Avalanche Expertise

avaSki guides who use helicopters or tracked vehicles to get skiers into the treasured deep powder must evaluate avalanche possibilities. Iain Stewart-Patterson of Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, examines avalanche expertise in a JDM context in “What Does Your Gut Say and Should You Listen? The Intuitive-Analytical Decision Making Continuum in Mechanized Ski Guiding.”  The paper was presented at the 2010 Snow Science International Workshop.

British Columbia does seem to be the obvious place to do such a study.  Even a non-skier does not forget the concrete avalanche sheds that protect the highway that come seemingly one after another in southern British Columbia. Stewart-Patterson tells us that ski guides are trained in the decision process at each step in the certification process. There are three levels of avalanche training and four levels of guide training and certification representing a total of 50-60 days. Stewart-Patterson interviewed 32 accomplished guides with an average of about 9600 hours of experience. He also had them complete questionnaires.

Stewart-Patterson finds several relevant points in the judgment and decision making literature:

  • The experience gained by expert ski guides in avalanche terrain will have been acquired in range of wicked and kind environments (Robin Hogarth on Expertise). Many decisions are made when there is the potential for catastrophic consequences and minimal, or irrelevant feedback is generated.
  • Experts are surprisingly bad at what social scientists call “calibrating” their judgments. If your judgments are well calibrated, then you have a sense of how likely it is that your judgment is correct. But experts are much like normal people:  they routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’re right. One of the challenges is the interpretation of feedback from a previous decision, particularly when the feedback was minimal. For example: since the slope did not avalanche when I skied down it, the decision to ski the slope must have been a good one. This line of thinking may be flawed due to over-reliance on the feedback inherent within the activity, rather than incorporating a reflective component.
  • Stewart-Patterson again referred to Robin Hogarth’s work in the ‘mere-exposure effect’ suggests that “unless a stimulus is perceived negatively, repeated exposure is seen as positive and increases affect through repeated experience.”
  • Good decision-making is likely anchored by the notion of mindfulness. Concern with the anticipation of the unexpected rather than a satisfaction with previous performance is perhaps what separates good decision-makers from lucky ones.

Stewart-Patterson found that the pattern of increased intuition use by the participants generally followed an increased level of expertise. The two participants with the most years of experience tended to be intuitive in their approach to decision making, while the two participants with the least number of years experience had the highest levels of analytical behaviour. However, there were exceptions observed. The participants within the mid-range of experience were scattered across the range of the intuitive analytical continuum. This might be because experience had to be used as a surrogate for expertise.

The two seasons that Stewart-Patterson examined were characterized by persistent weak layers in the snow.  This made decision making more difficult than in what might be considered a typical snow season.  The guides reported 32 near-misses. Near misses might be considered recognized errors in evaluation, and the guides tended to see them as learning experiences. When asked to reflect whether anything could be learned from a near miss event, participants provided the following responses by category.


‘It is ironic that with the extreme caution used this season with the deeper instability, it was a surface instability that ‘spoke out’”
“Always learning. Surprised with the extent of propagation and fracture depth.”
“Mid-slope stability tests require added care and attention in how and where, especially at slope breaks.”


“Continue to space out skiers in suspect terrain / stability.”
“Pick easier terrain at the end of the day and slow down the pace.”
“To never underestimate terrain and what can occur on what kind of terrain. To never let your guard down in an uncharacteristically poor stability snowpack and to always move from safe spot to safe spot and giving that safe spot more leeway.”

“Never over estimate guests skills.”
“The guests get what they get. I should never pressure myself in skiing certain slopes just to please them.”

Stewart-Patterson found that:

 “A theme that emerged from the interviews, focused on decision avoidance through the management of terrain and the avoidance of areas. Rather than feeling forced into making a decision about what is safe to ski, terrain was chosen to avoid the hazard.The decision was avoided completely by choosing alternate terrain. Participants made life easier on themselves in terms of the decision process by choosing to not use certain terrain.

Although the author did not discuss this with respect to JDM literature, it seems to be a clear example of the concept of gist in fuzzy trace theory.  The guides unlike adolescents avoided adding up the pros and cons and instead just said no if there was  inconsistency or lack of coherence. If they had alternatives, they moved on to an area that was safe.


Stewart-Patterson concludes that the analytical aspect of the decision process is well supported through the training process and ongoing research. More can be done to help guides understand and efficiently use their intuition. For intuition to work well, there are two conditions, which must be met: the environment must give consistent valid cues as to the nature of the situation, and at some point the decision maker must have had the opportunity to learn the meaning of the cues. If the cues are not present or the decision maker has not learned the implications of the cues, an intuition response, which leads to a good outcome, can only be attributed to luck. In the words of one participant, “Intuition is based on a series of events. Intuition has to be based on experience, if it is not it is luck.” Ski guides may build expertise that is broken up, as they have well developed
intuitions in some areas, but have gaps in other areas. The application of expert intuition from one situation to a novel situation may create high levels of subjective confidence that is not well founded in the underlying expertise base of skills. This may create an illusion of competence that leads to overconfidence. Stewart-Patterson notes that Klein suggests that environments, which pose direct personal hazard, perhaps like that, which a ski guide operates in, may reduce the incidence of overconfidence.

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