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SnowFlurry 8 2017/18 | Linear thinking leads to illusory solutions

Snow & avalanche awareness in the cul-de-sac

by Lukas Ruetz 04/20/2018
When it comes to snow, there are and have been various trends. All of them have brought progress and have given way to new trends. Meanwhile, one of them has been stuck in its own gears for years. A plea to finally take a common path out of this one.

I travel from summery Innsbruck to Zermatt in late winter. There's supposed to be endless snow there this season. Long, lonely drives are great. At least that's what I think. They are usually characterized by an extensive journey of thought. This makes me look forward to the journey as much as the upcoming ski tours and I leave Innsbruck heading west. On the Arlberg, I am already lost in the north face of the Lyskamm, when I hear an interview on the radio about a fatal avalanche accident. The following comes out of the loudspeaker: "The people involved were on a slope steeper than 35° at avalanche warning level 3, an absolute no-go." It snaps me out of my even steeper firn dreams and transports me to another world.

Every time its current, every current its progress

As in science and art, there are and have been different eras and currents in relation to snow and how people deal with it - after all, this is also science and/or art, depending on your point of view. Some of these trends exist side by side, others merge into one another. Each one has brought about improvements - in the case of snow, most notably the emergence of probability-based decision-making strategies in the 1990s. For the past 20 years, however, this trend seems to have stalled: The same system has been reinventing itself over and over again since then - without any fundamental changes, aiming past the people themselves and no longer improving the quality of decision-making in the terrain. But let's take a closer look at the history of avalanche prevention:

The antiquity of snow & avalanche science | First half of the 20th century

When ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky first described sublimation in relation to the snowpack in 1916, he certainly had no idea that he was laying the foundations for the application of a science that today continues to influence millions of snow-loving skiers. At the latest when Welzenbach and Paulcke took a closer look at floating snow and its connections for activity in the winter mountains around 1930, knowledge about the constructive transformation, i.e. the formation of weak layers, became acceptable and could be put into practice in the terrain for the first time. There was a fundamental understanding of what was happening in the snow and what this knowledge could be used for.

The Middle Ages | The time before Munter

Until the 1990s, little changed in the practical implementation of this knowledge, although the physical understanding of snow and avalanches improved continuously. The system was sluggish, not very innovative and mainly clung to the representative snow profile for individual slope assessment. Not a pleasant development, as was later discovered. But thankfully, the Middle Ages were eventually replaced.

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The Romanticism | Revolution by Munter & the years that followed

Similarly to the French Revolution, the entire system in Europe changed exactly 200 years later, but not in terms of political conditions, but in terms of snow and avalanche science. Longing is the central part of Romanticism, the dominant artistic epoch during the French Revolution. The longing for simple solutions in a complex world is part of the romanticism of snow and avalanche science - based on the ingenious work of Werner Munter in the late 1980s and 90s. Using the simplest rules of thumb and simple calculations to significantly reduce your own risk, without a lot of complex analysis: Groundbreaking and spot on. For a long time, Munter had to fight for his findings, but they soon seemed to have caught on, at least if you leaf through the specialist literature. From 3x3 to Stop or Go, w3, Avaluator, SOCIAL, beer mat, SMART, professional reduction method, LIMITS, snowcard, graphical reduction method, GKMR, factor check, avalanche mantra, the whole of Europe is now talking only about strange abbreviations.

We now know: The revolution was definitely a revolution, a long overdue one at that. However, using it in day-to-day practice outside of decision-making strategies was and remains an illusion, a pipe dream. Since the advent of probabilistic (i.e. "based on probabilities") decision-making strategies, human psychology has thwarted this wishful thinking. Because the best method is useless if it is not widely applied in the terrain.

As Jan Mersch and Pauli Trenkwalder described it in Bergundsteigen back in 2007: "If you look at the knowledge of common strategies and their application on tour, it is noticeable that strategic avalanche science is only known to a limited extent and is only partially applied. Even when planning tours, the 3x3 method is only used by 13%. Tour planning with the reduction method, Stop or Go and SnowCard is rarely used [...] The suspicion arises that ski tourers are largely not interested in dealing more intensively with the risk of being buried by an avalanche. Most of the ski tourers surveyed, on the other hand, rely on "existing tracks" and the unclear concept of intuition for their avalanche assessment."

