As mountains of moving snow continue to kill knowledgeable, well-prepared backcountry travelers, the avalanche safety industry is pushing better decision making as an essential tool for reducing risk in steep, snowy terrain.
It’s been a decade-long struggle for the gray-haired safety experts who have long focused on the analytical sciences behind snow crystals, slope angles and weather. Adding the softer sciences of psychology and behavior analysis to the mix has muddled the black-and-white precision of decades of avalanche study.
And then, along came Instagram, a game changer in the way we look at, and feel about, backcountry travel. It’s just one of many social applications that need to be immediately woven into the distribution of avalanche information on both the professional and recreational sides. While that seems like a no-brainer, it’s not exactly happening nationwide.
Social media is definitely playing a larger role in the intuitive decision making in the backcountry, especially as younger explorers armed with fatter skis push deeper into sketchy terrain. That dilemma was highlighted at last week’s International Snow Science Workshop in Breckenridge, where neurologists and psychotherapists joined the traditional coterie of European physicists in presenting the latest research and challenges facing avalanche safety.
If we are influenced by the company we keep, then today’s social-media-connected backcountry travelers are not just inveigled by the riders in their group, but the thousands in their social network.
“We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self containment, remoteness and isolation,” said Jerry Isaak, a college professor and American Mountain Guides Association ski guide who has studied the role of social media in backcountry decision-making.
The remote peak experience – once a moment of solitude and introspection – now is both individual and shared, simultaneously.
“Backcountry social media users should be challenged to consider the questions to whom or to what purpose they are constructing their narratives .. participants need to be made aware that decisions made in remote environments are no longer taken in isolation,” Isaak said. “Technology and social media have fundamentally changed the nature of solitude and remoteness. Now our peers and online communities may travel everywhere with us on our smartphones. They are an ever-present audience generating pressure on our decisions in ways that were not possible in a pre-digital era. For many young people, this is the only reality they have ever known.”
Emery Rheam, a 16-year-old from Jackson, Wyo., showed a video at the conference. Teenage kids – mostly boys – threw double backflips off a backcountry cliff, landing in a snow-laden bowl above an avalanche chute. The crowd of roughly 1,000 scientists and guides collectively groaned as kid after kid cannonballed into the avalanche starting zone.
Rheam said her friends always raced home to post their exploits online, competing in a game of virtual oneupmanship that carries real-life consequences.
“Saying these kids are just a bunch of idiots, that is the wrong approach,” said Scott Toepfer, a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster. “We need to educate and we need to bring them into the fold to show them that it’s really cool to learn about avalanches and safety.”
In the U.S., about 27 people die in avalanches each year. Colorado is by far the deadliest state, with 62 avalanche deaths recorded from 2005 to 2015. And among the 270 Colorado deaths since 1950, the vast majority were men with a mean age of 29 — an age when social media use is peaking.
“Social media is definitely playing a role in their decision-making,” said Rheam, who has surveyed teenage skiers about their perspectives on avalanche safety. “But the terrain they are in, that they can reach and ski, it outmatches their education.”
Avalanche safety is at a crossroads. Sitting in that hotel conference room, it’s easy to see the latest challenge facing the largely male, older cadre of experts who have guided safety education for many decades. If they followed their real-world cohorts – professional men in their 50s and 60s – their impulse would be to leave social media to the kids. That would be a big mistake.
The best way to reach the next generation of backcountry skiers – the kids who are pushing the level of skiing and riding to new heights – is not through darkroom discussions of crack propagation or internal velocity distribution but through Facebook and Instagram.
Social media can become a vital tool in the fight to educate backcountry travelers. Imagine kids not just posting videos of their sick, misty 540 but their discovery of a poorly-bonded layer in a snowpit Rutschblock test. Envision a day when real-time avalanche conditions, snow-pit analysis and shifting weather is shared instantaneously among thousands of travelers in high country zones across the world.
That requires embracing social media. And that’s easy. Truly the desire to script our own narrative is as old as mankind. That kid posting footy of his skiing or riding adventures is no different than the lonely Basque sheepherder carving buxom ladies into aspen bark or Hemingway typing on a Sun Valley resort deck.
“We all have similar impulses. We all just grew up in a different time,” Isaak said.
Behaviors are learned and they can be massaged through media. That includes intuitive decision making. Those rule-of-thumb, seat-of-pant decisions – known as heuristics – that we deploy in everyday life can have fatal consequences in avalanche terrain. Simply recognizing that we are making those decisions – by stopping, thinking, questioning – can go a long way toward making the best call. And just recognizing that the impulse to share or boast might be infiltrating that decision making process is a step in the right direction.
“Older people have tried to ignore this social media thing,” Rheam said, “But it’s at a level of usage and obsession in ways that it can’t really be ignored anymore. It is a reality, and we need to look at where can we use it to reach this next generation.”
Editor’s Note: Many avalanche forecasting organizations still aren’t on Instagram or even Facebook. Go to Avalanche.org or find your local forecasting group’s website and write them to voice your opinion that they should be using social media. Spreading information saves lives.