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Brain Games

The mountains in winter are both exciting and dangerous. David Lintern takes a look at what happens in our heads when we’re lost in the moment outdoors – whether we are ‘beginners’ or ‘experts’.

Enjoying a winter facial on Creise

A couple of months ago I had an accident in my boat on the River Findhorn. My friend Debra and I had enjoyed a glorious afternoon paddling under a bluebird sky flanked by broadleaf trees in full autumn psychedelia. We’d paddled all the rapids we’d set out to, bathed in the blissful tranquillity of the flat stretches in-between and finished earlier than planned. It was just one of those ‘pinch yourself’ days. Spirits were high and so we decided to push on…

Wicked Learning

Hubris. Coming out of the final corner into a long, straight and fast high-water stretch, my concentration lapsed for a split second and a wave tipped the boat. It was a controlled exit, my white-water training kicked in and that’s why I’m still here. But my thought at the time was that, based on the first cold, hard minute or two, drowning was going to be a really uncomfortable way to die. I was going to lose energy and then choke, very slowly, and I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it. The lack of control, the complete passivity was a surprise. It wasn’t an exciting or inspiring experience, and it definitely wasn’t heroic.

This is probably how it happens, I reasoned, slightly detached. It turns out drowning like an idiot feels pretty mundane. My second thought was “You fraud. You can’t die, you’ve got kids. Tanya (my other half) will be furious!”. Then “It’s not fair on Debra either.” How selfish and vainglorious my little afternoon adventure now seemed, floating down a freezing river, heading straight for the pointy, business end of Randolph’s Leap (…and that thought – the one about people I cared about and didn’t want to let down and leave to grow up without me – was the other thing that saved my life.)

My experience on the river shows that mistakes arising from poor judgement can happen at any time of the year, and on the water – just like in winter – those mistakes can be highly consequential. I asked IFMGA Mountain Guide James Thacker what makes winter different:

“Decision making occurs irrespective of the season, but for me it’s to do with feedback and consequences. The consequences are more significant, in that you have the additional concerns of avalanche, bad weather, cornices and moving on steep terrain. The feedback loop – what happens to you if you make the ‘wrong’ decision – can also be delayed, so much so that environments like this have been coined “wicked learning environments”. But maybe that is part of what makes them special.”

Embracing the merciless Scottish ming far above Tyndrum (but could be anywhere!)

Human Factors

Because of the potential for injury and death through human triggered avalanches, decision making in winter is the subject of extensive and ongoing study. It’s sometimes termed ‘heuristics’, but ‘human factors’ is less of a mouthful. Human Factors are just the rules of thumb that save us time and effort. We use them all the time, ranging from ‘I’ve crossed a similar slope before and it was fine’ to ‘I’ve opened the fridge door several times today and at no point beforehand was my 3-year old’s cup of milk poised perfectly on top of the half-eaten tangerine ready to spill on to my feet’. The difference is that it only needs to go wrong once in the winter mountains, and the consequences could be more serious than a change of socks.

Mick tops out after a very icy, taxing ascent of a Glen Coe Corbett

The acronym FACETS is sometimes used as a way of remembering some of the main variables at work in our heads, but it’s important to note that what follows is not an exhaustive list.

F = familiarity. “I’ve done this (or something similar) before, it’ll be fine.”

A = acceptance. “Braving this out will win me respect in my peer group”

C = consistency, or commitment. “I’ve come this far…”

E = expert halo. “The leader in my group is taking charge and/or seems to know what she is doing.”

T = fresh tracks, aka Scarcity. “I’ve waited all year for this, it’s so amazing to be breaking trail, who knows when I’ll get the chance again.”

S = social facilitation. “There are footsteps here, it must be safe.”

If I look at my boating accident using this checklist, I can see that Familiarity and Scarcity were largely at play in our decision to continue. We’d had a brilliant run so far, and we’d not had a white-water paddle since lockdown. I’ve asked myself which of the social pressures were at play too, and this is where things get nuanced. Debra and I are fairly well matched and things feel pretty democratic. That said, even in equal partnerships, there will be different enthusiasms and emphases. I can think of cases where I’ve been over committed to an objective and my partner has felt different, or vice versa. I’m pretty ‘driven’, or competitive with myself, generally less so with others… but in this case, we probably both egged each other on.

Winter climbers on the Schoolhouse ridge. We turned back after this, as windslab developed rapidly

Covid Rules

The pandemic has seen an increase in the number of people heading for the UK’s high and wild places, and there’s currently a good deal of chat in the outdoor community about managing those additional people impacts. Inevitably some of this has had the effect of problematising newcomers. Experienced old hand? Don’t get too cocky. More interest in the outdoors in general makes this a great time to point out human factors as influencers on our decisions, but a key thing to recognise is that they are always at play, whatever our level of experience.

