Project Zero is a collaborative effort striving to change perceptions of avalanche risk and shift the goal toward zero deaths.
By Shaun Nauman
The experience of backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the alpine is bliss beyond words. Snow carpets the alpine landscape and shimmers like diamonds when the first light hits. On the approach through snow covered spruce trees, humanity is left behind. It has a peaceful resonance, and tranquility that no words or pictures can truly capture. As you break tree line you are beckoned by a landscape bigger than the mind can comprehend. Rocky crags paint the landscape in an ocean of winter bliss as you work your way to the summit. Within the blink of an eye all that can change. A large persistent slab can shatter across the slope like a windowpane of glass, and the tranquility is suddenly changed in to in to a surreal nightmare.
In the past few years we have lost many legends, and, on a personal level, a few friends. The fact is, if you spend enough time in the backcountry you are eventually going to know someone that has died in an avalanche. If you don’t already, you will. At some point it becomes personal, for all of us. The sobering fact is that the more we read through avalanche incident reports, we see a recurring theme – same avalanche – different face. It has forced many of us to step back and evaluate why this is often happening to people with avalanche training.
The power of avalanche education is the industry-based framework that places everyone on the same page, with the same terminology and understanding. This process forms stronger communication of group dynamics while evaluating avalanche hazards, snow stability and terrain choices. However, it seems that even when armed with these skills we do not see a reduction in accidents and fatalities.
As educators, instructors and industry leaders we realized a need to look beyond teaching just the techniques of avalanche safety. Is the message telling people to get a beacon, shovel, probe and take an avalanche course fragmented? Is there a deeper layer that needs to be addressed? Avalanche safety and rescue techniques are a critical component, but not the entire picture. There is mounting evidence that a pattern of human factors is emerging. People tend to get pulled in to presumptuous and general rule-of-thumb behaviors, often referred to as heuristic traps. The common denominator lies not in the training but in the patterns of evaluating avalanche hazards.
How do we address the bigger picture? Project Zero was launched as a collaborative effort with the mission to shift the perception of avalanche risk and to move the goal toward zero deaths. It is a ground-breaking unity of avalanche forecast centers, educators, equipment manufacturers and industry associations across North America.
When I first learned of Project Zero, the message struck me on a personal level. I sought a way to become a part of the initiative and was invited to take a role as a Project Zero Ambassador. I gave a presentation at the 2015 Silverton Splitfest in Silverton, Colorado under the current campaign, The Backcountry Starts Here. At the core of the campaign are the “Backcountry Basics” one should follow before entering backcountry terrain. These are five call-to-action pieces that serve to reinforce the baseline of a positive backcountry experience.
The first three call-to-action pieces are relatively self explanatory. (1) Get the Gear: Includes a beacon, shovel, and probe. (2) Get the Training: By taking an avalanche course, it puts you on the same sheet of music, same terminology and same understanding as others in your group. (3) Get the Forecast: Check weather and avalanche forecasts before deciding on an objective.
The next two call-to-action pieces are more complex and are the key components I elaborate on to streamline the complexity of “Get the Picture,” which is the importance of a routine. Backcountry users need to have a rigid, rule-based routine much like any other high-stakes industry. The analogy, as Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center puts it, “is much like that of a commercial aviation pilot, performing pre-flight checklists.” The use of a method-based routine prevents us from making assumptions and rule of thumb shortcuts.
To fully grasp this concept, people need to put their mind in an analytical mode that seeks and filters facts and look for clues. The clues are everywhere, and are often referred to as nature’s billboards. Systems that are employed for environmental traps such as ALPTRUTH, originally developed by avalanche researcher Ian McCammon, is an acronym used to stay on course and give you mental clues during pre-planning and while you are out. From a practical perspective, when ALPTRUTH is employed as an obvious clues system, it can help us gauge the bigger picture. As McCammon put it, “If I run through this checklist and notice one or two clues it gives me a gauge. If I start to see three or more of the ALPTRUTH clues, I know I am getting pretty far from shore and it’s time to reassess my goals.”
The amount of information, data and resources available today can be overwhelming. In order to make good decisions we need to be able to sort and prioritize information and filter these facts. The mountains are not static. A complex understanding of terrain and snow science is essential to make fluid decisions. When making key decisions in avalanche terrain I always ask myself how I could be wrong. I emphasize to others to always be willing to reevaluate and change their plan based on new information. Employing a method such as ALPTRUTH can help keep you on track identifying environmental traps.
The final call to action – Get out of Harm’s Way: Daily, we make hundreds of decisions both large and small and we must make them efficiently. We are largely unaware of making them, even when they are critical decisions. Our decision-making is heavily affected by our biases and reliance on success of habits. Intuitive decisions are made on almost an unconscious level whereas analytical thinking is systematic. These intuitive decisions, or rules of thumb become “heuristic traps” when they are applied unconsciously and can be deadly when we use them in avalanche terrain unconsciously. McCammon also developed an acronym for basing decisions on familiar but inappropriate cues known as FACETS. Like facets in the snowpack, we want to avoid them. Heuristic traps account for the lion’s share of avalanche incidents. Basing our decisions on familiar, but inappropriate clues.
Employing system acronyms such as APLTRUTH for environmental factors and FACETS for human factors are a few tools for developing a routine and helping us stay on track. Consistent use of such routines and changing the mindset of backcountry recreationalists may help evolve the patterns of avalanche accidents and, ultimately, that is the goal of Project Zero. These are practical tools that can help novices recognize the conditions and events that have taken lives in the past and start them on an advanced routine in the backcountry.
This post comes from Shaun Nauman, a blogger (snowboardmountaineer.com) and Boulder, CO resident. When Shaun isn’t studying snow hydrology and forecasting avalanches, the AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Instructor is finding new adventures in the backcountry on his splitboard. Watch for more adventures, gear reviews and fun reading from Shaun and other Ambassadors of Tahoe Mountain Sports.