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Goal Setting and Risk Perception: An Accident Analysis of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche


Every accident can be traced back to human error (Hess, 2012). This is especially true for outdoor pursuits. Even in instances where an “act of nature” occurred, the source of error can likely be traced back to a human decision (Hess, 2012). By thoroughly documenting, analyzing and learning from accidents, the dangers of future wilderness pursuits can be greatly mitigated. In 2011 alone, there were 156 mountaineering accidents recorded in the United States (Williamson, 2012). Careful analysis of each of these accidents holds the potential to save lives.

In recent decades, easy access to the winter backcountry is unprecedented. Machines, such as helicopters and snowmobiles, allow us to travel quickly across terrain, high into the mountains. These new technologies allow us to more efficiently climb and ski formerly arduous mountains with minimal effort. Advertisements tell skiers and snowboarders to seek fresh tracks outside the boundaries of the ski area. Avalanche education courses are regularly offered throughout the winter months and increasingly safety equipment gives users a false sense of security. The sport of skiing has reached a level where professionals are going “farther, faster, and bigger” (Hansen, 2012) leaving little margin for error.

All too commonly experts fall victim to their own error. On February 19th, 2012 a group of sixteen skiers and snowboarders left the boundary gates of Stevens Pass Ski Area and headed for a ski run called Tunnel Creek. That day three expert skiers were killed in an avalanche: Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph, and Johnny Brenan. Their deaths attracted extensive publicity to the incident and tragically impacted the ski community. When honoring the lives of these three men, it is important to analyze the circumstances that ultimately cost them their lives, in hope to prevent this from happening to other people. In their defense, these individuals were neither reckless nor negligent in their actions that day and the situation they ended up in happens commonly. Having personally been in similar circumstances while backcountry skiing, in which family and friends are risking their lives, I can recognize a few simple decisions can increase risk exponentially.

Goal setting has been proven to increase the amount of effort an individual will put in to reach a goal (Early, Connoly, & Ekegren, 1989). In many situations, goals help the individual strive for higher levels of achievement and self-betterment. However, there comes a point when goal setting no longer is productive—when it’s narrow a goal can limit learning (Kayes, 2006). In a dynamic environment this combination of effort and limitation can prove fatal. Similar patterns of goal setting played a role in the events leading up to the Tunnel Creek avalanche of 2012.

This report will discern the ways that goal setting contributed to the cause of the Tunnel Creek avalanche. Moreover, this report will identify the means to keep the ski and backcountry traveling community alive for years to come. My intent in this work is not to vilify or blame individuals or groups who have been involved in tragedies, rather my hope is that generations of skiers will be able to use this analysis to mitigate the dangers of goal setting.


Terrain features of Tunnel Creek

Prior to February 19th, 2012, Tunnel Creek already had a documented history of devastating avalanches. In March 1910, an avalanche came down off of nearby Windy Mountain onto a stationary train, killing 96 people—It is now considered the deadliest avalanche in United States history (Di Stefano, 2009).

Physically, Tunnel Creek is a series of meadows interspersed with large stands of timber (see Figure 1). It is located just a short hike outside of the boundaries of Stevens Pass Ski Area in Washington State, on Cowboy Mountain. With the aid of a chair lift, skiers can glide down off of Cowboy Mountain, some 5,853 feet in elevation, and down into Tunnel Creek (Branch, 2012). To skiers and snowboarders Tunnel Creek is a dream run that includes a sustained grade of 40 to 45 degree slopes, open turns, and some tree skiing along the way. The entire run comprises almost 3,000 vertical feet of elevation drop. In that amount of space, a dynamical system can change dramatically in both the terrain and the snowpack (McClung & Schaerer, 2006). Due to a multitude of variations including temperature gradient and water density the snow is constantly morphing, to form new crystals and elements of the snowpack (LaChapelle, 2001).

