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Avalanche Article in New York Times #3952
Back To Discussion List Written: 2012.12.21 by: Frank W. Baumann

The on-line New York Times has published an incredibly well written interactive article on the February 19 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche near Stevens Pass, Washington that killed three people.

Here is the link:

Tunnel Creek Avalanche


#1647 - 2012.12.28 Frank W. Baumann - Heuristic Traps As They Apply To Avalanche Risk Assessments
Heuristic traps are poor decisions that human beings make because they are not based on a full assessment of relevant facts; this is a key theme in this article.

U.S. avalanche researcher Ian McCammon first described heuristic traps as they apply to avalanche assessments in a paper presented at the International Snow Science Workshop in 2002; a version of which is available at: this site

In the Tunnel Creek avalanche, one of the obvious heuristic traps was the Familiarity Trap. According to McCammon,

"The familiarity heuristic relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings. Rather than go through the trouble of figuring out what is appropriate every time, we simply behave as we have before in that setting. Most of the time, the familiarity heuristic is reliable. But when the hazard changes but the setting remains familiar, this rule of thumb can become a trap."

So several people in the group had skied the Tunnel Creek run many, many times and had never had a problem, so there was no incentive to adjust their risk assessment, even though the conditions were not good.

You can read about McCammon other heuristic traps in his paper; however, a couple of others that I have encountered while ski touring are described below:

1. The Follow the Leader Track heuristic. We tend to follow the uphill track set by the first person to have established it, even if it is not the safest or the most efficient route.

2. The Herd Mentality heuristic. If everyone else is following a certain track, then it is difficult to convince tourers to follow a new track, even if it is better and safer.

Anyway, I would appreciate it if others could add other heuristic traps that they have encountered.

#1646 - 2012.12.23 Robin Tivy - I read the whole thing
I read the whole thing yesterday, and couldn't stop reading till the end. Then I read about 30 of the 500 comments on the New York Times. Like most of the comments, I was certainly impressed at the journalism, research and incredible detail. It was really something like you read in Rolling Stone. Or Tom Wolfe books like "The right Stuff", or Bonfires of the Vanities".