In 2017, exactly 10 years later, the Bergundsteigen again states: "Probabilistic - i.e. probability-based - methods are a core component of current concepts and recommendations for estimating avalanche risk. Their applicability has improved over the years. Nevertheless, they are still rarely used. [...] To put it bluntly, the SnowCard looks good in training courses and on leaflets. In practice, however, it (or the other methods such as "Stop or Go" or the graphical reduction method - GRM) is forgotten by many users and not applied."

And even the very latest studies on the application rate of decision strategies always produce the same results: "Still, only a few stated that they actually use the proposed DSSs [decision support systems, decision strategies, note]; most use their proposed DSSs [decision support systems, decision strategies, note].]; most use their own rules." (Heberling, 2018)

We know that at least 80% of avalanche deaths could be avoided with the consistent application of strategic methods. Would be. Because: everyone knows strategic methods, so hardly anyone uses them consistently, even though (almost) everyone is aware of how well they work. In psychology, this is known as the "intention - behavior gap".

This is why we are now stuck in the final phase of a now outdated revolution. The cramped clinging to decision-making strategies. The directorate of this phase consists of a handful of ingenious minds from the tow of Munters. They dominate the training world and have been clinging to the methodology for years, making endless efforts. In practice out there, however, almost nothing changes. We are at a dead end and have been going round in circles for 20 years. The latest highlight of this deadlocked spiral was the panel discussion "Assessing local avalanche danger - In search of the best way to make decisions" at the 2017 Alpine Trade Fair in Innsbruck. Each of the renowned representatives on stage stuck to their individual approach to assessing avalanche danger with or without a predetermined strategy. The discussion turned personal and in the end the audience knew as much as before. This is exactly what Martin Schwiersch predicted in 2008, also in Bergundsteigen: "In psychology, the trench warfare [between different currents, note]was bitter, personal and irreconcilable, in avalanche science it could be similar."

However, let's stick to the point. In school, the equivalent of our current situation would be a "monologuing teacher": He stands at the front and teaches, the students listen - little to nothing sticks. A discrepancy has developed between teaching and daily practice in the field - a huge one, in fact.

Every time its current, every current its progress, every current its end

A few years ago, during another discussion at the Alpinmesse, the snow pusher couldn't believe his own ears when he heard from the audience: "Now we have to pay for what Munter has done". Every current has its individual positive and negative effects. In terms of snow and avalanches, Werner Munter was the biggest revolutionary. He was first ridiculed, then fought against and is admired today. What Munter and his followers gave us all was overwhelming and will remain true for all eternity. The goal at the time, namely to halve the number of avalanche deaths, has even been exceeded in relation to the increase in the number of people traveling in open terrain!

However, this was only achieved indirectly through the strategic methods and the general development that the system underwent as a result of this impetus. (Incidentally, a small negative effect was the favored, further fixation of users solely on the danger level). Now, however, there is a complete standstill. We need to look to the future together again and pull together in a way that focuses on the people themselves.

A misjudged renaissance of analytics | The demonstrative snow profile as part of the "Tyrolean school"

Knowledge about avalanches has improved considerably since the 1990s. From an avalanche warning perspective, we are able to narrow down old snow problems relatively well, i.e. assign them to certain altitudes and exposures, and also assign other avalanche problems much better in terms of time and location than was the case twenty years ago. We can better estimate the expected avalanche sizes. And we know: Most people die because of the old snow problem. You can't recognize the problem of old snow in the terrain and therefore can't independently assess the danger, adjust your route choice or anything similar based on your senses. Moreover, weak layers that have been transformed over time depend on the situation and can occur exactly where we do not expect them out of habit and where rules of thumb lead us to our deaths. A danger is grossly underestimated if it lies outside our understanding of normality. In this country, the physical principles of old snow lie outside our understanding of normality.

There is now a new development to remedy this: When the ECT (Extended Column Test, currently the most frequently carried out snow cover test worldwide) was developed by Birkeland and Simenhois in 2006, the PST (Propagation Saw Test, great test for demonstrating fracture propagation) presented by Gauthier in 2007 and finally the avalanche problems (fresh snow, drifting snow, old snow, wet snow) arrived in 2008, nobody could have guessed that a new era was dawning. Each and every one of us can learn to understand the physical background of an avalanche and thus deal better with all avalanche problems. With tests that are easy to use and, above all, quick to carry out, we can now develop a deep understanding of the snowpack that was difficult to achieve just a few years ago. Our understanding of normality can be easily reconciled with the physics of snow.