Containing all of the enticing elements that backcountry skiers and snowboarders desire, Tunnel Creek is nothing short of paradise. Yet, it is also a significant terrain trap. In avalanche terminology, a terrain trap refers to the impossibility of escape if there were an avalanche. In a classic sense it is a big enticing slope, too good to be true, with nowhere to go when the slope avalanches—a trap. If something slides in Tunnel Creek it is forced through the choke of a gully, the same as how water would run down a mountain stream. There are no exits for a skier if caught in a bad situation (Branch, 2012).


Avalanche awareness

Not all avalanches are reported (Branch, 2012). Unless they cause property damage or a fatality, they often happen without notice (Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 2012). Avalanche fatalities have become so common that they frequently appear in the news sources surrounding mountainous regions. Washington State sees several avalanche fatalities every year (Moore, 2013), yet these make up only a fraction of the total number of avalanche deaths in North America. In 2011-2012 season alone the U.S. suffered 34 avalanche-related fatalities (Branch, 2012). In March of 2011 a University of Washington student was caught in an avalanche near the bottom of Tunnel Creek and swept in to the trees. His partners found him partially buried in the snow, pinned against a tree. They began doing CPR within minutes, but despite their efforts he was pronounced dead on the scene (Morrison & Moore, 2011). Later, ski patrol arrived and accidently triggered a second avalanche that swept into the rescuers— fortunately no one was injured (Morrison & Moore, 2011).

Despite publicity surrounding these dangers, Tunnel Creek has seen an increase in skier traffic over the last two decades and is commonly skied today (Michelson, 2012). Tunnel Creek is easily accessible and requires little preparation to ski. Therefore the run Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph, Johnny Brennan and their group decided to ski was not a once a year type of run (Branch, 2012), but a common occurrence. They were following the lure common to backcountry skiers—to ski a fantastic powder run with a group of friends.

The avalanche triangle (see Fig 2) is a teaching tool used throughout the avalanche industry to illustrate all of the factors that cause avalanches. The backcountry traveler should continually evaluate all of these factors, which include: Snowpack, Weather, Terrain, and the Human Factor (McClung & Schaerer, 2006). For my analysis of the Tunnel Creek avalanche I will primarily focus on the Human Factor.


In Depth Snowpack and Avalanche conditions:

In late January 2012 a thin layer of ice formed in the snowpack at Stevens Pass (Jan 29th- 30th). Over the next week (February 5th-7th) a ridge of high-pressure caused clear skies and cold temperatures (Owens, Morrison, & Moore, 2012), conditions ideal for a deadly crystal formation called surface hoar (Owens, Morrison, & Moore, 2012). Surface hoar is the equivalent of dew on top of the snow, such that it stands up in shard-like crystals on the surface of the snow (see Fig 4) (LaChapelle, 2001). A few small snow flurries buried and preserved the surface hoar (see Fig 5). 

A few weeks later, on February 17th, 2012 a storm hit Stevens Pass. Arriving two days prior to the accident, this storm brought 26 inches of new snow, temperatures in the mid to low 20’s (F) and steady winds of 15 to 20 mph (Owens, Morrison, & Moore, 2012).

For many, that weekend at Stevens Pass was shaping up to be the best of the season. With all of the new snow, skiers and snowboarders were flocking to the mountains.

On the morning of Sunday February 19th, Stevens Pass reported 21 inches of snow in the past 24 hours (Branch, 2012). The unconsolidated storm snow that sat above the surface hoar layer in the snowpack was now 32 inches deep (Owens, Morrison, & Moore, 2012). With the surface hoar perfectly preserved beneath this layer of storm snow, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center set the avalanche hazard at high for areas above 5000 feet, and at considerable for all areas below that elevation (Owens, Morrison, & Moore, 2012) (see Fig 3). 

Surface hoar is notoriously known as a persistent weak layer, meaning it will cause instabilities in the snowpack until it is destroyed. The shard-like crystals stand on end until put under weight, at which point they collapse or tip over. This causes the snow above the surface hoar layer to slide off.

