Attentional Narrowing: Why mountain guides and pilots know it can put you in harms way

I levelled the wings and pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me. Attentional narrowing meant there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield…

The day had started as a normal but mediocre gliding day over the flat fields of Staffordshire, but as I was having a conversation with the aero-tow pilot the radio burst into life with some talk of thermal lift close to the airfield. 

An essential skill of glider flight is the ability to seek out lift to remain airborne, especially given the absence of an engine. Being able to judge conditions is as important for a glider pilot as it is to a mountain guide finding the best snow on a power skiing day. 

Attentional Narrowing
(Above) An essential skill of glider flight is the ability to seek out lift to remain airborne, especially given the absence of an engine.

We decided to launch and after a few checks I was being pulled along the runway behind another aircraft on a long tow rope. The aero-tow was unremarkable and we continued upwards towards 4000 feet with no airspace restrictions. Suddenly, there was a ripple of the wings and we lurched upwards a fraction behind the aircraft in front. The feeling was unmistakable, we had flown into “wave”, orographic lift created by air hitting the mountains of North Wales or Long Mynd and being pushed upwards.

I pulled the hook release three times releasing the rope and the aero-tow aircraft accelerated away in a steep curving descent in preparation for the next task. Pulling the glider around in a 180 degree turn I searched for the invisible crest of the wave that would allow me to surf upwards.

The glider sat suspended silently in the air, there was nothing. I turned 180 again in the hope of feeling the unmistakeable ripple if lift. Again nothing!

This situation is normal in gliding. It was back to my original plan of searching for the thermal lift that had been mentioned over the radio. Soon enough I got some success and the audible beep of the variometer indicated that I was going up, slowly. Thermals are rising bubbles of air, so in an attempt to stay in the rising column I had manoeuvred the glider into a tight spiralling turn.

Round and round I went a couple of knots away from stalling speed, suspended in the rising column of air until the variometer went quiet. Just about maintaining height, I was doing ok. My attention was focused on my airspeed. If I let the speed drop by a couple of knots there would be a good chance the glider would enter a spin.  It is raw, technical flying much like leading that just adequately protected pitch on the rock.

The altimeter showed I was maintaining height whenever I gave it a glance, and I was keeping a good lookout for other aircraft as I was drifting, albeit slowly, towards East Midlands Airport.

I was glancing at the map while an insidious and subtle chain of events where rapidly stacking up against me.

Situational Awareness and Attentional Narrowing

The variometer was working fine, it wasn’t making any audible indication of lift because there wasn’t any. There was no loss of height indicated because it was so small. I had dropped out of the rising bubble of air and was slowly sinking.

The altimeter was faulty and the needle had temporarily got stuck indicating that I was maintaining height. Sadly, I wasn’t. 

I had lost all situational awareness, my attention was focused on the small cluster of instruments in front of me. I didn’t have a full comprehension of what was happening and I hadn’t yet perceived that I was running out of height. Although the chain of these events were subtle, I was suffering from attentional narrowing. The consequences were however obvious: I was in effect not far away from flying a perfectly good glider into the ground.

Glancing out of the cockpit I looked down for the first time in too long. The world rushed back, I was too low and never before had I seen livestock look so large from the air. Levelling the wings I pointed the glider back towards the tarmac triangle of the three runways. The uncomfortable truth of my situation was glaring back at me; there was a good chance I might not make it back to the airfield.

Aviate – Navigate – Communicate

With my limited experience I had never before seen the airfield at such a shallow glide angle. I had drifted downwind and was too far away. Now too low to fly a normal approach circuit, it was time to use the mantra Aviate – Navigate – Communicate. 

Pushing the nose forward to 70 knots I cut through the descending air in an attempt to trade horizontal distance for a bit of height. Then reducing the airspeed I trimmed the glider up to get what marginal gains in performance that I could. My only option was to fly in a straight and direct line back to the airfield. This technique was reserved for competition gliding and glider pilots who were much more experienced than me.

Keying the PTT on the radio I remember the transmission … “Glider Echo Golf Zulu, final glide runway 26”. Some confusion followed as it wasn’t a standard call saying that I had entered a normal right hand downwind leg of a circuit. But I had been spotted and things started to happen on the ground. 

Meanwhile I started picking fields (and noting obstructions) where I could land a glider. Luckily there were a few options each of which quickly fell away behind as I got closer to the runway threshold. I completed my checks called “finals” and pulled the airbrakes to soften my landing onto the runway.

