Distributor of Ideas
Snowboard guide Sam Thackeray

Splitboard guide Sam Thackeray, who works for Payette Powder Guides in McCall, Idaho. Photo: John Webster

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about traveling, and riding, safely in the backcountry, check out Sam Thackeray’s Essential Avalanche Awareness Guide here. The Inertia readers get a 100 percent discount with code WELCOME10.

For a long time, the focus of avalanche education was very heavy on science. The idea was that if we could just teach people how to go out and dig pits, identify grain types and sizes, and do snowpack tests, they’d be able to go out there on their own and gather all this information that would help keep people safe.

As we progressed down that road through education, we started to find that that really wasn’t the case. If you look at avalanche accidents, many, many of those people have the education — they are experienced users. They had a lot of knowledge about what was happening with the snowpack and in the backcountry, and they still made decisions that ended with them being caught or maybe accidentally triggering an avalanche.

So we went back to the drawing board and started looking at how people actually make decisions based on the information that they’re given. What we started to find is that as humans, we’re actually really bad at making decisions in emotional situations, and standing on top of a 38-degree slope with perfect untracked powder is a very emotional decision, right? That’s what we’re all out here to do. That’s what we all love doing.

It’s a powder day and you want to get out there. You don’t want to let another group get in front of you. Because of emotions like that, we fail to pay attention to warning signs. Photo: John Webster

We wanted to give people the tools to make better decisions, to keep them safe. I started looking heavily into the social sciences and specifically about how people actually do make decisions. What came out of that was the study of heuristics, or human factors. They’re not learned traits. These are things that are built into us through evolution. It’s the way that humans just naturally make decisions. We’re constantly being bombarded by all of this different information and stimuli, and our brain is taking all of these things and trying to synthesize them and give us useful information to make decisions, to take care of us, to keep us safe.

It works really well most of the time, but not always, and, especially not in a high-risk environment where when we’re making emotional decisions, we’re not very objective. So there’s a multitude of different types of heuristics, and we’ve taken them and we’ve broken them down into six major categories. And there’s an acronym that we like to use that breaks those down to help you remember that.


The “F” stands for familiarity. We found that when people were very familiar with an area or an environment, they tended to let their guard down and they relied heavily on those past experiences in that situation.

Experience can be very, very useful and a very helpful tool, but it can also get us into trouble. What we’ve found is that when people were in a situation that they’re very familiar with, they tended to miss when things were different or they tended to pay less attention to the signs that they were getting. Just knowing that “Hey, the last time I was here and skied this slope, it was awesome and everything was fine and nothing bad happened. And so that’s, what’s going to happen again this time.” And that’s just not always the case.

The “A” stands for acceptance. People tend to accept greater risk in order to be involved in the herd and to be accepted by the group, right? We are group animals, and we want to be accepted into that group. Sometimes we’ll refer to this as the Kodak confidence or “doing it for the ‘gram,” right? People are willing to take more risk to be accepted by the people around them, their peers, and then the people that they look up to.

That third letter, the “C,” stands for commitment. And that’s when a group makes a plan and they stick with it, regardless of what they’re seeing, where there are signs of instability or things telling them that they should be turning around or choosing a different option. They continue ahead because they’re just fully committed to what that plan or that objective is and fail to take into account the signs that they should be doing something differently.

The fourth letter is “E,” which stands for expert halo.

This is another one that’s a double-edged sword. Having that experience and being considered an expert is very, very beneficial, but it can also get you into trouble. In this situation, what often occurs is that there’s a group of people and one person has more experience either in general or in that area than the rest of the group. They become the de facto leader, and the rest of the group stops thinking and making decisions and observations and just defers all of that to that expert, that person who’s the most experienced. And that person may not even realize that they’re acting as a leader at that point, and so decisions get made that aren’t appropriate for the situation.

The fifth letter is “T,” which stands for tracks or scarcity. For all of us, time is a limited resource. So when we have that opportunity to get out into the backcountry or go do that hut trip, we always want to make the most of it. And because of that, we failed to pay attention to signs that tell us today’s not the day to be in this terrain or this zone.

That final one is the “S,” which stands for social facilitation, another kind of a group herding instinct or heuristic trap. This is where we find people will follow each other because it’s easier to follow than to make decisions for yourself. We get into a group-think mindset where communication breaks down and people are just following each other because and decisions aren’t being made. They’re just kind of happening.

All of these aspects come together to sabotage us as decision-makers in the backcountry.

So having a knowledge of this acronym and thinking about it while you’re out there and paying attention to when you might be falling into that trap is going to give you a big leg up and prevent you from potentially making bad decisions.

You’re probably sitting there thinking, “okay, so you just told me that I am not a good decision-maker. I can’t trust myself. How do I get around this?” What you have to do is work with your group and your partners and the people that you decided to go out into the backcountry with to overcome these heuristic traps and make good decisions.

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about traveling, and riding, safely in the backcountry, check out Sam Thackeray’s Essential Avalanche Awareness Guide here. The Inertia readers get a 100 percent discount with code WELCOME10.


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.