As a result of the storm snow, Tunnel Creek was not the only slope that avalanched that weekend (Branch, 2012). Many slopes surrounding the Tunnel Creek slope off of Cowboy Mountain slid, even without human trigger (Branch, 2012). A group of experienced skiers in the Union Creek area east of Crystal Mountain, WA were caught in an avalanche after ignoring clear warning signs; there were no fatalities (Martin & Baker, 2012). However, Tunnel Creek was not the only slope to claim a life that weekend—a snowboarder riding in the backcountry surrounding Snoqualmie Pass was killed when an avalanche carried him about 400 vertical feet over several cliffs and rock bands (Opp & Moore, 2012). This deadly weekend will forever be remembered as a sobering example of the fragility of human life in the mountains.


The Group That Went to Tunnel Creek:

The plan to ski Tunnel Creek was formed Saturday night while friends shared beers at the on-hill bar, The Foggy Goggle (Branch, 2012). There were a lot of people from all fields of the ski industry at Stevens that weekend. Thirty-year-old marketing director for Stevens Pass, Chris Rudolph, was eager to show off what Stevens had to offer. Tunnel Creek was the place that Rudolph took visitors when he wanted to show off the terrain at Stevens (Branch, 2012). The plan was in motion: ski Tunnel Creek tomorrow.

At approximately 11:00am the morning of February 19th, 2012 a group of 15 gathered around the fire pit in the Stevens Pass lodge awaiting the arrival of Chris Rudolph (Branch, 2012). Rudolph, who had been in a meeting that morning, arrived and the group headed up the lifts. At about 11:30am the group was hiking through the boundary gate and towards the top of Cowboy Mountain (Michelson, 2012). The group reached the top of Cowboy Mountain by11:45am and began skiing down soon after (Branch, 2012). Tim Wesley, Ron Pankey, and Tim Carlson skied the trees skiers’ left of Tunnel Creek. Chris Rudolph dropped into to the skiers’ right towards Tunnel Creek and the rest of group, except Erin Dessert, followed Rudolph’s lead (Branch, 2012). Rudolph stopped skiers left of the first open slope to wait for the other members of the group (Michelson, 2012). Before the entire group had arrived at Rudolph’s spot he dropped in to ski the next pitch (Branch, 2012). After Rudolph stopped in a stand of trees Elyse Saugstad, Rob Castillo, and Johnny Brenan skied down one at a time to meet him (Michelson, 2012). As Jim Jack dropped in on the slope that the four had just skied, he triggered an avalanche (Michelson, 2012). The avalanche crashed into the stand of trees that Rudolph, Brenan, Costillo, and Saugstad waited in, carrying away everyone but Castillo (Branch, 2012). At 12:03 pm, Megan Michelson called 911 to notify emergency services of the avalanche (Michelson, 2012). The remainder of the group searched the gully for their missing friends (Branch, 2012). Meanwhile Pankey and Carlson arrived at the debris pile in the valley bottom; spotting a ski pole in the debris they began searching (Branch, 2012). Saugstad was found with all but her head and hands buried beneath the snow (Michelson, 2012). Rudolph, Jack, and Brenan were found fully buried in the debris but were deceased (Branch, 2012).

Together the group easily had easily over 100 years of backcountry experience. Many of them knew the area intimately and understood its hazards. Below I introduce the group members and describe how each person was involved in the avalanche.



Chris Rudolph, age 30, was the marketing director for Stevens Pass ski area. Rudolph found a love for the outdoors growing up in Oakland and Lafayette, CA. After graduating high school in 1999 Rudolph attended the University of Puget Sound and graduated with a degree in business and marketing. Rudolph was a resident of Leavenworth, WA since 2004. Chris Rudolph was tragically killed on February 19, 2012, when he was caught in an avalanche in Tunnel Creek (Napa Valley Register, 2012).

Jim Norman Jack, 46, was the head judge of the internationally renowned Freeskiing World Tour. Former president of the International Freeskiers Association, Jim Jack was partly responsible for freeskiing’s world recognition as a professional sport. Compassionate and caring to all those that he met, Jim Jack made an impact on many lives both in and outside of the freeskiing community. Jim Norman Jack was tragically killed on February 19, 2012, when he was caught in an avalanche in Tunnel Creek (Carlsen, 2012).

