Our Approach to Backcountry Safety

Below is the backcountry safety blog I wrote for Coaching Endurance.


With the dangerous start to the Wasatch winter, our touring group has spent a lot of time talking about what has happened and what we think will happen over the next several weeks. As we discussed this, I thought it would be good to document some of our processes around decision making.
With the first snow each winter, our touring group starts to get excited for winter. We get out during the early snow so that we can get a feeling for what that snow is doing. At this point of the season, we are interested in things like how much there is, where it is, any faceting that may have started, slides that are already occurring existing snow structure, any week layers that are present of are forming, and other factors. This information becomes very useful as some of the basis for our snowpack evaluations later in the season. We also use these early season days to do a lot of beacon drills since it is harder to spend time doing drills once there is great powder. By the time winter is really here, we feel comfortable with our gear and understand what the snow against the ground is doing.
Our group considers ourselves fairly risk adverse. We all enjoy skiing big, steep lines, but we are also happy meadow skipping. We will ski tour on most all days, but make conservative choices of locations based on a variety of information including
Within our group, several of us are very interested in the snow science factor. Because of this, we spend a significant amount of time digging pits and talking about the snow and snow structure, what has been happening, what we think will happen, and dozens of other topics that have tendencies of driving people less ‘snow geeky’crazy. We feel that it is because of these continual discussions that we are able to make good decisions, stay out of trouble, and maintain good group dynamics (we are usually all on the same page since we spend so much time discussing these item).
For the past 3 years, the Utah Avalanche Center has put on the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW). As part of the UAC Observer Program, we are able to attend the morning professional session as well as the afternoon public session. The UAC does a great job of putting together a full day of workshops bringing together professional experience, new research, and presentations from accident survivors. This workshop is a great early season refresher for our group and is a chance for us to learn about some of the latest snow/avalanche research that is taking place.
Each year, Ian McCammon presents information from his research (which is based on his analysis of existing data). Ian typically focuses his research on looking at creating processes that the ‘average’ backcountry user can incorporate into their backcountry decision making. Ian has presented to key concepts
  1. Analysis of 5 structural parameters in the snowpack to determine a relationship between these parameters and human triggered avalanches.
  2. Introduction of ALPTRUTh and FACETS to analyze Situational Awareness and Psychological Distractions.
Our group uses both of these methods as part of our backcountry decision making. In this discussion, we will focus on how we use ALPTRUTh and FACETS methods as part of our decision making.
ALPTRUTh – Situational Awareness
Avalanches in last 48 hours
Loading from new snow, wind, etc
Known avalanche Path
Terrain Traps
Overall avalanche Rating
Unstable snow signs (cracking, whoomphing, etc)
Thawing (warm snow on top)
Our touring group has always informally used the ALPTRUTh scale. This winter, we have decided to start formalizing our use of the scale. We each have a laminated copy of the ALPTRUTh scale below in our cars and we use it as part of our discussion as we drive to the trailhead each morning and on our ski approach. To use the ALPTRUTh scale in your evaluation (either before you start skiing or during your approach), you assign 1 point to each of the factors that exist in the area you will be skiing. Ian’s research has found that ~98% of accidents had a rating of 3 or higher and ~92% of accidents had a 4 or higher. There was also a surprisingly high percentage of accidents that had a rating of 5 of higher. Our group considers any rating of 3 or higher to be a reason for careful analysis of the decisions we will be making. The use of ALPTRUTh is just 1 of your decision criteria you should use to make your decisions.
  • The ALPTRUTh scale incorporates what are considered the standard avalanche red flags: recent avalanches, heavy snowfall, wind loading, cracking, collapsing, and rapid warming.
  • Ian’s data used for his study was from 622 recreational avalanche accidents (fatalities and not) involving 1,180 individuals in the US between 1972 and 2001.


                                              Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh analysis

FACETS – Psychological Distractions
Familiarity (with terrain, location, etc.)
Acceptance (not wanting to stand out in group, etc.)
Commitment (we came here to ski this so we have to)
Expert Halo (not speaking up when feeling other people know more)
Tracks (fresh line syndrome)
Scarcity (we may never be able to ski this spot again)
To incorporate Psychological Distractions into your decision making, use the FACETS acronym. The psychological distractions are more subjective, but should be used as you are making your decisions to help ensure your decisions are not being adversely impacted by these distractions. Most people have been in a situation where they are talking themselves into skiing a particular line. This is a perfect example of a psychological distraction. There is something telling you that you should not ski the line and you are telling yourself why it is ok. You should pay attention to make sure that you are not getting impacted by these psychological distractions while you make decisions.
Self (or group) Analysis of Decision Making
You can use the ALPTRUTh and FACETS Scale together to help determine patterns that you (or your group) may have in their decision making. To perform this analysis, look at 5 or more days (the more the better) that you skied and felt things were not perfect (bad decisions, close calls, group dynamic issues, etc.). For each day, add up your ALPTRUTh score and plot that with a dot next to each of the FACETS components that existed. Do this for each of your days and you will create a scatter plot. Most people (groups) will start to see a pattern over time. This pattern makes you aware of which psychological distractions that you are most influenced by.


                              Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh/FACETS graph


The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States

Ian McCammon
Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,
October 2–6, 2000, Big Sky, Montana, pp. 37 – 45.
Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents
Ian McCammon
Presented at the International Snow Science Workshop,
Penticton, British Columbia, Sept. 30 – Oct 4, 2002.
Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications
Ian McCammon
Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004
The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States
Ian McCammon
Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,
October 2–6, 2000, Big Sky, Montana, pp. 37 – 45.

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