Lockdown meant that ‘Scarcity’ was at an all-time high when we finally broke free, and it’s due to be a big factor for a good while yet. While we don’t all experience scarcity equally, how we do experience it is dependent on where we live, not previous time spent outdoors. A recent study by the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre found that since the pandemic, experienced mountain goers were more – not less – likely to be involved in avalanches than beginners. This occurred as they went further off trail, past the more ‘crowded’ trailheads and entry points into parks and protected areas.

The point to reiterate is; just because I think I know what I am doing, I am not above making dangerous assumptions. In fact, the opposite may apply.

Ben Starav, my second (successful) approach after turning back the first time

Beginners Luck

I’ve thought a lot about my past experience, and whether it makes me better equipped to make safer decisions. In many ways, I’m far more cautious than I was, but as my boating example shows, I’m not setting any gold standards just yet! I suggested to Winter Mountain Leader Lucy Wallace that ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger… until the next time’, and she came back with her own near miss:

“One stands out. I’m probably lucky to be alive after this. Walking across the great Slab in Coire an Lochain through knee deep fresh snow, to do an easy gully we’d set our eyes on. I forget which it was, but I can’t forget the sight of shooting cracks firing out from my boots. This was probably my first proper winter season and I looked at these cracks in the snow, and dredged up a memory of them being problematic from some lecture I’d been to. I recall being anxious and pointing them out to my companions, who told me to hurry the ‘eff up and stop being a ninny. We got through the day without mishap, but these sorts of experiences can reinforce confirmation bias that we are making good decisions!”

This is a great example of both ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Expert Halo’ at play, but it also illustrates brilliantly what I think James Thacker is referring to when he talks about the feedback loop being delayed. You can get away with rules of thumb many times, but it only takes one to be misapplied for accidents to happen. And when things go wrong, they can escalate rapidly.

Struggling to judge distance on the Drumochter Munros

One piece of advice?

It’s tempting fate to oversimplify what happens inside our heads when we are by turns excited, delighted, exhausted or even scared over the course of a winter mountain day, but we all have to start somewhere.

I asked Mountaineering Scotland Safety Advisor Heather Morning for her top tip, and her advice was not to cut corners:

“It’s easy to base our decisions on what we have gotten away with in the past. So, think through the consequences of your actions. A question I always ask myself is ‘What if’? What if I take a slip here, what would the consequences be?  If the consequence is a slide down a steep slope, then it’s time to take another line or put my crampons on. Be bothered, take the blinkers off and look ahead to what challenges your planned route is presenting. Be bothered, even though taking that bearing on the map is so difficult with big gloves on. It’s easy in challenging weather to switch off in the cosiness of your hood and not switch on to the bigger picture. Be prepared to say no.”

James Thacker emphasised honing our powers of observation, to equip us better for changing plans if needed:

“The winter mountains are all about decision making. But we do need something to base those decisions on, so if there is one skill to develop it is becoming a good observer. Make constant observations and be prepared to talk about them. Learn the tell-tale signs of windslab and the wind direction. Try to stick to fundamental measurable parameters, such as slope angle (greater than 30 degrees is the prime avalanche angle), evidence of recent avalanche activity, know the forecast hazard category before you set off, and if there has been a significant change in temperature.”

Lucy Wallace suggested we avoid the trap of over commitment;

“We need to make decisions based on evidence, but we’re all fallible. I’ve been in situations where people have picked and chosen their evidence to suit the course of action they prefer. This happens when we limit our options. I often see people on social media asking about conditions on a particular ridge or gully, often quite a long way in the future. It’s great to dream and scheme about things that we would like to do but in winter it is essential to be patient, give yourself choices, and consider alternatives that may be safer given the weather or snow conditions. Decisions about altitude, aspect, gradient and approach are all factors in avalanche hazard, but we can avoid these hazards by choosing a different route. Avalanches are often avoided by decisions made the night before, or on the drive up. It’s a cliché, but the mountains will always be there. Some of my best days on the hill have been Plan C.” 

For me, being aware of how our brains work can help me work through my choices. My understanding is not perfect, but it is another interesting part of my outdoor learning. Part of growing my awareness is recognising the power and influence of group dynamics, my own individual motivations, and part of it is recognising just how much of an impact being ‘always on’ and constantly evaluating myself, my partners and my environment is. I’m better at all this in the snow – where, as Heather points out, I’m more prepared to say no these days – than on the water, but there is literally no room for complacency.

It’s easy to get complacent when the weather is this good, but there’s a lochan just to your right, Stef!

And if you are heading into the winter hills for the first time this season, understand that the cognitive load will be high! Pack extra food, a hot drink and extra clothing to help you cope, start small, learn to use the digital tools listed below and get yourself on a course when the mountain centres open again. Finally, please don’t get too freaked out. It’s genuinely amazing out there.

A basic winter mountain digital toolkit

Scottish Avalanche Information Service www.sais.gov.uk/
Be Avalanche Aware (BAA) process gives plenty of advice and provides an excellent framework around which to base your decisions. beaware.sais.gov.uk
Mountain Weather Information Service www.mwis.org.uk/
Winter Skills and Safety page on Walkhighlands
Mountain guides listings across Scotland – including winter skills providers

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.