Johnny Brennan, 41, was a beloved husband and father of two daughters. Johnny grew up in Redmond, WA and attended Wenatchee Valley College with Jim Jack. After college Brenan moved to Colorado to ski patrol professionally. He eventually moved back to Washington to ski patrol at Stevens Pass. Brenan became a contractor based out of Leavenworth, WA. He lived in a house he had rebuilt himself, with his wife Laurie and two daughters. Johnny Brenan was tragically killed on February 19, 2012, when he was caught in an avalanche in Tunnel Creek (Wenatchee World Staff, 2012).



Elyse Saugstad, 33, was born in Girdwood, AK, and grew up skiing the big mountains of Alaska’s Chugach range. As a professional skier, Saugstad has been quite successful, with a World Tour Champion title in 2008. Appearing in ski films and pushing the limits, Elyse Saugstad is an idol for many up and coming female big mountain skiers. Elyse was at Stevens Pass the weekend of February 18th and 19th for a promotional event. Saugstad likely survived the avalanche because of an airbag backpack system that kept her atop the avalanche when it stopped (Branch, 2012).



Rob Castillo, 40, is a former competitive skier and was a long time friend of Jim Jack and Johnny Brenan. For several years in the 90’s Castillo lived with Jim Jack in Alta, UT. Castillo was able to keep himself from being swept away by the avalanche by bracing himself on two trees (Branch, 2012).

Ron Pankey, 37, was a former competitive skier and is the competition director for the Freeskiing World Tour. Pankey new Jim Jack from the Freeskiing World Tour. Ron and Tim Carlson separated from the group skiing Tunnel Creek and went down a different route. They were the first to reach the debris from the avalanche at the valley bottom. They were also the first to begin the search for the victims (Branch, 2012).

Wenzel Peikert, 29, is from Seattle, WA and works as a ski instructor at Stevens Pass. As an employee at Stevens Pass Peikert came to know Chris Rudolph. Peikert was the first of those who skied down the gully to reach the avalanche debris. He found and extricated Elyse Saugstad before moving on to continue the search (Michelson, 2012).

John Stifter, 29, Editor of Powder Magazine was in Stevens Pass that weekend doing an article on night skiing. Stifter was amongst the group that skied the gully after the slide, in search of victims (Branch, 2012).

Dan Abrams, 34, is the cofounder of a ski outerwear company, Flylow. Abrams fiancé, Megan Michelson, was with him at Stevens Pass that weekend for a promotional event. Dan was amongst the group that skied the gully after the slide, searching for the victims (Michelson, 2012).

Megan Michelson, 30, is the freeskiing editor for She and her fiancé, Dan Abrams live in Tahoe City, CA. Megan was amongst the group that skied the gully after the slide. She was also the first to call 911 to notify emergency medical services of the avalanche (Michelson, 2012).

Tim Carlson, 37, is a competitive snowboarder and childhood friend of Ron Pankey. Carlson and Pankey skied a route separate from the group who went into Tunnel Creek. They were the first to reach the debris pile at the bottom and the first to begin searching. Carlson and Pankey uncovered the body of their good friend Jim Jack (Branch, 2012).

Joel Hammond, 37, is the regional sales representative for Salomon ski equipment. Along with Chris Rudolph, he had organized an all women’s promotional event sponsored by Salomon on Saturday February 18th. Hammond grew up in the Seattle area. He was amongst the group that skied the gully after the slide in search for victims (Branch, 2012).

Keith Carlsen, 38, a ski photographer and the former editor of Powder magazine. Keith and John Stifter were at Stevens Pass to do an article on night skiing for Powder magazine. Keith was among the group that skied the gully after the slide in search for victims (Branch, 2012).

Tim Wangen, 53, is a long time Stevens Pass local and backcountry skier. Tim lives in a cabin at nearby Wenatchee Lake, WA. He has been skiing Tunnel Creek since he was in his youth. Wangen was amongst the group that skied the gully in search for victims (Branch, 2012).

