscious cognitive effort.

Rational decision making takes time and effort. It requires reasoning and logic to make the best choice. Let’s take the example of a fictional work colleague:

Ice Axes

Dave wants to buy a new pair of ice axes; all are widely available so he decides to make a conscious and rational choice. All the options from the main manufacturers are very good but have a few nuances, plus points and minor negatives.

He lists the positives and negatives of each set of ice tools. But how does he score them? If he doesn’t write this down or use an excel spreadsheet, the decision will take a lot of cognitive effort.

Maybe he could create attributes that are scored out of ten. But Dave suspects that this still doesn’t help make the optimum decision, because some attributes are more important than others – e.g. balance of the ice axe is more important to him than the nature of the pick.

The third option sees Dave decide to “weight” the attributes with a value scoring their importance to him. He then multiplies each score by the weighted value giving a total. Just about to commit to his order, Dave decides that the colour must match his jacket.

He realises that he has missed an important attribute and he may have missed others that are much more important.

Can we practice rational decision making in the mountains?

This theoretical example highlights some of the issues with rational decision making. It is easy to suggest that on the mountain we should make rational careful and unhurried decisions i.e “thinking slow”. The reality is that we can only do this effectively with time and significantly conscious cognitive effort.

When examining case studies of incidents or reflecting on your own, it is easy to intellectualise decision making. We assume we can balance all the attributes and come to a rational decision, or even come to the conclusion that the incident happened irrespective of our superior decision making. This is an example of Cognitive Dissonance.

How do we use rational decisions?

The reality is that rational decision making is not widely practised on the mountain, as it requires too much cognitive effort. Rational decision making is challenging given the time constraints and environmental conditions. We can be assisted by decision making frameworks such as ‘Be Avalanche Aware‘.

Rational decision making is important prior to the day as part of the planning process, where the attributes of a route or ski line will need to be carefully considered. The combination of circumstances will be varied and nuanced which means that route selection rarely falls into a rule based system. Another difficulty is that we may not consider the attributes fully, and some attributes may be omitted.

The most likely scenario in the mountains is a change of route choice, or change of plan part way through the day. Every situation is likely to be different and a variety of circumstances will need to be considered. The options will need to be considered carefully rather than acting intuitively, pointing to a process that is close to rational decision making.

Emergency situations which involve complex and unpredictable factors such as challenging weather are usually unwelcome example, and often come with the additional pressures of time.

Quick Decisions

We use short cuts to make quicker decisions. Rarely do we use rational decision making in practical applications. Rational decision making is frequently too time consuming or sub-optimal in rapidly changing situations.

For example if asked the answer to 70×10, most people would not use the process of adding 10 together 70 times. They either retrieve the answer from long-term memory or use a shortcut such as putting a zero behind the 70 to make 700.

It is argued that we do not have the mental capacity to make perfectly rational decisions and use short cuts. Termed bounded rationality, these short cuts have been widely studied, and include mechanisms such as cognitive bias and heuristics – see the previous blog.

It is easy to consider these mechanisms in a negative context, and associate them with a poor outcome, but they can also be positive. In many cases the term heuristic traps is used in the outdoor sector, but arguably the use of the term “trap” fails to take into account the value of this form of decision making. These decision making mechanisms are both inevitable and necessary. They save cognitive resources, save time and we have evolved with heuristics working predominantly in our favour.

Do we use quick decisions?

Like “swiping right” in a dating app selecting a line that is below 30 degrees, with good snow and meets the expectation of the clients, results in just three factors to be considered and all were relatively simple binary choices.

If we accept that the consideration of attributes in rational decision making takes time and cognitive effort, we can see that quicker decision making is going to be faster and easier. To do so the number of attributes are reduced to the minimum and simple criteria used rather than a specific technique.

Taking the example of the choice of a ski line; rather than weighing up a long list of attributes, such as weather, distance, the terrain exposure of the descent, aspect, avalanche hazard, avalanche problem, terrain shape, angle of slope, snow quality, client aims and aspirations, time etc. Another option would be to choose a line that matches key criteria and gives the nearest possible option with a good margin of safety.

