Avalanche Training, Confidence and Risk Perception

One of our goals at Sportgevity is to expose research articles that could potentially increase sustainability in the sports we love. Every once in awhile we run across  research that may not yet have seen its full potential in the public eye. Some of the best information from some of the best researchers often remains surprisingly low profile.

Ian McCammon, PhD, is one of those researchers whose work could potentially benefit all winter backcountry travelers. That’s if people know about it and spend time really trying to understand it.

McCammon’s The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States is a prime example of an article that winter backcountry travelers should be aware of. McCammon looks at the difficult question of whether taking avalanche courses actually improves your safety. 

There is strong evidence that advanced avalanche training does indeed improve your safety in the backcountry. But there are a few twists to keep in mind, including data showing that basic avalanche training may actually increase the likelihood of one entering a more hazardous situation. A group leader with basic avalanche training may also be more likely to lead a group into a more hazardous situation. Why is this? One could speculate that someone who took a basic avalanche course might feel an illusory sense of confidence and mastery that would impact future decisions. As opposed to decision making being more conservative as one might expect from taking a basic course, the confidence derived might actually override all other factors, creating a situation in which the individual marches deeper into dangerous situations.

Then why is it that those who have participated in advanced avalanche training seem to be safer than those who have had only basic training, especially since it has been shown that individuals with advanced training generally expose themselves to hazards just as much as untrained individuals? The answer might be based in the fact that those with advanced training tend to effectively employ more “mitigation” behaviors. “Mitigation” is a word often thrown about, but probably misunderstood by many. It simply refers to behaviors that reduce risk. McCammon examines the following mitigation categories: beacons, shovels, not alone, plan, minimized exposure, and contact. It appears that with more advanced training, individuals employ each of these mitigation behaviors to a higher degree, with the exception of going out alone. Many backcountry travelers seem to enjoy their solo time!

In a nutshell:

Sportgevity supports avalanche training at all levels, but encourages individuals to progress to higher levels if possible. Basic training alone can negatively impact future decision making. However, yet to be studied is whether this effect could be potentially reduced within basic training courses that address and highlight this phenomenon. With more advanced training, individuals tend to expose themselves to just as much hazard as untrained individuals, but mitigation behaviors reduce the likelihood of casualty.

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