Tim Wesley, 39, is a snowboarder from Leavenworth, WA. Friends and locals know him as “Tall Tim”. Tim led the way down an alternative route that Ron Pankey and Tim Carlson followed (Branch, 2012).

Left Group

Erin Dessert, 35, is a lift operator at Stevens Pass. Dessert grew up riding at Stevens Pass, when she saw the group heading towards Tunnel Creek she second-guessed and found her own route down (Branch, 2012).


Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Fundamental Flaw of Goal Setting

Goal setting is a process that many people are taught from youth. In many ways it has positive outcomes and generally is productive. Without goal setting, pursuit of self-improvement and high achievement might be dismal. In certain circumstances however the goal setting process can become destructive. Mainly this destructive process happens in situations where the changes in the surrounding environment or group dynamics play a crucial role in making the goal ascertainable. Destructive goal pursuit is the process of falling into pursuit of a goal despite changing circumstances that suggest that the goal cannot or should not be pursued. (Kayes, 2006).

In wilderness settings, the process of destructive goal pursuit is most prominent, and often leads to tragic circumstances. This is partially due to the relationship between a person or groups identity and the narrow goal that they wish to achieve in a wilderness setting (Kayes, 2006). Goal setting has been shown to increase the amount of effort an individual or team is willing to put towards achieving a goal (Early, Connoly, & Ekegren, 1989). This increase in effort, however, also shows a decrease or limit in the teams receptivity to learning as they move towards their goal (Early, Connoly, & Ekegren, 1989). In a wilderness setting, this combination of increased effort with limited learning as new circumstances arise can prove dangerous. The amount of deaths in the winter backcountry has been on the rise over the last couple of decades  (Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 2012).

In his book Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster, Dr. Christopher Kayes outlines the steps that ultimately lead to destructive goal pursuit. This framework is a useful way to begin to decipher the role that goal setting plays in wilderness pursuit fatalities. If the individual is able to figure out that they have fallen into the process that ultimately leads to bad decision-making in a high-risk environment, then perhaps they can remove themselves from it. For an in depth explanation of this framework see appendix.

Kayes’ idea of destructive goal pursuit applies well to the individual who enters a group in pursuit of a goal. I believe that destructive goal pursuit is applicable on the individual and small group level as well. Often experts do not seek the support of a team or group leader because they are skilled enough to pursue the goal alone. Equally as common is a small group of experts (2-3) pursuing an objective together for support. We are now seeing a rise in fatalities among expert skiers (Hansen, 2012). Goal setting may not be the sole cause for this rise in these fatalities but it definitely plays a significant role. A constant push to progress drives most extreme sports, such that athletes consistently try to improve on their previous accomplishments. This pattern is certainly present in the ski industry (Hansen, 2012). At some point however the progression of skiing reached a level where it is performed on such extreme terrain that any little mistake can prove fatal (Hansen, 2012). Learning from the mistakes that others have made has been a great teaching tool for ages, and is applicable to all fields. It is important that we analyze the fatal mistakes made by expert skiers in order to create a learning outcome (Hansen, 2012).

Goal setting played some role in the events that unfolded on the day of the Tunnel Creek avalanche. Goal setting played a role in the Tunnel Creek avalanche in the same way that goal setting gives a person the motivation to do a common exercise. Skiing Tunnel Creek was not a lofty goal for these experienced backcountry skiers, but was rather a routine backcountry ski run. There may have been warning signs that should have been addressed (Michelson, 2012) but from what I can ascertain, these folks were just trying to ski with friends, not climb Everest. Destructive goal pursuit is an analysis tool that applies to many settings, including some elements of the Tunnel Creek tragedy. Labeling the Tunnel Creek avalanche as a destructive goal pursuit would not be productive in itself. Instead, identifying various elements that contributed to the eventual outcome might reveal risk indicators for destructive goal pursuit.


