Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Safety Series Part 3: Decision Points

Last time, I explained the Mom Principle as an important backcountry decision-making tool. But of course, applying the Mom Principle is only possible if we realize that we actually need to make a decision. This isn't as trivial as it sounds.

PC: ej Horrocks

Plenty of ridgeline scrambles start out relatively easy and get progressively more difficult and more exposed. If we're not careful, we can become numb to the difficulty and just keep pressing forward - until we hit something truly impassible and have to turn around. And at that point, we realize that it's considerably more difficult to scramble down than it was to scramble up, and now we're stuck in a bad situation. Or a snow slope that starts out gentle and gradually gets steeper as you get closer to the pass. The point is, if we get lured in by something easy, and never stop to re-evaluate our plan as conditions change, we're rolling the dice and merely hoping that we won't cross that line that separates "difficult" from "dangerous".

Enter, the decision-point paradigm. Although originally developed for backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain, I find it useful in a wide variety of backcountry contexts. It's relatively simple in theory. Whenever I'm entering an area of complex or difficult terrain, I I follow these steps:

1) Stop. Nobody goes any further until we all discuss and make a collective decision. We don't even start the discussion until everybody in our party is standing right here and ready to talk. One person takes on the mantle of leadership and coordinates the discussion in steps #2-4.
2) Converse. The leader asks each group member, individually, is asked what they're seeing, if we should tackle this objective, and if so, what the best route is. Any special considerations (i.e. "let's spread out so we don't kill each other with rockfall") are voiced at this time.
3) Decide. The decision to press forward must be unanimous. If any group member believes it's unwise to push forward, we don't tackle the objective. We find another way.
4) Review. The leader repeats back the plan to the group, and identifies, via pointing or description, the next decision point. Each group member verbally agrees to the plan. 
5) Move. We execute the plan and arrive at the next decision-point, where the cycle starts over.

It seems like a clunky process at first, but it really does become second-nature. It's important to get a solid opinion from each group member (a simple yes/no is not enough). If I have doubts, it's easy enough to keep quiet while everyone else decides we should push forward. But if I am asked directly, I've got to either speak up, or swallow my doubts and spew a load of nonsense I don't believe. It forces the question in a way that encourages differing perspectives and, when in doubt, trends toward more conservative decision-making.

For example, a group of friends and I employed the decision-point method while ascending Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range this summer. The pass was still choked with snow in early July, and a large cornice adorned the top. We all had slightly different opinions on the best route to the top. Skunk thought right looked best, and it did, until Max pointed out that the cornice over there looked pretty gnarly. I thought the left side looked best, while Lara preferred center-left. After talking past each other for a couple minutes, I took a picture on my phone and traced the route with my finger. Turns out that was the same route that Lara was advocating. It looked good to all of us, and Skunk suggested a big Z-shaped switchback underneath to gain the elevation more safely. Looked good.

I reminded everyone not to get above or below each other, reiterated the plan to everyone, and got a "yes". Go time.

A half hour later?

PC: Kevin Erkelenz

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