On January 13, at around 4 p.m., a French schoolteacher from the Lycée Saint Exupéry in Lyon escorted a group of teenage students past a ski patrol fence at the Les Deux Alpes ski resort and onto a temporarily closed run called Bellecombe.
In the week leading up to January 13, about a foot of snow fell on Les Deux Alpes, where the snowfall and high winds elevated the avalanche danger to a rating of 3 out of 5—or considerable—which means triggering an avalanche with a light load on most slopes is possible.
Dozens of tracks laced down the expert slope on the north face of Deux Alpes. As they skied the prohibited run, an avalanche 65 feet wide and 1,000 feet long swept down the slope, killing two students and a Ukrainian skier not affiliated with the group. The teacher survived and is now being investigated for involuntary manslaughter.
In hindsight, it’s easy to wonder why a teacher would make such a terrible choice, but when it comes to chasing powder, seemingly irrational decisions are more common than one might think. According to Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, humans trigger more than 90 percent of avalanche accidents, which suggests that even in the face of evidence indicating danger, powerful psychological forces can override rational judgment. The desire to ski untracked slopes can hijack our ability to make sound decisions.
“Most of the time, the information or techniques that would allow these people to not get involved in the accident are there, and a lot of times the people have had some sort of avalanche education,” says Greene. “So there’s other external factors that contribute to their decision to put [themselves] in harm’s way.”
These external elements are called humans factors—psychological influences that can blind skiers to dangerous conditions. According to Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association, one of the most significant human factors is confirmation bias, a phenomenon in which we search out and interpret facts that support a preexisting belief and discount information that doesn’t.
“It’s very easy to talk ourselves into something but very difficult to talk ourselves out of something,” says IFMGA guide Markus Beck, owner/founder of Alpine World Ascents and an AIARE instructor. “As humans, we’re driven by our desires and sort of hardwired to satisfy what we want. If you want something, you subconsciously set yourself up to get it.”
Another key human factor is attribution bias, a tendency in which we credit our success to our own capabilities rather than to luck. It’s human nature to believe we are more skilled than we actually are.
“We generally dismiss luck and instead attribute our success to our knowledge, skills, and abilities,” says Atkins. “If we don’t take a hard look at luck, then we set ourselves up for a trap. Rarely does anything bad happen to us, so it creates a positive reinforcement loop that keeps us going. But the problem is we often don’t realize how lucky we are.”
When assessing avalanche risk, skiers also fall victim to heuristics, mental shortcuts that help us solve problems and make decisions quickly. Heuristics often work well in daily life but can be deadly when skiing out of bounds.
“There’s two ways to get what we want,” says Beck. “The slow, rational way—you analyze your way to that thing you want. The other way is a shortcut way. You kind of go on assumptions or comparisons from the past that are similar, and then you just go with what is similar enough to get it. That doesn’t work in the backcountry.”
Avalanche experts have identified six common heuristics and grouped them into the acronym FACETS: familiarity, acceptance, consistency, experts, tracks/scarcity, and social facilitation.
Familiarity is one of the most frequent traps in the backcountry. According to research by avalanche expert Ian McCammon, 69 percent of avalanche accidents occur in terrain that the victim is very familiar with.
“The problem with familiarity is that as we become more familiar with something, we become comfortable with something,” says Atkins. “As we become more comfortable, we drop our guard.”
Another common trap is the expert halo, or the belief that you’re safe skiing with someone you consider an expert—an experienced local for example—when in reality the so-called expert knows very little about avalanches.
McCammon also found that skiers are more likely to take risks when they’re highly committed to a goal (consistency), competing for first tracks (scarcity), and skiing with a group (acceptance and social facilitation).
Other experts point to the glorification of risk in ski culture—and American society at large. Robb Gaffney, a Squaw Valley, California-based psychiatrist, believes the glamorization of risk is impacting our collective decision-making skills at a subconscious level and encouraging more daring behavior, particularly among youth.
“With a lot of these decisions where we’re like, ‘What was he thinking,’ the reality is that he may not have been thinking so much at all,” he says. “The person is guided by many forces beyond his own individual control at that point. He may have been responding subconsciously to cultural pressures and norms that have been building and changing over the last 30 to 40 years in terms of extremism, at least in the U.S. There’s a normalization of high risk and ultra-high risk that we now accept higher risk levels than we would in 1975.”
We don’t know exactly what drove the group in France to hop the fence, but several human factors were certainly at work: confirmation and attribution bias, as well as the expert halo, at the very least. It’s easy to understand how they saw tracks down the closed slope and thought it was safe to ski or how skiing in a group with a teacher may have bestowed a false sense of security. Perhaps they had skied the slope some other time—earlier that day, last week, last year—and misguidedly attributed their safe passage to skill rather than luck. The lesson isn’t just that it’s unwise to ski closed runs; instead, the real takeaway is to be cognizant of the powerful psychological forces at play when chasing powder.
To that end, Beck suggests adopting a strategic mindset.
“Learn what your personal red flags are—maybe you have an overly craving desire to ski steep powder slopes. That means you have to be extra careful on those slopes when making your go/no-go decisions. Be aware that you are being subconsciously influenced by your desires and guarding against that is very difficult. Know yourself and what’s driving you to ski something.”