Human Factors of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche:

Several factors contributed to the cause of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche. Goal setting was not the sole cause of the Tunnel Creek, however, it enabled the group to fall into unconscious traps and make riskier decisions. The human factors that contributed to the cause of the Tunnel Creek avalanche are outlined below.

Social psychological processes made a contribution to the cause of the Tunnel Creek avalanche. Managing group dynamics and making the right decisions is difficult in outdoors groups (Kayes, 2006); it would have been especially difficult in the group of 16 that went to Tunnel Creek. One social psychological process is a shift towards riskier decision-making in groups—or risky shift. For example groups are more likely to make decisions that are riskier than decisions made by individuals (Brown, 2000). Megan Michelson expressed that once the plan to ski Tunnel Creek was in motion and they actually left the backcountry gate it was difficult to think of removing herself from the group (Michelson, 2012). There occurred broken conversations of how to manage the run but not a full group conversation on how to do it safely (Branch, 2012). What Megan described is known as “group-think” which describes how groups come to a consensus too quickly and group members try to hang on to group membership that constrains critical thinking (Janis, 1972).

Another element that should be considered is the effect that past experience has on decision-making (Kayes, 2006). When someone has success in pursuing an objective they are likely to use the same approach to obtaining that objective in subsequent tries. This past experience guides that person when approaching similar objectives in the future, even if different circumstances are present (McCammon, 2004). Tunnel Creek was a run that many in the group had done dozens if not hundreds of times (Michelson, 2012). Likely, their past experience on the run allowed them to feel comfortable enough with it to let their guard down. As a part of this phenomenon, known as the expert halo, we see experts that think their expertise enables them to manage dangerous conditions better than a novice (McCammon, 2004). False confidence development and the expert halo fall into a category known in the avalanche industry as heuristic traps (McCammon, 2004). Many experts use heuristics to problem solve and critically evaluate information to make decisions. Contrary to what might seem obvious, experts or at least aware and trained individuals are just as likely to put themselves in dangerous situations in the backcountry as people who are completely ignorant (McCammon, 2004). Interestingly enough, larger group sizes were particularly more susceptible to falling victim to heuristic traps than groups of one or two (McCammon, 2004).


Causal Factors of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche:

The cause of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche can be linked to high avalanche hazard, goal setting, group dynamics, and terrain features. Rather than try to label the cause of the Tunnel Creek avalanche as one reason, it is more practical to identify as many of the causes as possible. The causal factors have been identified previously, but the preceding list outlines those factors again. A) It was apparent that the avalanche hazard was high that day. The surface hoar crystals were preserved in the snowpack and buried by a large amount of new storm snow. This was a recipe for avalanche activity. B) The goal and plan to ski Tunnel Creek brought the group together and set the action in motion. C) The large group created a difficult dynamic that was hard to manage even for these experts. With the large group came other complications like heuristic traps that led the experts into a bad situation. D) Unfortunately due to the size of the avalanche and the terrain feature, the efficient progress of the rescue team made little difference in the final outcome. Taking into account all of these potential causes allows for a more complete understanding of what happened at Tunnel Creek.


Implications in the Ski World

Skiing is a sport than can be enjoyed by almost any age group. The technology is better and perhaps more affordable than ever. Arguably the sport has become more appealing to the youth as skiing gains recognition and prowess in the professional arena. In 2014, the world will see the debut of Olympic half-pipe and slopestyle skiing. Making a living as a professional skier is also more realistic and attainable than ever before. Soon professional freeskiers will be recognizable as celebrities, just the same as NBA and NFL players. There is reason behind this worldwide recognition of the sport of freeskiing. The sport has progressed over the last several decades from an uncalculated “go for it” mentality to a technical and precise sport. At this point when someone is pushing the level of the sport of skiing they are seriously risking their life (Hansen, 2012). This is unlike when an NFL player pushes the level of their sport by scoring the most touchdowns per game. The sport of freeskiing has gone from one-upmanship among a small community to an extreme sport with fatal consequences.