Like “swiping right” in a dating app selecting a line that is below 30 degrees, with good snow and meets the expectation of the clients, results in just three factors to be considered and all were relatively simple binary choices.

These decisions do carry the risk of choosing an option that is sub-optimal, and this is where trying to apply a margin to deal with the unexpected will help. Although positive, short cuts can lead to making errors in decision making. Understanding some of the theory is necessary, but this is where our understanding of context and our environment is really important. This understanding and the projection of events into the future is Situational Awareness.

Descending to our ‘Key Place’ – a decision point which was as ugly as it appeared in planning on the map. Steep slopes above a frozen lake, rising temperatures with little opportunity to do anything other than commit or take the long way around.

Very Fast Decisions

Very fast decision making takes place when we recognise typical situations from previous experiences. We think of the first option that comes into our mind and decide whether that option is acceptable. If it meets that test then we act. If it is unsatisfactory then we generate the next option considering them in series.

The pitfall is that there may be better options that were never considered. But the mechanism balances speed against and option being good enough. These are known as recognition primed decisions in aviation, but equally apply to domains which rely on experienced individuals.

Recognition primed decisions may be inappropriate if we are facing a subtly different situation to that of our experience:

Very fast decisions – Fatal avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor

A fatal avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor. on the 24th February 2010 is one possible example. Although we will never know the circumstances, it is also probable that the decision to climb ‘Curved Ridge’ was made quickly in the morning due to the threat of deteriorating weather. While this was certainly a safer route choice than many others, it is not clear whether other options were considered. There are many reasons which meant that the instructor was likely to have felt that the situation was typical. Extreme weather conditions are normal in Scotland, and it was a relatively simple and uncomplicated descent.

The perception was likely to have been that of a developing windslab problem rather than a rapidly developing weak layer, the second of which is less frequent, more sensitive to triggering (avalanche release) and has the potential to create avalanches of a greater size.

The instructor made the decision that they had probably made many times before, to climb a route that they knew would work in the perceived conditions. The choice to go to Curved Ridge was a critical issue, but it was the typicality of the situation that led to the error not the decision itself. The choice was arguably the obvious one for many of us to make and is a symptom of their understanding of the situation.

Using very fast decisions…

These decisions are not really open to conscious scrutiny. We are into the realms of intuition here and we have all felt certain about a particular decision, or have a positive feeling that we “can’t quite put our finger on”.

To review and reflect on the decision frequently Dr Loel Collins refers to “The Little 3 and the Big Five Situational Awareness Questions:

  • Firstly describe the situation…
  • What factors cause this situation? Why?
  • What factors are NOT at play? Why?
  • What would you do if?

Post go or go decision – the long way around the hazard. Exhausting boulder fields, trashed ski boots, and an avalanche avoided by “swiping right”.

The Pitfalls – Decision Making Errors

When processing information to make a decision, six main errors have been proposed:

Poor choice of option: Heuristics, biases, error producing conditions and processing errors can all lead to a decision making error.

Flawed risk assessment: Underestimating the risk due to lack of situational awareness or lack of experience.

Omission: failing to take action due to lack of information. Commission, erroneous action based on faulty information.

Plan continuation: Continuing with a plan despite evidence indicating a change in conditions or heightened risk.

Faulty selection of action: Faulty memory, inappropriate action due to habit, best case reasoning.

Poor situation assessment: Misinterpretation of information, sudden changes in conditions can lead to incorrect situation assessment.

Back to Jiehkkevárri

Our “go or no go” decision on the circumnavigation of Jiehkkevárri and was an example of when things go right. Continually trying to anticipate events paid off in this example as we recognised the steep slopes, terrain trap and the consequences of being swept into a frozen lake.

The decision was a quick one with little discussion other than to confirm the choice. It was a case of “swiping right” having been faced with the obvious safer criteria of the alternative route.

I am not advocating thinking fast or thinking slow. It is not a choice between system one or system two. We need both. But ahead of the winter why not take the time to think about thinking…

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 Mountain CRM.

This day first appeared in a blog for Jottnar which can be found here at:

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