Blending rational and intuitive decisions

It did happen to me many times. Whether I was part of an expedition in a remote corner of Greenland or just touring with my friends around Chamonix, there was at least one person in the group who had a good feeling about skiing a particular slope. When questioned about what evidence made him feel so confident about a particular line, although he did mention a couple of relevant signs, for instance the lack of recent avalanche activity, and no precipitation in the last 48 hours, he couldn’t say with certainty why exactly he felt so sure about the conditions.

We often rely on intuition, and when we try to think rationally, we find difficult to focus on the critical factors. Bridging the gap between rational thought and intuitive approach, and understanding the strengths and the weaknesses of each, is key to sound decision making. This is true not only in ski touring, but also in everyday life.

Conflict between the two common evaluative methods, evidence based and intuitive, can lead to poor decisions, or what the experts call ‘human factors’. We’re not naturally rational decision makers. Although intuition-based decisions can often be amazingly sound, when taken into the mountains, the consequences of relying on intuition alone can be serious.

Analytical thought has its drawbacks too. So what should we do? The secret is to use both approaches, together.

Perfect snow on a perfect angle in Patagonia. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Intuition is often our default method to deal with complex situations. As long as it had relevant experience, the intuitive mind seems to cope well with complicated decisions involving many factors. Sadly, ski mountaineering is not a learning friendly environment for our unconscious. We don’t receive immediate and reliable feedback for each decision we make. As a result, since we can never be completely sure about how correct past experiences are, we should never make a decision to ride/ski just because it feels right.

On the other hand, if you do feel something is not right, then you should listen to your instinct. A wrong decision will result in nothing worse than a missed run. Deciding not to ride a slope like this can be extremely hard.

Another long line in Patagonia: bottomless and stable snow like this is rare to find. This is what dreams are made of.

But it’s essential to learn when to say NO. Live to ride another day! Another amazing line around Frey hut, in Patagonia

Since we can’t entirely trust our intuition, important decisions should be made using a rational approach. The trouble here, especially when assessing snowpack stability and avalanche danger, is the number of factors involved. Collecting and processing a large amount of complex information can be daunting. To keep the mind clear and facilitate rational analysis, it’s important to scale back our thoughts to only a few essential elements. Although we know the number of variables in ski mountaineering is close to endless, we learn through experience that avalanche danger can be analysed by focusing on a handful of key factors.

In the US for instance, it’s quite popular approaching the avalanche hazard forecasting using the concept of the 5 red flags. They represent a combination of 5 weather and terrain observations which, in a very short time, give you the first and most relevant pieces of information you need to evaluate stability. The 5 red flags are:

1)        New snow in the last 24-48 hours

2)        Rapid increase in temperature

3)        Strong winds blowing and drifting snow

4)        Recent avalanche activity

5)        Collapsing and cracking of the snowpack

Regardless I’m hiking somewhere or I ride around the resort, I go through this very simple initial data collection process every day. I think it’s a brilliant exercise to keep the brain working and to build the mental image about the snowpack. Besides, it’s a very easy exercise. You can easily have access to the information in the first 3 flags before even leaving your house!

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