The landing was soft enough and the glider sat on the tarmac for a few seconds, the gentle breeze holding the wings level and free from the ground. Now stationary, I let the wingtip drop onto the runway and opened the canopy to let the atmosphere of failure and fear dissipate.

Val said nothing. As a really experienced instructor, she shared the silence and like any good coach let me reflect on the events that could have orchestrated our deaths. If there was one saving grace it was that she hadn’t intervened during this pre solo check flight. Clearly the situation wasn’t quite as bad as I felt, but I had learnt some valuable lessons and I wouldn’t be going solo just yet.

Attentional Narrowing – Avalanche on Aonach Mor

Fast forward 15 years and I was about to experience attentional narrowing (also referred to as task fixation) and degraded situational awareness again, this time in the context of an avalanche.

The first day of a week of introductory Scottish winter climbing was a tricky one. The weather was forecast to deteriorate by mid afternoon with significant drifting. Using the gondola at Nevis Range seemed like a good choice to access the snow line and make the most of the days coaching and instructional aims. My two clients were keen and able so accessing the area around Aonach an Nid was straight forward.

We had a productive morning revising snow belays, and safe travel with intelligent use of the terrain to mitigate the avalanche hazard. Moving up and down some rocky ribs, there was some thin windslab just a few centimetres deep that we could avoid by keeping to the rocks.

The weather wasn’t too bad so we decided to head towards the summit plateau, doing a little navigation on the way. Here we were able to look into ‘Easy Gully’ and notice the tell tale signs of new windslab accumulation on the lee side of the corniced edge. We decided together to finish the day by building some emergency snow shelters, a useful skill for anybody to have in the winter mountains.

To deliver such coaching excellence I needed an area of deposition where the snow had accumulated, preferably at a reasonable angle so it was easier to dig into the slope. With this in mind we descended back to the rocky ribs bounding ‘G&T Gully’ that we had used before.

The area looked subtly different, our footsteps obscured during the hour which we were absent. I started to descend, my clients just behind sticking to the rocks. There looked to be some good patches of snow lower down and the windslab was shallow, perhaps only 5cm deep at my feet next to the rock rib. Spotting the next group of rocks I stepped onto the other side of the rock rib and was suddenly up to my waist in fresh snow.

Whoommppff – a split second later and the tension crack appeared near my hips propagating across the slope for a hundred metres or so and out of sight. The snow around me seemed suspended for a second despite breaking into big blocks, but then accelerated away taking me with it.

I managed to stop myself but watched with a fixed stare as the snow slowed but covered the flat bench below me. We were all lucky not to be carried down, in part by careful, habitual route choice.

Avalanche at Aonach Mor, Attentional Narrowing and Situational Awareness
The avalanche triggered at Aonach Mor.

How can we improve our Situational Awareness in the mountains?

  • Practice and drill routine tasks to create more bandwidth for the bigger picture.
  • Minimise distractions, use or request a “sterile cockpit” if you need to. More details can be found in CASM v3.0.
  • Consider other factors that reduce situational awareness: protect yourself from the elements, avoid fatigue and ensure you and your group are adequately fed.
  • Most importantly be bothered, and actively look for new information and clues to changing conditions. Communicate these observations often.
  • As all glider pilots know, avoid being “head down”.

CASM – A Human Factors Group Tool

CASM - A Human Factors Group Tool

Guides, Instructors and leaders operating in the UK in avalanche terrain frequently travel in groups, but yet there remains very little research into the ‘Non Technical Skills’ required to mitigate avalanche terrain.

CASM is a proposed Human Factors group tool which is based on Crew Resource Management (CRM) training from the aviation sector, an inevitably well-researched safety critical industry. In addition, established research into avalanche incidents and the applied psychology of Human Factors in safety critical industries has also formed the basis of CASM.

CASM stands for Communication, Alter Command Gradient, Situational Awareness and Minimise Disruption. Many guides, instructors and leaders will already carry out some of the practices that these headings aim to capture. There is no intention to negate those behaviours or propose CASM as a single option, it is a Human Factors group tool that can be used alongside others, or in conjunction with decision making frameworks such as Be Avalanche Aware (BAA).

It is hoped that CASM can be used alongside other established technical skills to reduce the risk of unintended “heuristic traps” or group affects. The ultimate aim being the safe conduct of a mountaineering or skiing day.

