The Human Factor in mountaineering and snow sports – Going beyond FACETS.

The Human Factor in mountaineering and snow sports - Going beyond FACETS.

Human Factors – “it’s all about the Human Factor, init [sic]”

For many winter sports enthusiasts the acronym of FACETS will need little introduction, especially for those who have undertaken any avalanche training. Interest in Human Factors among winter sports enthusiasts, has rocketed in recent years. It is an in vogue subject.

Here lies the problem, in our search for answers we are applying concepts from other sectors with little understanding of Human Factors (HF) as a scientific discipline. We have an early awareness of Human Factors, but the application of HF is far from understood in a snow sports context.

What are Human Factors (HF)?

Human factors and ergonomics (commonly referred to as human factors) is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest. Source: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering. Wickens, Gordon, Liu, 1997.

HF is clearly a broad area with its basis in various areas. Stephen Shorrock summarises it well as ‘Human Factors’ emerged from many disciplines, with none dominating completely. Human Performance is related primarily to psychology, physiology, and sports science, with psychology dominating industrial applications. Source: Human Factors and Human Performance is there a difference?

Human Factors (HF) in Avalanche

So what about Human Factors in avalanche terrain, snow sports and mountaineering? Historically our understanding has been framed by heuristics and the work of Ian McCammon in the early 2000’s. McCammon researched avalanche incidents and identified six human factors that were significant factors in avalanche incidents.

Ian McCammon proposed the main human factors (effectively heuristics) that may influence decisions as: Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity and Social Facilitation. These factors form the acronym FACETS. For more details on this from Avalanche Canada.

Heuristics are simply short cuts to decision making which allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Very simply they are “rules of thumb”. Frequently these work in our favour, but sometimes result in error. Also referred to as cognitive bias, there are many at work.

More recently the Cognitive Bias codex proposed 180+ cognitive biases. The reality is that the situation is more complicated than the six general influences listed in FACETS.

Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications – FACETS

Ian McCammons original paper can be found here at: Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications. I would recommend reading the full paper as a seminal work on the subject of Human Factors / Heuristics. For those who want a two minute summary this video runs through FACETS in two minutes:

Powder Magazine: The Human Factor Intro

Quite rightly this seminal work has seen the widespread adoption of the FACETS acronym worldwide, from avalanche training courses to introductory winter skills. But it remains a broad brush stroke approach to a much bigger and nuanced subject, the reality is it’s complicated!

The bulk of this blog post was written after a conversation with Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada at the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS) conference in autumn 2019. Why? Because we both speculated that despite an increased awareness of FACETS that there hadn’t been a significant change in behaviour in the field. I should point out that’s an opinion, but we should perhaps ask what’s going on?

Roll forward to autumn 2020 and I have just digested this paper from Jerry Johnson et al : Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm in avalanche education: Past, present and future.

I would recommend reading it, and then reading it again!

Jerry Johnson: Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm

In rethinking heuristic traps, Johnson reviews McCammons work which has been widely adopted over more than 15 years.

He points out that the initial research was conducted into avalanche incidents alone, and while that may identify the root cause of incidents fails to take account of the wins. As such incidents (or accidents) might not be the best window into decision making on the ground.

This builds on Laura Maguire’s lecture Maguire, L. (2020). Cognition in the wild: Supporting avalanche professionals through cognitive systems engineering . Canadian Avalanche Association Spring Conference which is available below.

In short, taking a systems approach to the “nerd fight”, you can view this video here at https://youtu.be/M3HR_Uuvqf4

Changing the narrative around Human Factors

Human Factors is a broad term and at a practical level we should be talking about the application of non technical skills by mountaineers and skiers.

I think that non technical skills for skiers and mountaineers include: situational awareness, decision-making, teamwork and communication, leadership and task management and the application of these skills in the winter environment. Understanding decision making is likely only by adopting a systems approach to our “wicked learning environment”.

As a Mountain Guide and instructor I am focussed on the practical application of these skills on the mountain, I am no psychologist. Even if people understand and recognize human factors, indications are this knowledge does not effectively change behaviour in the field. If there is any chance of affecting these behaviours it is through a consistent and solid planning process that, hopefully, produces a trip plan that keeps people out of situations where human factors might have a negative influence! [Avalanche Canada].

Johnson is arguably on point with the final section of his abstract: We end with a discussion, and a call to action to the avalanche research community, of how we could move towards resolution of these weaknesses and add value to prior work on human factor research. Our aim is not to disparage the seminal, paradigm shifting work by McCammon, but rather draw attention to how it has been operationalized and how the industry needs to move beyond this paradigm to see further gains in our understanding of avalanche fatalities.

Mont Blanc: The Inconvenient Truth…

Mont Blanc du Tacul

To climb Mont Blanc remains one of the great accessible challenges in the Chamonix Mont Blanc Massif for climbers and alpinists. Standing on the highest summit (4810m) around and looking across the Italian plains, along the alpine arc and below to the smaller chains of Les Aravis and Chablais is a seminal experience.

But we are faced with a mountain under pressure from visitors and continually degrading conditions due to climate change. Year after year Mont Blanc is becoming a riskier proposition.

In recent years, I have climbed (and guided) Mont Blanc on a handful of occasions choosing to make attempts early and late in the season to avoid the heat waves, and crowds of the high season. More recently, at the high of the season I have decided to avoid it altogether.

We all have to decide the level of risk we are prepared to tolerate, and this approach has always seemed logical for some guides in an attempt to reduce the cumulative risk of making multiple ascents.

The reality is that limits in hut space and availability due to crowding puts significant pressure on guides and independent climbers to attempt the mountain on schedules that wouldn’t be their first choice. The result is an incremental mission creep towards narrower margins of safety, and judgements on the ground taken on smaller and smaller criteria.

The Inconvenient Truth

A new project initiated and led by the Petzl Foundation, arguably places my own previous strategy in doubt. These independently led projects have centred around the Goûter Couloir some times simply referred to as “The Death Couloir”. No sensationalism is required here though, with this intimidating location and its immediate surroundings being responsible for an average of 3.7 fatalities per year and countless injuries.

Regardless of your experience to climb Mont Blanc by the normal route (voie normal), you will need to pass the couloir, either in ascent, descent or both.

The Petzl Foundation asked the simple but logic question: How can we reduce accidents in the Goûter Couloir?

Presenting such a significant objective danger due to rock fall, the Petzl Foundation postulate that the Goûter Couloir tarnishes the image of mountaineering. That assertion is certainly an inconvenient truth, but one that would be worthwhile stepping back and scrutinising away from the commercial pressures of the tourism industry and individuals livelihoods.

The full links to the reports, are available below and worth reading in full.

Petzl Foundation Reports – Mont Blanc

Petzl Foundation – Mont Blanc: how can we reduce accidents in the Goûter couloir?

https://www.petzl.com/fondation/Couloir-Gouter_Rapport_EN_web.pdf?v=1

Petzl Foundation – Goûter Couloir on the normal route, Mont Blanc

The latest reports make some stark observations:

“Despite its limitations (see Conclusion), this study provides valuable information for those planning to ascend Mont Blanc:

– The number of rock destabilisation events recorded over the course of the study is an indicator of extreme gravitational activity.

– In 2019, a rock destabilisation event was recorded every 37 minutes on average and every 24 minutes on average during a peak of activity between 7 pm and 8 pm.

The highest frequency of rock destabilisation events was recorded between 6pm and 8 pm. It increased an average of three hours after temperatures became positive at the top of the couloir.

– Rock destabilisation events grew more frequent and larger in size when the couloir became exposed to the sun.

– The time of day when rock destabilisation was least frequent was between 9 am and 10 am.

– The couloir was as dangerous at 3 pm as it was at 10 pm.

– Rock destabilisation was more frequent at the beginning of the season, partly as a result of snowmelt. However, these events were relatively small in size, but still hazardous for mountaineers.

– The frequency of rock destabilisation events was lower in the second half of the summer season, but the longest events (“boulder showers”) and those involving the highest volumes of material also occurred during this period.

– The liquid water present in rock fractures seems to be the primary factor governing the risk of rock destabilisation. The more liquid water is present in the cracks in the rock (melt water/precipitation), the greater the frequency of rock destabilisation events. Mountaineers need to be particularly cautious during periods of snowmelt or after rain/storms.

– The presence of snow in the couloir is not necessarily a guarantee of safety, since snowmelt promotes rock destabilisation.

– A cold period marked by frequent freeze-thaw cycles is conducive to the occurrence of rock destabilisation. Only a cold period without thawing (which is rare in the summer) can reduce the frequency of destabilisation events.”

Climbing Mont Blanc

The conclusions from this report adds evidence to the widely held view that crossing early in the day before the couloir is fully in the sun, is in relative terms “safer”.

This includes ascent and descent, so hut reservations that facilitate these timings are essential. Starting early from the Tete Rousse Hut, and staying at the Goûter Hut in descent is one option. There are inevitably financial barriers to this, and the issues of securing bookings of huts that are in significant demand.

Finally if starting from the Tete Rousse Hut, some guides choose to start at first light. So at least they can see the conditions in the couloir and will get visual confirmation of any rock fall activity. Choosing to cross in the dark, although common, degrades you ability to make observations.

There are alternatives, and with fifty major 4000 metre peaks in the alps there is a whole collection of challenging objectives on these classic peaks alone. Although any alpine route will be subject to objective dangers and can never be risk free, there are plenty of summits that can be climbed without the same exposure to rock fall on Mont Blanc.