SAC News


Human Factor Madlibs

Jan 17, 2024


Finally! Winter is in full swing. As much as I’ve been rejoicing in the cold and snowy weather, I’ve also been nervous for our mountain communities. A prolonged early-season drought created a weak foundation for our snowpack, and loading from recent storms has already produced significant avalanche cycles. As we move through the season and avalanche warnings fade between storms, we’ll still be left with those weak layers lingering at the base of the snowpack. 

Oh, the weak layers. I think it was Drew Hardesty, long-time Utah Avalanche Center forecaster, who said, persistent problems require persistent patience.

Lately, I’ve noticed impatience well up within myself. I work feverishly at my desk job in hopes of finding perfect soul turns on my days off. I become easily frustrated by delays. Each minute away from the mountains feels like a threat to my pursuit of joy, as though joy could only be derived from skiing powder on a 35 degree slope. 

I’m not alone. In the last week, three people in the United States have been killed in avalanche accidents. 



In the world of avalanche education, we often talk about factors that produce avalanches in terms of different components of a triangle: 

Weather impacts conditions at the surface, such as wind creating slabs. ‘Snowpack’ refers to everything below the surface, like weak layers, and terrain determines whether or not it’s possible for an avalanche to occur (most slab avalanches occur on slopes between 30-45 degrees). To make an avalanche, you need elements from all three sides of the triangle. Not in avalanche terrain? Can’t buy an avalanche. No slab, or no weak layer? Sounds like you found perfect ski conditions. Simple enough, right?

Yes and no. You might have noticed that humans are in the middle of the triangle. We are fallible. In 90 percent of avalanche incidents, the slide was triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. Avalanches aren’t ‘acts of God,’ and that’s good news. It means we can do something to reduce our exposure to avalanche hazards.

What can we do?

The first thing we can do is establish a foundation of knowledge and be honest with ourselves about our areas of growth. Here are a few tips: 

Weather and Snowpack: Accurately assessing avalanche problems, weather forecasts, and snowpack stability are lifelong skills. Choosing appropriate objectives based on those assessments is even more challenging. If you’re not sure where to start, read the forecast and take an avalanche course. Many avalanche centers offer free or low-cost classes throughout the season. To see a list of courses offered in Idaho, click here

Terrain: Before you go out, make sure you know how to read terrain. Do you feel confident in your ability to judge what is and is not avalanche terrain? Being able to interpret a digital mapping tool or topographic map and knowing how to measure slope angles are great places to start. If you’re unsure about how steep a slope is, it’s always best to give yourself a wide margin of error (Recent studies show that readings from standard slope measurement tools like phone apps, inclinometers, and digital slope angle shading layers can vary by as many as ±3-6 degrees). 

What about human factors? 

“Human factors” can be thought of as any elements that influence our perception or decision-making. They’re at the center of the avalanche triangle for good reason: our perception of our environment influences everything we do

Consider this scenario: The avalanche danger is HIGH and I have chosen to avoid traveling in avalanche terrain. I plan to use an inclinometer app on my phone to measure slope angles and cross-reference them with a digital mapping app. If my measurements are 4 degrees off, have I given myself a sufficient margin of error? Do I feel able to communicate my risk tolerance and observations to my partners? What if I forget to measure because I am distracted by something happening at home? These variables that influence my ability to interpret slope angles and make travel decisions are human factors. 

As soon as we get involved, each side of that avalanche triangle becomes less objective than it appears. Each side is based on our perception, and our perception is influenced by our personal biases. 

In a recent interview with Caleb Merrill on The Avalanche Hour Podcast, Dr. Sara Boilen takes a deep dive into the topic of human factors.

Sara asks us to consider, What are your human factors?

What internal or external factors influence the way you make decisions? What type of backcountry partner are you? What qualities do you need in your partners to bring out the best version of yourself? 

To illustrate the concept that our perceptions influence our judgment, Sara invokes The Monkey Business Illusion. If you’ve never seen it, stop what you’re doing right now and watch.

Did you spot the gorilla? 

I sure didn’t. Even after I knew to look for the gorilla, I missed other events. I’ve seen that video at least ten times. I know what to look for, and yet, every time I watch it, I am surprised by my own lack of awareness. Last week on the skin track, my partner turned to me and asked, “Did you see that avalanche?” I had not. I was busy staring at my phone and studying the slope directly in front of me, trying to decide which route would be the least exposed to avalanche terrain. I was looking for a gorilla. 

Luckily, Sara Boilen offers us some tools to address our blind spots. One of my favorites is her human factors madlib:

I’ll share mine: I am an energetic yet cautious person by nature. I am motivated by long days in the mountains and sliding downhill on snow. My goal today is: to get some exercise and eat croissants in the sunshine. I tend to communicate socratically.

With more snow in the forecast and buried weak layers that aren’t going away anytime soon, I implore you to consider your personal human factors. 

Stay sharp out there, friends. I know I’ll be challenging myself to do the same. And as I wait patiently for our snowpack to heal, I’ll be getting face shots while meadow skipping on a sled, meandering along ridgelines, and skiing hippie pow with my dog. 

As a friend of mine used to say, “Come home, come home friends, come home with a summit. And do it in that order.” 



-Hannah Marshall 

Executive Director, impatient touring partner, and connoisseur of skin track baked goods.


To learn more about Dr. Sara Boilen and to hear the podcast, click here

Sara is a clinical and forensic psychologist and owner of Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish, MT. She has studied human factors extensively, and her clinical practice focuses on trauma and grief. She is an avid backcountry skier and avalanche educator, and a regular contributor to the snow and avalanche industry at large.