The importance of bringing awareness and education regarding the dangers of the sport of freeskiing to our youth is paramount. Programs need to be implemented that apply to all aspects of the sport from park and half-pipe to big mountain and backcountry. Youth need to be aware of the fact that the sport they are entering can and will seriously impact their lives. To implement a youth mountain risk awareness program we might solicit local professional athletes to bring awareness about their respective sports. For instance, in Squamish and Whistler, BC we might have professional skiers and snowboarders come to the local middle and high schools to raise awareness. A similar program to spread avalanche awareness to youth has been started in the Lake Tahoe area by an organization called Sportgevity (Gaffney, 2013). It may also be helpful to hire local filmmakers to make short informational videos that would be available to the youth online. Hopefully these types of programs could become available to youth in every mountain community.

The lives of people like Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph, Johnny Brennan and so many others like them should not merely be statistics but concrete lessons that can teach others about the dangers of the sport that these men loved so much. With implementation of such programs may we save lives and keep our sport and those who choose to participate in it alive for many generations to come.



Step One: Motivation

Motivation to achieve goals is always the first step in the goal setting process. The individual finds a goal that they want to achieve and they formulate a plan to achieve it.

Step Two: Simplification

A narrowly defined goal is the first sign of trouble in a destructive goal pursuit. Kayes states that a narrowly defined goal is an effort to simplify a complex process, for example climbing a mountain. The goal of reaching the summit is narrowly defined and simplifies the complexities of the situation as the individual strives for attaining the summit.

Step Three: Team Formation

The individual seeks team membership as a means to achieve their goal. For example, the individual knows that reaching the summit cannot be done alone or with their skill set, so they seek membership on a team with the intentions of using the team to support them in getting to the top.

Step 4: Dependence

Dependence on the team and more significantly dependence on the team leader is the next step. At this point the individual seeking the goal cannot function independently.

Step 5: Decreased Autonomy

Decrease in the exercise of autonomy within the group is the next step; here group members fail to deal with the complexities of the situation as more problems arise.

Step 6: Increased Complexity

Next, increase in complexity of the situation causes the leaders to lose control of the situation and the group loses solidarity.

Step 7: Learning Breakdown

Finally, the narrowly defined goal breaks down the learning in the group; they are not receptive to new information and are unable to change their plans because of it.




I would like to thank my family, Dr. Steve Quane, Dr. Christopher Kayes, Mai Yasue, John Branch, Megan Michelson, Elyse Saugstad, Dr. Robb Gaffney, Iris Neary, Jon Farmer, Alexander Turner, Soraya Jung, and Lauren Head. 


Works Cited: 

Branch, J. (2012, December 26). Snow fall: The avalanche at tunnel creek. Retrieved from

Brown, R. (2000). Group Processes (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. 

Kayes, D. C. (2006). Destructive goal pursuit: The mount everest disaster. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

La Chapelle, E. (2001). Secrets of the snow: Visual clues to avalanche and ski conditions. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

McClung, D., & Schaerer, P. (2006). Books. The avalanche handbook. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books.

Michelson, M. (2012, November 14). Tunnel vision. Retrieved from

Janis, I.L. (1972). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes, 2nd ed., Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Hansen, M. (2012). “Natures Feedback: Why are so many of the best skiers dying?” Powder Magazine, 41(4): 111-30.

Hess, R. (2012). Know the ropes: Rappelling. In J. E. Williamson (Ed.), Aamerican mountaineering: 2012 Accidents in north american mountaineering (2nd ed., Vol. 10). Golden, CO: The American Alpine Club.

Williamson, J. E. (2012)., Accidents in North American Mountaineering. 2nd ed., Golden, CO:  The American Alpine Club

Jamieson, B., Haegeli, P., & Gauthier, D. (2010).Avalanche accidents in canada: 1996-2007. (Vol. 5). Revelstoke, BC: Canadian Avalanche Association.

