It was the first bluebird day of the season in Huntington, but as is typically the case on the “rock pile,” winds were hammering start zones and the skis on our packs were turning into sails. After being knocked down to our hands and knees (while climbing over a fun mixture of rock, rotting snow, and open water), Doug, Beth, and I decided that down climbing was our best option.

As we descended I saw two familiar pairs of bright red Gore-Tex pants at the bottom of the ravine. Our friends Forrest and Ryan are early birds and had already skied one of the better lines in the range. By 10am they had put in what many would consider a full value day. However, as is the case with this particular crew, they began to head back up to give a go at some lines that don’t see much traffic. Yet, only one member of the vibrant Gore-Tex duo was moving upward. The other skier remained on the floor of the ravine, watching Beth, Doug, and myself, make our way down.

As we skied the last pitch into the flats I quickly realized the remaining person was my buddy Ryan. As is his style, he enthusiastically greeted us and quickly dove into an analysis of weather and snow conditions for the day; what’s in, what’s out, and why. After our routine exchange of information concluded we looked up and watched as Forrest and Chris continued their ascent, carefully navigating ice bulges and other climbers on the route. I looked at Ryan and asked why he wasn’t joining in the fun (note: he is usually leading it). He looked at me and said that he “just wasn’t feeling it today,” and that he didn’t “feel on his game.” We both turned towards the mountain, watching our friends, and said nothing.

In my head I was thinking about how Ryan’s decision, and subsequent statements, might be the best piece of safety equipment any of us were carrying. He was able to check his ego on a day with big objectives by listening to that distant voice in his head, and consequently, was able to make the difficult choice to back off a good looking line.

In the past few years numerous articles have been written cautioning against an overreliance on heuristics and intuition. However, when properly employed, heuristics are “sensible estimation procedures’ based on sophisticated underlying processes (e.g., retrieval and matching) in response to fairly simple questions posed under conditions of uncertainty” (Gore & Sadler-Smith, 2011, p. 306). In short, more often than not heuristics and intuition help simplify and expedite the millions of choices that must be made each day. We are able to get the mail, do laundry, and cook dinner without having to give too much thought as to which is the best route to the mailbox, or weighing the options between permanent press vs. delicate cycles (always go with permanent press).

McCutcheon and Pincombe (2001) found that in certain clinical settings, intuition enhances effective decision-making and crisis aversion (as cited in Robert, Tilley, & Peterson, 2014, p. 348). Avalanche safety experts frequently see such effective decision-making employed in the immediate aftermath of an avalanche, fall, or injury, when well-trained rescuers can quickly call upon the skills needed to effectively manage the situation. Yet what is sometimes overlooked in backcountry skiing is the value of novice and non-system based intuition.

For example, during the planning and approach phases of a ski tour, novice intuition can provide fresh insights into what might be a familiar environment for more experienced backcountry skiers. With proper training, and strong group dynamics, these neophyte perspectives can serve as a check against the negative effects of the familiarity heuristic. Risk management protocols can be enhanced if group members acknowledge that intuition develops in a variety of ways and is not limited to one type of person, feeling, or degree of experience. “[I]ntuition should be conceptualized as multidimensional rather than a unitary construct comprised of a variety of general and specific mechanisms and processes, and primary types” (Gore and Sadler-Smith 2011, p. 26).

Furthermore, intuition can be dissected into domain-general mechanisms (e.g., heuristics), domain-specific processes (e.g., expert pattern recognition), primary types (e.g., social and creative intuitions), and secondary types that are “composites of primary types of intuition” (Gore & Sadler-Smith, 2011, p. 29). In avalanche terrain skiers can rely on intuition that is adaptive, non-skill based, and helps maintain self-preservation within multiple environments, or intuition that is developed over the course of repeated exposure to a certain environment, thus creating expert pattern recognition.

In his book Avalanche Essentials, Bruce Tremper (2013) discusses his conscious transition from pre-trip decision-making (guided by System 2 thinking) over to domain-specific intuition once he is actually in the mountains. “Once we start traveling on the snow everything gets easier, at least for me. Suddenly, I’m not thinking academically about the avalanche problem, but instead I can use my senses to feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, and breathe it in. This is where my lifetime spent in the snowy places pays off because 10,000 unnamed sensations and millions of long-forgotten memories marinate in my unconscious mind.” (Tremper, 2013, p. 174)

Tremper goes on to articulate that his intuition doesn’t remain unregulated; rather it is checked and balanced by mindfully employing concrete systems and linear analytical skills. This is an example of the multisystem cognitive approach being effectively employed in a complex environment.

Some argue that relying on intuition should be reserved for people like Bruce Tremper who are experts in a particular field. However, Ruth-Sahd and Hendy’s (2005) investigation into ways of knowing among novice nurses, found that neophyte caretakers “do indeed value intuitive knowing and covertly rely on intuition in their practice” (as cited in, Ruth-Sahd & Tisdell, 2007, p. 116). Within backcountry ski groups it is important that novice skiers feel that their domain-general intuitions are validated when deciding to ski or not ski a line during moderate or considerable conditions. Diverse opinions should always be present during the decision making process, and non-evidenced based dissenting opinions need to be accepted in the group discussion.

A mental models approach to risk management is an effective way to address diverse perceptions of hazards. According to Breakwell (2007), this method assumes that “people have an intuitive understanding of risks” and that if information is presented in accordance with their “initial belief systems” the accuracy of their intuitions will be enhanced (p. 96). Backcountry skiers can develop a mental models approach by employing thinking out loud techniques, encouraging each other to recall pertinent information from weather and avalanche forecasts, and presenting hypothetical problems during the climb up (Breakwell, 2007, p. 96). Most importantly, no one, regardless of their level of experience, “should ignore the signs of the mountains, or the small intuitions that tell us maybe today isn’t our day” (Krichko, 2014).

Consequently, as I work through preseason training, and begin early preparations for the upcoming ski season, I am going to honor the example Ryan set last spring and make sure that I acknowledge my own intuition and create space for other’s intuitions, while continuing to employ a systems based approach to backcountry skiing. 

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