Mountaineering Risk Assessment

Beyond responding to emergencies, part of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team’s mission is to provide education and guidance that helps prevent the need for a search and rescue response. We hope the information shared here provides hikers and others insight and items to consider related to decision making and assessing risk. 

For the most part, we think of dangers/hazards as falling into two distinct categories – objective and subjective.
Objective hazards are those outside of our control and include things like weather, falling rocks/ice, avalanches, errors of other people, etc. It is impossible to entirely see or assess all sources of objective danger or influence them, i.e., a rock may spontaneously fall regardless of what we may do. What we can do is consider what we can do to help recognize and mitigate those objective hazards. In cases of extreme objective hazard, e.g., extreme avalanche risk, the appropriate mitigation strategy may be to stay home. 

Subjective dangers are those that have their origins in us as outdoor recreationalists. These subjective dangers are largely in our control and typically include lack of experience, ignorance (“I don’t know that I don’t know”), errors in judgment, poor fitness/exhaustion, insufficient equipment, poor planning (this could include an objective that is outside your skill set), etc. Often thought of as “human factors”, these dangers can be mitigated through actions we take in decision making, planning, training, acquiring the proper equipment, and building skills/experience. 

Many accidents are a result of a combination of both sources of danger, and while it may not be flattering, WE (people) are the problem – we do stupid things – all the time (mostly without major consequences). 

For our mountain adventures we often focus on acquiring the “right” equipment or making big plans and spend less time on thinking about how we make decisions. It is fair to say that people tend to be overly confident when evaluating their experience and this can blind us and limit our recognition of warning signs, e.g., deteriorating weather, evidence of avalanches, etc., that the mountain is sharing. We often filter observations of objective information with ego, emotion, and impulsivity. The root of these errors most often lies in the subjective part of our decision making and a failure to make full use of objective factors and information. 

The mountains are always telling us a story – the snowy slope is getting steeper and icier; chunks of ice are falling from trees or rockfall is increasing as temperatures warm; bad weather is moving in; etc. The story is dynamic, continually changing, often complicated and frequently quite nuanced. Our individual and collective (group) skills and experience are key factors in gleaning insight and taking action based on this information.

Being honest in our assessment is a key aspect in our decision making and interpreting the mountain’s story. Some things are readily apparent (“I know that I know”) such as observing deteriorating weather, but we may still overlook, or not recognize key factors. Even for experienced people, fatigue can be a big contributor to missing something important. Other dangers may be more difficult to assess (“I know that I don’t know”) because we only have partial knowledge about them and the most we can do is take preventive measures against them, e.g., wearing a helmet because we never know when rock/icefall may occur. The most challenging situation is one where we are largely ignorant (“I don’t know that I don’t know”) because we don’t know about the danger and are therefore taking risks and we don’t even know it.
For beginners, insufficient experience often can result in not recognizing key information in the mountain’s story, but even experienced mountaineers are not immune.
Another key aspect of decision making is recognizing that when selecting, assessing, and interpreting information our own biases can play a significant role and adversely impact our decisions. We often focus on information that reinforces our preconceived or preferred point of view and ignore other information. This “confirmation” bias can create a serious blind spot in our decision making and often looking FOR risk factors (i.e., what am I seeing that could be a risk factor?) vs. an absence of risk factors can often help increase risk awareness and aversion. We also need to account for other human factors (often referred to as “heuristics”) including:

F: Familiarity – We find comfort in the familiar and may feel safer with trails and routes we know, particularly if we have hiked a trail or climbed a peak dozens of times before, with nothing bad happening. This is particularly dangerous when some key material fact is different, e.g., a mountain in the winter vs. summer.

A: Acceptance – The desire to fit in is powerful and social media can often drive behavior. A desire to “fit in” can influence decision making.

C: Commitment – The desire to meet some objective (i.e., summit the mountain) can be a powerful driver even if the conditions may be questionable.

E: Expert Halo – Someone in your group may have high levels of knowledge or exude confidence that can influence an entire group. This may lead others to follow without raising concerns or questions.

T: Tracks/Scarcity – The idea that a particular resource is “scarce” (e.g., a snow-covered Mt. Baden-Powell) and must be experienced before the snow is gone can cloud judgment.

S: Social Proof – Previous tracks leading up a slope or a line of other hikers ascending some route can give you a false sense of security (i.e., they are going up, it must be safe). Just because other people are on the same path, does not mean that it is safe to follow their path.

We are aware that many of the factors noted above are at play in an environment where social media may drive some of these dynamics. Developed as part of a strategy to look at avalanche risks (Ian McCammon,
), the above mnemonic, FACETS, can help you recognize human factors that should be part of your thinking. 

The concepts shared here are far from exhaustive but are representative of a decision making and risk management mindset that, combined with on-site observations and your (your group’s) skillset, experience, and equipment, can help you make informed decisions. Thinking about how you approach gathering information and interpreting it to help mitigate risk is a key element of enjoying our mountains safely. Taking classes, reading books, and learning from more experienced people are all great options to build your skills and competence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *