Accidents happen! But why?

It seems recently that not a day goes by with out there being a report of some form of injury accident or even worse a fatality in our mountain ranges, it is with out doubt there are many attributable factors for these incidents and indeed the variable weather and the speed at which it can change and develop must be a considered as a major player towards them.
In this article I hope to highlight some factors that possibly as instructors, leaders or just outdoor enthusiasts we take for granted, but rarely consider whilst we go through our planning stages prior to going out on the hill.

In Sept 2002 Ian McCammon presented a paper at the international snow science workshop showing evidence of heuristic traps (evidence based) in recreational avalanche accidents. Although the study was initially related solely to avalanche accidents we can easily cross reference his findings to the decisions we make in our mountains today.

Heuristic Traps

There are many Heuristic traps that we as human can fall into; I have chosen 5 which in my opinion are more applicable to a mountainous situation.

• Familiarity
• Commitment
• Scarcity
• Social proof
• Expert/instructor halo

Let us look at each of these factors individually and hopefully provoke some thought?

Familiarity – This heuristic is the tendency as humans to believe that our behaviour is correct to the extent that we have either done the activity before or we have been to the area many times before therefore our our decision making is appropriate for any given situation. The familiarity heuristic is possibly the most powerful because it is simple and frees our mind of complex time consuming decision making processes again and again. Leaving us to arrive at usually the same conclusion without much thought!

Commitment – The commitment heuristic is slightly more complex and could be considered as time bound, our decision making process can become flawed due to the constraints that we as mountaineers may have placed upon ourselves. As an example you may be chasing those last last few winter quality mountain days and have booked time of work early in the winter season, you have made that long journey north and have committed your time and energy and irrespective of any other over riding factors you still commit to the hill to attain those last few days that you require.

Scarcity – The scarcity heuristic in skiing terms is sometimes known as “no friends on powder day” but is applicable to the decisions we make on our UK mountains; I feel the scarcity heuristic goes hand in hand with the commitment heuristic. Whether a classic rock climbing route or a very rare in condition winter climb our decision making process becomes flawed because our pure want to bag the route takes over the very real and complex safety issues that may endanger the end result.

Social Proof – This heuristic is our tendency to believe that our our decisions are correct because there is evidence that other people are engaged in the same activity possibly on the same area or route that we are intending to undertake. A powerful heuristic that provokes our sense of competition and pride and the notion that if somebody else is there it must be safe for our party? Obviously what we can only surmise is the technical competence, experience and capability of the others compared to our own groups attributes.

Expert/Instructor Halo – You may feel that this heuristic only applies to the instructors/leaders amongst us? But even as recreational mountaineers we all either look to our own experience or to others around us to confirm the decisions we are making. It is this expert halo that may lead to flaws in our decisions “I have carried out this task many times before therefore it will be fine this time” we sub consciously believe that the actions we undertake must be correct because they have never failed us in the past.

So What

Through psychology and behavioural science, it is evident that humans tend to use mental short cuts (heuristics) in our every day decisions. Most of the time these short cuts work really well but in mountainous terrain when the conditions may not be quite right they can lead to potentially fatal errors in our decision making process. As instructors, Leaders or recreational mountaineers we should aim to plan for any eventuality and also look inwardly to the decisions we make whether venturing into the mountains on our own or with groups.