How does decision making factor in to backcountry safety?

With a healthy dusting of snow on the mountains and flakes on the horizon, winter seems to be officially around the corner.

But it’s not just skiers and snowboarders looking ahead to the coming season; snow scientists and guides recently gathered in Colorado for the annual International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) ahead of winter 2016/17 as well. While they typically dig deep into the technical aspects of snow, this year, according to the Denver Post, the conversation focused heavily on social media and its impact on decision-making in the backcountry.

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Researchers have long established factors that can lead to a group making poor decisions in the backcountry (among them, as the Post recounts, is familiarity with the terrain, committing too intensely to a goal, relying too heavily on a leader, competing with each other), but experts argue that people are now also influenced by thousands of videos and photos on social media.

As discussed in this space before, we should be cautious before blaming too much on technology — a pattern that has repeated itself throughout history. But it’s not hard to imagine skiers or snowboarders gleaning inspiration from social media — spotting a new location and venturing out there because someone else has done it. Just as studies have found members of a group can be influenced by the desire to impress one another, with social media that group has expanded to include an Internet audience too.

But the main take-away from this year’s ISSW, the Post said, is that the influence of social media — and decision making in general — needs to be included in discussions about avalanche safety going forward. The piece says avalanche educators want companies like Red Bull and TGR to help make avalanche safety seem cool via their social media and movies — things like showing skiers and riders digging snow pits to assess conditions or updating avalanche conditions on social media.

While some level of that could help — particularly with a younger audience — it’s the concept of focusing on decision making in avalanche training that seems to be the most powerful idea.

Making decisions — let alone life-and-death assessments — can be tricky. How do you balance knowing your limit and pushing yourself to grow? When do you trust an experienced friend? Furthermore, when do you trust your own skills — particularly if they’ve never been put to the test?

Talking about the idea of decision making — and learning to express uncertainty rather than following a group — seems like a good place to start. 

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