Avalanche travel decisions are about risk vs rewards and penalties – we use an assessment of hazard to choose how to satisfy our desires without realizing our fears. The traditional focus is on assessment and management of the risk side of the process and assumes that the reward side is a fixed entity, but it is also possible to influence choices by altering the perception of reward.
Choices are driven by our desires and our desires can be manipulated, either by external influences or by a deliberate choice to alter our desires. The traditional view of risk treatment is to adjust one’s behavior based on the hazard to achieve an acceptable level of risk. Our decisions are always influenced by emotion through automatic processes. Optimal decisions require more than a conscious decision to adjust our behavior; we also need to deliberately make more fundamental adjustments of our desires according to circumstance. Corresponding adjustments to our behavior will follow naturally because we have established a context for our automatic processes to do their job well and produce responses appropriate for the conditions.
Someone who always approaches avalanche terrain with the desire for steep and deep skiing will always choose the steepest and deepest option considered to have acceptable risk. This is a bias toward steep and deep skiing. By itself, this bias is neither good nor bad, that depends on context. Under some conditions, this bias is beneficial and successfully yields rewards. Under other conditions, this bias nudges the decision maker into greater than acceptable risk. An alternative is to deliberately adjust one’s underlying desires to suit the conditions.
Is it possible to deliberately adjust your desires? I believe it is possible, but to be able to adjust one’s desires, first it is necessary to have multiple desires to choose from – this is our selection of desires. Second, we need to focus on desires that are compatible with conditions and circumstances. Many influences form our desires and we are often unaware of this happening. Our automatic response to things like social norms within a peer group, video images of extreme sports or the feeling we experience when skiing powder snow can create a desire.
Fears are similarly formed. It is also possible to deliberately broaden our selection of desires. Mountain travel can offer many rewards including steep powder skiing in couloirs, gentle powder skiing in forests, enjoyment of nature, opportunities to study snowpack conditions and improve knowledge, physical exercise, enjoying group activity together, enjoyment of solitude and more. Satisfying any of these desires can support the satisfaction of others, for example understanding the snowpack is helpful toward satisfying a desire for steep powder skiing. Fixating on one desire, or just a few, is more likely to impede the ability to choose well.
I am not suggesting to deny our desires and dreams and relinquish our aspirations to greatness in return for safer decisions. On the contrary, an important part of successfully satisfying our desires is to choose wisely the time and place to act. Because our automatic systems are biased to satisfy our desires, if our desires at the time are well matched to the conditions and circumstances then our automatic responses will help us make good choices. If we possess multiple options for desires and expectations from a day in the mountains, then it is possible to use our reflective system to deliberately focus on desires that are most likely to be compatible with conditions and circumstances. There is a subtle but important distinction between adjusting your objectives to suit conditions and adjusting your desires to suit conditions. Our objective, for example, may be to ski the north side of Mount Wagner or may be a more general objective to ski steep powder slopes. Our desires are what motivates us to do this, it could be the desire to experience the sensation of deep powder skiing, the desire to impress our friends, or something else. It is common practice to adjust mountaineering and ski touring objectives according to conditions and other circumstances such as logistics and group abilities. However, this is only a partial solution if the underlying desires are unchanged. Changing objectives may widen or narrow our options, but our automatic systems always make choices within those options that are biased toward satisfying our desires. If our desires are not compatible with conditions and circumstance, then those biases still prohibit optimal decisions – Yin and Yang are out of balance.
Roger Atkins is a long time winter ski guide and has guided in both the Wasatch Range and the ranges of British Columbia.