Gaffney, R. (2013). Sportgevity. Retrieved from

Napa Valley Register. (2012, February 23). Christopher rudolph. Retrieved from

Carlsen, K. (2012, April 02). Owens, J., Morrison, P., & Moore, M. (2012). Jim Norman Jack: 1965-2012. Retrieved from

The Wenatchee World Staff. (2012, February 24). Johnny patrick brenan. Retrieved from

Early, P.C, Connolly, T., and Ekegren, G. (1989). Goals, strategy development, and task performance: Some limits on the efficacy of goal-setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(1), 24-33.

Diana L. Di Stefano,"Disasters,RailwayWorkersa,nd theLaw inAvalancheCountry1,880- 1910,"EnvironmentHalistory14 (July2009):476-501.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center. (2012) Avalanche accident statistics. Retrieved from

Opp, A., & Moore, M. (2012). Alpental ski area backcountry: Wac bluffs accident. Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

Owens, J., Morrison, P., And Moore, M. (2012). Tunnel Creek Avalanche Incident. Northwest Weather and Avalanche Information Center.

Morrison, P., Moore, M., & , (2011). Tunnel creek avalanche accident. Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

Martin, Z., Baker, P., & , (2012). Union creek avalanche accident. Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

McCammon, I. (2004). Heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents: Evidence and implications. Avalanche News, 68.

Moore, M. (2013). Northwest avalanche accident summaries: 1983-2013. Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.



I 'm glad I stumbled upon this web site - lots of good stuff here. well done!

This particular article is an interesting examination of an infamous incident and I'd like to thank the author for a good breakdown of the decision factors which lead them in there. At the risk of being a grump, I'd like to raise a point of contention that has to do with an error of omission. There is something I have noticed specifically with examinations of this accident but also many others.

Full disclosure: I have no direct experience with this event on any level so I aknowledge that I may be missing something in the assumptions I am about to suggest. If I'm in error please feel free to correct me.

Anyway, as I said I have noticed a rather loose and free application of the term "expert". The NY Times article also fell prey to this. I won't rehash the detail but I propose that based on the facts presented most if not all of those involved could at best be described as "experienced". This may seem a minor point but I say otherwise. The widespread implied message in many assorted " accident confessionals"or studies is that even though all reasonable efforts were made to mitigate hazard, well darn it all shit happens. While there is an element of truth to this, I suspect this is often nothing but a get out of jail card. Hell I've done it myself and I think I can recognize it here. If you are an expert, what are you doing in high consequence terrain with a dozen disorganized people at high hazard?

If there is a focus for my criticism I'd like to point a finger at the industry - the pro skier confessional videos in particular. If those "experts" demonstrate amatuer behavior, should the rest of us emulate it? I hold the corporate sponsors responsible for the content of this messaging. There are a few things that are glaringly obvious with many videos that should be stated emphatically in order to be truthful:

1) Many of the actions they take are a demonstration of poor risk management - thus they are far from expert.

2) If they are expert, they must explain their decisions well or it follows logically (and should be stated) that their risk tolerance is very high!

3) If critique is full and truthful, the above would be stated emphatically. This is very important as a service to their audience which is often not expert. We don't want to discourage honest introspection however if it is truly honest, it may have to be a little more brutal than we might find comfortable. I have my own suspicions that such a notion will be resisted from the echelons of industry and the reasons will be less than admirable, but to be blunt we don't care about your bruised egos and we don't care about your market share. If you are going to open up about how an accident happened, please don't conveniently skip anything.

.I also read Bruce Trempers article on judging confessionals/ self critiques too harshly and I agree. These confessionals are a very valuable gift to us and I applaud the courage it takes to do it. I just think if you ever feel tempted to say " despite all the right moves..." think again before putting it in ink. Another way to look at it is if ever you are tempted to consider yourself a true expert, would you be comfortable in that capacity as an expert witness in a jury trial?

I also really like his framework for decision making - simple, useful and honest. I'd suggest one more simple one:

The public avy bulletin is typically our best observations and assessment - by a country mile. If through the course of the day you find yourself straying from the recomended travel restrictions, you better have some really good concrete reasons why. This applies equally to an expert or non expert. Like Bruce's rules, it plays no favorites.

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