CASM v3.0 – Video

CASM v3.0 – A Human Factors Group Tool

Communication

Communication is arguably the non-technical skill from which all the other headings flow, in fact it is an essential element of all the others listed. Communication is regarded as critical for groups to perform effectively in winter snow sports (Trempler 2008, Zweifel 2014) and in aviation (CAA 2016). The ultimate aim here is to establish and maintain lines of communication between members of the group, and also between the leader and the group and vice versa. Discussion of the avalanche hazard is useful, along with the mantra of “saying what you see”. 

Communication should be CLEAR – Contextual, Logically structured, Essential, Ambiguity-free and Resonating (Zweifel 2014). In pressured situations structured communication may be useful such as SBAR and/or NITS brief (Hearns 2019 and Jackson 2021). SBAR – Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendations. 

As a leader communicating using a logical structure demonstrates the legitimacy of authority due to competence. i.e. you have thought about your work and presented it in a rational and organised manner. The use of technical language of mountaineering/skiing is useful to establish credibility and trust (Ginnet 2019). 

Alter Command Gradient

The aim here is to flatten any hierarchy between the leader and the group. Although leaders will have established legitimate authority having been engaged to carry out their role, they need to balance the tasks as a group. In affect a leader is building a relationship by saying that although they have overall responsibility for the enterprise but members of the group can take on some of that responsibility as well. This is particularly important to create a situation where the leader is not relied on entirely without question, especially if they have made an error.

A frequent briefing for off piste skiing in avalanche terrain is a good example: 

“Any avalanche observations or snow conditions that you think might help out, I would really appreciate having my attention drawn to it. I will be keeping a good lookout as well, but there is always the potential for me to miss things”.

This simple statement is an example of disavowing perfection, by sharing a personal shortcoming e.g. everybody can be looking in the wrong direction, you demonstrate that you are not only human but can deal with you own vulnerabilities (Ginnet 2019, McKenna 2019).

Nobody feels comfortable in a group where the leader is always right. With a flatter hierarchy you empower people to speak up if they are uncomfortable or concerned.

Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness is a broad concept which simply means having an idea of what is going on, but also being able to project into the future and anticipate what may happen next. A common term in aviation, it is a broad catch all. For us in the mountains we can strive to achieve a shared mental model for the day, and anticipate what may lie over the horizon. Start by having a plan (and contingencies). 

Watch for the cues of loss of Situational Awareness (CAA 2016): Ambiguity, fixation, confusion, not prioritising the task, “being head down”, and being unable to resolve discrepancies.

Manage the factors which reduce awareness (Zacharias 2019) such as wellness, fatigue and distraction.

Minimise Distraction

Focus on tasks that enhance safety. The perception of danger requires focus and attention. Chatting, texting and checking social media at the wrong time can detract from the environment and decision making.

The term “sterile cockpit” is used to describe any period of time when crews or groups should not be disturbed except for matters critical to the safety. Additionally, leaders should focus on their essential operational activities (Pollitt 2021).

At key places during your day you may request not to be disturbed by anybody while decision making, and it is a two-way street, don’t disturb others. As such you might plan to call for a sterile cockpit at certain points in the day, or alternatively foster all group members to request it if they are stretched or distracted (Hearns 2019).

References

Be Avalanche Aware, Snow and Avalanche Foundation for Scotland / Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Jackson D, 2021, [Personal communication], Mountain CRM, Case Study: Take-Off with contamination on the wings prevented by cabin crew.

Jarvis (Ed), 2016, CAP737: Flight crew human factors handbook, Civil Aviation Authority

Ginnet 2019, Crews as Groups: Their Formation and Leadership. Crew Resource Management, Elsevier Inc.

Hearns S, 2019, Peak Performance Under Pressure: Lessons from a Helicopter Rescue Doctor. Class Professional Publishing.

McKenna L, 2019, [Personal communication] Mountain Manners, Not Mountain Madness. Proceedings of the Snow and Avalanche Foundation for Scotland conference, Inverness.

Pollit A, 2021, https://sleeveandspindle.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/small-talk-big-distraction-taking-a-look-at-the-sterile-cockpit-concept-through-the-lens-of-helicopter-operations/

Statham G, 2021, Thinking in Risk: Avalanche Education, Powder Cloud. https://thepowdercloud.com/learn/avalanche-education/thinking-in-risk/

Trempler B, 2008, Staying alive in avalanche terrain. 2 edition, Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers

Zacharias C, 2019, The Power of Noticing: Avalanche Education, Powder Cloud. https://thepowdercloud.com/learn/avalanche-education/the-power-of-noticing-avalanche-warning-signs/

Zweifel 2014, SOCIAL – A group check tool. Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop, Banff.