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In German-speaking countries, this has given rise to a movement that we can henceforth refer to as the Tyrolean School: Equivalent to the development that has already taken place in America, a consistent training system becomes the central content here. A hasty snow profile, the hasty pit, with a rough look at the snowpack becomes a standard measure - like an occasional avalanche transceiver exercise. Without a detailed layer survey, but above all with a stability test that can show the spread of fractures. Because: We can emphasize many things a hundred thousand times with regard to avalanches - the user only becomes aware of this when he himself feels what is happening under his feet. People need practice for everything in life; theory alone is of little or no use. However, practising with avalanches is life-threatening and therefore impractical.

To produce results such as ECTP2, ECTP5, ECTP7 vs. ECTN25, ECTN30, ECT31 yourself, to see them with your own eyes - this is exactly what we can practise with avalanches. The triggering of "tiny avalanches", or even the non-generation of "avalanches" with an ECT, replaces our empirical knowledge with regard to the actual triggering of an avalanche. At the same time, with each of these demonstrative snow profiles, we can understand the avalanche bulletin, the avalanche situation report or the avalanche forecast a little better and learn to correctly implement the description of the situation conveyed therein for our tour planning. This is the most important point at the moment: prevention of avalanche accidents through self-taught learning and the resulting understanding. And not with the result of the individual profile or stability tests! But rather through experience, with which scraps of knowledge are consolidated and can therefore be applied in practice. Autodidactic learning is currently the most important step forward in continuing to reduce the number of fatalities - the goal that unites us all, regardless of which current we come from.

The snow profile has thus developed over the last 30 years from representative, to demonized and forgotten and now to demonstrative. "Demonstrative" means "to show, to understand, to be able to comprehend". This makes it one of the most important tools for learning how to deal with snow. Although the demonstrative snow profile is a renaissance of the snow profile, it has nothing to do with the representative snow profile of the past, which was used to assess individual slopes - nothing at all.

Divergent thinking

In order to further develop the entire system, we need a different solution. The latest current described above is only part of it. We need to take the findings from the current impasse with us, take a few steps back, distance ourselves and use the knowledge and experience we have gathered to try out the roads to the left and right of it. We never know in advance where these will lead. However, they go at least a little further than the lane we are currently stuck in.

The Realism | A New Path

In the meantime, I have arrived in Valais on my journey from Innsbruck to Zermatt. The barren valley floor is slowly giving way to the first Swiss stone pines and the white glaciers of the Monte Rosa massif are smiling in the distance. I can't really get out of my lost reverie...

I think that the only true royal road to decision-making won't exist until we develop a tool that doesn't give us an assessment but a clear "Yes, you will trigger an avalanche on this slope". For me, on the other hand, there is a momentary, also time-limited royal road for our entire system, but not for decision-making on the go.

This aims to develop an understanding of snow and avalanches. And to inform snow enthusiasts as well as possible and get them excited about applied avalanche science. So that as many people as possible are at least fundamentally familiar with complex interrelationships and can make use of them. This enthusiasm needs to be sparked and maintained with basic didactic principles.

The Tyrolean School described above, which is also home to the snow sturgeon, is only a small part of this system. But we also include the strategic methods, completely for beginners and only with regard to the resulting standard measures for advanced and professionals.

The central question is therefore not "Analytical, probabilistic, intuitive?" As before, the decision will continue to be made by each user from all three: with a focus on the respective personality. And mostly from the unconscious: the automatic avoidance of steepness at higher risk is the best example of the unconscious application of probabilistics. The proportion of conscious additional considerations varies from individual to individual. But everything that has been learned and understood, anchored and classified, is ultimately used by both the conscious and the unconscious!

To do this, we must finally move away from the linear way of thinking, namely the heroization of strategies, and create a unified system from the jungle of decision-making strategies. Because we know: This jungle is mainly entered in theory, but not out there where the decisions are required. By "unified system", I don't mean a common or new method, but an expandable, clearly structured training system that is built around people - not the other way around, as has been the case up to now.

In the meantime, I've arrived in Zermatt and I'm waking up from my world of avalanche currents. I'm going to stay in this area for a while and go ski touring. At some point, I'll leave the Mattertal via the Haute Route, take both positive and negative experiences with me and will continue to work with them in the next valley - there's still a long way to go and so much will come to light in a new era that we would never have dared to dream of.

Whether or not you're traveling steeper than 35° at a warning level 3

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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