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Avalanche educators grapple with social media impact

Young people lack skills crucial to survival
Officials at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center worry that social media is pushing people, especially young males, to post their exploits online in a game of one-upmanship that can have serious real-life consequences.

BRECKENRIDGE (AP) – Emery Rheam’s video showed teenagers spinning backflips into deep powder blanketing an avalanche starting zone on Teton Pass in Wyoming.

The thousand people watching in the Breckenridge conference center – snow scientists and guides gathered for the annual International Snow Science Workshop – winced, shook their heads and grumbled.

Those kids, Rheam said, raced down the slope and posted their exploits online, feeding a game of one-upmanship that puts them in competition not just with each other but the entire internet. It’s a scenario that plays out on social feeds but has real-life consequences that worry avalanche forecasters and educators.

It’s too easy for an older generation to pooh-pooh social media. That’s especially common among graying avalanche forecasters and educators who often sit in judgment of what they see in movies and on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

“Saying these kids are just a bunch of idiots, that is the wrong approach,” said Scott Toepfer, a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster. “We need to educate and we need to bring them into the fold to show them that it’s really cool to learn about avalanches and safety.”

In the U.S., about 27 people die in avalanches each year. Colorado is by far the deadliest state, with 62 avalanche deaths recorded from 2005 to 2015. And among the 270 Colorado deaths since 1950, the vast majority was men with a mean age of 29 – an age at which social media use is peaking.

“Social media is definitely playing a role in their decision-making,” said Rheam, a 16-year-old from Jackson, Wyoming, who has surveyed teenage skiers about their perspectives on avalanche safety. “But the terrain they are in, that they can reach and ski, it outmatches their education.”

Avalanche safety education is at a crossroads. Experts who used to worry only about training backcountry travelers to assess snow structure, weather and terrain now also must consider the ways in which video-everywhere feeds from mobile phones and GoPros and other storytelling tools are pressuring decision-making by backcountry travelers.

“This social media phenomenon, it’s really added some complexity to what avalanche forecasting has to address,” Toepfer said, recalling a few times when he reached the top of a remote cornice to find skiers preparing for a descent by posting photos online. “We are seeing it more and more and more. This is a merging of soft and hard science. It’s a tremendous challenge.”

The venerable ISSW – an annual confab featuring dozens of world-renowned scientists presenting dense research, case studies and snow assessments from around the world – has long focused on physics, like forecasting, snow crystal analysis and scientific tools. The workshop returned to Breckenridge after a 24-year absence, just as the first snow of the 2016-17 season fell on the Colorado high country, settling into the granular, rotting base layer that will destabilize and threaten the state’s snowpack until next spring.

For the last decade, the workshop has pushed beyond hard science, adding the work of behavioral and psychological experts as an increasing number of accidents reveal knowledgeable and well-prepared backcountry travelers – often moving in large groups – making poor decisions in avalanche terrain. Those accidents, including the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche that killed three and the 2013 Sheep Creek slide on Loveland Pass that killed five, have forced avalanche educators to pivot from the aspects of travel in avalanche terrain that can be controlled – such as snow analysis, route selection and watching weather patterns – toward hard-to-teach decision-making skills.

This year, the workshop’s attendees heard not just from European physicists but also from neurologists, behavior scientists and psychologists as avalanche-safety educators grapple with elevating often intuitive decision-making as an essential skill for reducing backcountry risk. They consider it as important as assessing weather, terrain and weak layers in snowpack that could release mountainsides of moving snow.

In 2002, renowned snow scientist Ian McCammon marked a watershed moment at the ISSW when he discussed his meticulous analysis of nearly 600 avalanche accidents that showed mental shortcuts – simple rules of thumb, or heuristics – used by everyone in everyday decisions often led to fatal errors in avalanche terrain.

