NOTHING HAPPENS… most of the time


Off-piste skiing and touring can be surprisingly safe. It can be as safe as driving your car for a couple of hours a day, if you regularly apply all the risk reduction measures that you learn in avalanche training. If you do not apply these measures, it can be surprisingly dangerous.

Why wouldn’t you apply simple risk reduction measures? ​Because nothing happens most of the time when you don’t apply them. Observation and research show that, even if you ski on hundreds or even thousands of steep off-piste slopes in the big alpine resorts without applying risk reduction measures, most of the time nothing happens.

When nothing happens (and the danger is not in our face) our impulses take over, even when the signs of potential danger are obvious enough for us to see.

So rather than thinking “Should we ski this steep slope?” when it faces North, like a bunch of other slopes that have avalanched since it snowed last night, and there’s a big hole at the bottom, we are easily distracted into thinking, “Let’s get there before the powder’s tracked out!”

… and in the back of our minds we’re reassuring ourselves: “Well, other people are around, there are tracks on the slopes and it looks OK”.

I let myself get distracted in this very way when I got caught on video setting a big avalanche off.  As you can see, it made it to National Geographic, much to the embarrassment of this so-called avalanche expert and educator… who became known after this incident simply as ‘The Avalanche Maker’!

In brief, I was very lucky not to be killed by this avalanche.. I was also very embarrassed – especially that it was caught on film. However, what this clearly shows  is that, no matter who you are, if you don’t apply all the risk reduction measures you learn in avalanche training, things can get dangerous very quickly.

Notice there are lots of tracks already on the slope. “Don’t take tracks seriously!” says renowned avalanche expert Bruce Jamieson in his video and paper on the ‘Odds of Triggering.. a potentially deadly avalanche’ (see below).

A FRAMEWORK as a solution.

Here is a link to our framework. We’ve tried here to create a foundation in-line with what behavioural science experts suggest for people engaging in high-consequence, low-feedback environments such as avalanche terrain,  …simple, easily-applied decision tools can compete with distractions from ‘human factor traps’ that lure even experienced people into accidents where there was ‘ample evidence of danger’.  Luckily, such tools don’t need to be perfect to save lives… (McCammon 2004)

Our ‘framework solution’ involves recognizing, firstly, that avalanche terrain is a low-validity (low feedback) and high-consequence environment. In his recent book, Bruce Kay describes this as an environment where we have a really hard time keeping risk-vigilant. Our mind starts to wander, leaving us open to human factor ‘traps’ – those impulses that sidetrack us into overlooking the simple essential risk reduction measures.

For example, if you drive on the wrong side of the motorway, you will get instant feedback: “WRONG PLACE TO BE”!  However, for a similarly high consequence scenario in avalanche terrain, we don’t get that feedback. We let our minds coax us into very dangerous places on the slopes as nothing happens, we don’t get feedback, most of the time. That’s when ’risky behavior’ becomes a habit, without us even knowing it!

But… since something does happen enough of the time, and since the consequences can be deadly… we need to keep ourselves regularly “in check”, by thinking and looking around us, and by validating our assumptions.

Checklists are a good start, but they don’t work on their own. We also need to recognize that these Human Factors “traps” are real and that they distract us. So we need to think about filtering our impulses by “checking out” what’s going on around us, i.e. validating our quick assumptions. Finally, we need to work as a team when we’re in the mountains, in order to remind each other to be alert. Indeed, Teamwork is really the fun part. My best off-piste and ski touring memories are of the people I’m with, as much as the snow and environment.

See our FRAMEWORK as: a Checklist  +  a recognition of Human Factors + an opening to Teamwork = a Great Time on the Mountain.

This video sums up why we do it!
To learn more about these off-piste points on our Framework or the “essentials”, as we call them, see our on-line talks and live talks. Get ahold of us if you would like a private talk and/or coaching session: e-mail: hat@henrysavalanchetalk.com

References and acknowledgement.  The references below and the authors have contributed to this post and our mission of helping people to have a successful and enjoyable experience off-piste, in the snow. I paraphrased most of the authors – it’s well worth taking a look at their work!

Finally, credit goes to Dr. Graham Plant for providing me with the video in the first place along with many other short videos and encouragement that have helped me and the HAT Team communicate our message over the years. Graham had no idea that it was me in the video, his initial comments about the ignorance/foolishness of the ‘culprit’ have been the source of much humour and mocking over the years. You are sorely missed by all of us Graham.