+9 11 votes

Avalanche Checklist - Good Idea or No?

by Andy Dappen


Gordon Vickery had an interesting idea … and he was trying to pawn off the work of developing it. He said that in light of our three Leavenworth residents who died in the Stevens Pass avalanche accident last February and in light of the human dynamics that had many experienced skiers disregarding obvious warning signs during that incident, he was wondering whether more backcountry skiers should add a new element to their skiing protocol. “I keep thinking a well-conceived checklist could have prevented this and a lot of other fatal avalanche accidents from happening?”

“What if groups routinely used a checklist on a pocket-sized card to discuss a loud whether they should ski (or climb) a potentially hazardous slope?” Gordon asked.  “Could this bring together all the physical evidence about why you should or should not ski something -- and could it lead groups into conversations that would eliminate a lot of the group dynamics that lead to dangerous decisions?”

 Gordon thought a well-conceived checklist, would help groups weigh and discuss the dangers reported in the avalanche forecast, gathered from snow telemetry information, mentioned in other online condition reports, and anticipated from the day’s weather forecast. It would add to the discussion information the group had observed in the field: whumping snow, slabs shearing at the corners of switchbacks, slides observed elsewhere, terrain traps confronting the group, snow changes caused by warming, and the results of compression tests.

Equally important the checklist would list the expert’s recommendations of terrain that matched (or did not match) the hazards of the day. By listing terrain that complemented (or did not complement) the snow and weather of the day, everyone in a group would realize a leader who stuck to these protocols wasn’t copping out but keeping the group safe. Likewise a good checklist would give those whose voices aren’t normally heard (followers) an opportunity to voice concerns and alter their position rather than to follow others silently and blindly.

The idea was compelling. In the military, medicine, and aviation, the use of checklists before engaging in risky procedures is a well-documented process for reducing accidents and fatalities.  The use checklists for many surgical procedures have reduced the rates of fatalities, silly mistakes, and lawsuits. Likewise, among pilots, the routine use of checklists has greatly reduced accidents fueled by fatigue, forgetfulness, faulty assumptions, and poor communication between pilots and co-pilots.

Many predictable variables (lack of observation, improper assumptions, desire, ego, discomfort in questioning others, loss of face in backing down) are present in most avalanche scenarios and a checklist forcing groups to observe better, discuss aloud what is known, and judge the intended actions against what avalanche experts recommend given what is known would allow for better decisions and help neutralize the funky human dynamics that often short-circuit good decisions.

“Put this idea up on the “WenatcheeOutdoors Forum, and see what others think,” I suggested. “Is there an ‘aha’ realization among skiers that this could eliminate the chain of mistakes that usually accompany avalanche accidents. Others who read post might also have ideas on what information needs to be on such a checklist and how to keep the list short but effective for field use.”

This is about where Gordon started to pawn-off the work affiliated with this notion. “Ahhh, yeah… I’ll do that,” he said weakly. “Or maybe you might want to work with others and develop a list like this?” he asked hopefully.

We went back and forth with me encouraging him to post the idea and gather input, and with Gordon eventually saying, very unconvincingly, that he’d get something up on the forum. Several weeks have gone by and while, ahem, I see Gordon out skiing most every time I head up to Mission Ridge, I see none of his words on paper.

So Gordon wins and I’m posting his idea on the WenatcheeOutdoors website and on the forum to see what others think. Is this a good idea that could enhance observations, group discussions, and lead to objective decisions? Or is it impractical -- are the risk tolerances of different people too divergent to make a checklist useful?

If you think this is an interesting idea – how would you structure the information to make a checklist quick-and- easy to use in the field, yet effective?  Finally, if you think this is a good idea, would be willing to help WenatcheeOutdoors create, test drive, tweak, and/or improve a checklist?


Give us your ideas: If you want to weigh-in below with a Comment. Or go to this post at the WenatcheeOutdoorsForum and leave a 'Reply' there.