McCammon concluded that larger groups exposed themselves to more backcountry risk than smaller groups. He identified six “heuristic traps” that contributed to poor decision-making by groups: familiarity with terrain; group members seeking acceptance in their party; commitment to a specific goal; the so-called expert halo that crowned a de facto leader who led decisions; a competition for first tracks; and a competitive pack mentality.

For the last decade, avalanche educators have labored to address those heuristic traps, urging better listening skills, improved communication and recognition of group dynamics as the next frontier of avalanche safety.

It’s not been an easy transition.

If our actions are influenced by the company we keep, then today’s social media-connected backcountry travelers are not just swayed by the skiers in their group but by thousands in their social networks. The experience – even on the remotest of peaks – now is both individual and simultaneously shared.

“Participants need to be made aware that decisions taken in remote environments are no longer taken in isolation,” said Jerry Isaak, a college professor and American Mountain Guides Association ski guide who has studied the role of social media in backcountry decision-making. “Technology and social media have fundamentally changed the nature of solitude and remoteness. Now, our peers and online communities may travel everywhere with us on our smartphones. They are an ever-present audience generating pressure on our decisions in ways that were not possible in a pre-digital era. For many young people, this is the only reality they have ever known.”

Mark Kelly, a longtime heli-skiing guide from Haines, Alaska, showed research that drew a parallel between addictions such as gambling and alcoholism and powder-seeking backcountry travelers who repeatedly engage in dangerous and sometimes destructive behaviors.

The endless stream of ski, snowboard and snowmobile movies – showing athletes outrunning massive avalanches and shredding seemingly impossible lines – fuels a dangerous problem, Kelly said.

Just Google videos for “avalanche ski,” he said. More than 193,000 results pop up.

“Our guests are deluged with these images. Then they come to Alaska and they are like, ‘This is where we go to get rad,’ and we have just a few hours to brief them that, ‘No, this is where you come to be mellow and we ramp up to rad,’” Kelly said. “Our message as avalanche educators is counter to 80 percent of the rest of the messages that people get from movies and gear manufacturers, and ski resorts that open backcountry-like terrain without requiring people to take a backcountry attitude. People are gaining the ski and snowboard movement skills very quickly today, but they don’t gain that essential mountain sense. They don’t know how to go out and route-find and assess hazards and measure risk and make the best decisions.”

Russell Costa, a backcountry skiing cognitive behavior scientist and professor from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the industry has more work to do when it comes to elevating decision-making. He took the 12 most popular avalanche safety books – the top-ranked reads on Amazon and other sites – and broke down the content, page by page. He found 89 percent of the books focused on the physical science of snow analysis, slope angles, weather patterns and other hard-science avalanche components, while only 8 percent focused on decision-making, which is a learned practice. Just because someone excels at skiing or mountaineering or even snow science does not mean they make wise choices, he said.

“Decision-making should be trained separately,” Costa said, “and I don’t think that just comes from time in the backcountry.”

The first step in embracing social media as a tool for avalanche education is recognizing it as the latest chapter in mankind’s timeless urge to share a story as a member of a community, Isaak said. He offered a 5,000-year-old Norwegian rock carving of a skier as perhaps the first example of skiing in social media.

“Discussions of social media context, narratives and identity are likely to be much messier and more complex than diagramming a snow pit, but they are necessary if we are to effectively address the challenges of avalanche terrain in the 21st century,” he said.

Avalanche educators and forecasters want to enlist big media houses, such as Red Bull and Teton Gravity Research, to use their movies and social feeds to paint avalanche safety as not just essential but cool. How about featuring kids spinning the most rad tricks and digging the best snow pits to uncover potentially dangerous layers? Why not use social media to share real-time information about avalanche conditions? Consider it a tool, not a threat, said Rheam, the 16-year-old from Wyoming.

“Older people have tried to ignore this social media thing,” she said, “but it’s at a level of usage and obsession in ways that it can’t really be ignored anymore. It is a reality, and we need to look at where can we use it to reach this next generation.”

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