The Law of Unintended Consequences

I think I have chatted of these before, it just so happened they came up as a result of a chat I was having today about avalanches and preventative actions, and what might the Unintended Consequences be. Before I get onto that thorny subject I thought I would examine the sorts of thing I am talking about.

The biggest and one of the first unintended consequences was the introduction of rabbits to Australia. Where they effective breed like rabbits until they started to cause widespread ecological damage. Although not as ironic as cane toads that were introduced to control pest and became a pest themselves.

One of my favourite and I apologise if you have read this before is the kindergarten that started to charge a penalty payment for parents who were late picking their kids up. Rather than reduced the number of parents who turned up late it increased it. The reason apparently was that the parents thought they were paying for being late so felt less guilty about being late. So perhaps they should have named and shamed the parents to increase rather than decrease the guilt!

There are also arguments that the introduction of Ski helmets isn’t reducing injuries or fatalities (although I have not seen the exact figures)¬†as people feel protected so just go for it on harder, steeper, more dangerous lines. The same is said of avalanche airbags, people dropping slopes ‘safe’ in the knowledge they can deploy there airbag and float down on top of the avalanche. So where something was designed to help keep people safer is actually meaning people are taking more risk in the first place.

Which brings me to a discussion today about a centre in Scotland that had a few avalanche incidents last years, so its answer isn’t to ask what is going wrong with the instructors decision making. Instead they have brought a load of avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels and every group has to be trained in their use. To me it seems like they are putting the cart before the horse.

Now I am not say that the staff are making bad decisions, instead I think there is a need to think long and hard about last year. As we probably had snow lying in deep enough accumulations to avalanche for maybe twice as long as we normally do. So you’d expect that if that statement is right about the length of winter, and you’d need to check, that we’d have twice as many accidents.

However, I can certainly say from a Welsh perspective that I have not seen so much snow since I moved here in 1998. More snow means much high risks of avalanches. So has the SAIS had a look at their data to see whether there were a greater number of ‘higher risk’ days than the previous year(s). Again if this is the case then we’d expect more incidents in an order similar to the ratio of higher risk days last year to normal number of high risk days.

Finally if there are more avalanches than the centre would normally expect but the above two reasons are not accounting for the increase, then is there a problem in the training and assessment of their staff and winter mountain leaders/instructors in general. This could be a problem with entire Winter qualification scheme. I am not say that it has sudden changed or the level dropped. What I think it more likely is seeing that in recent years the winters have been lean. With so little snow the need to make ‘real’ decisions in tricky situation may have been lost to a generation of winter instructors. You can only assess a theoretical knowledge to a point, after that you do need to have interesting snow to see how candidates really behave in tough conditions.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts on it. Whether or not it will help to have every client wear a transceiver, I really don’t know. It will of course allow a more rapid recovery, although given a deep multiple burials in a confined gully, how much quicker that recovery will be is a big question. In shallow single victim burials it will no doubt dramatic speed up recovery.¬†Although how that will weigh against the possible negative effect of added risk taking is yet to be tested.

Having a background in sport psychology I think it would have been a very interesting before and after study on the attitudes to avalanche risk with or without the whole group transceivered up. I can only imagine that at some point faced with a decision whether or not to risk a dangerous slope, that with transceivers it will be much easier for the instructor to say yes to.

Be safe out there, as I am hoping that winter may well be on its way soon. If you are going out and want to have a basic understanding of avalanches for moutnaineers then I have written a basic eBook for Kindle and iPad. I also wrote short piece on the human factors and heuristics in decision making in avalanche terrain on Snowdonia Mountain Guides.

PS EDIT: Seems the BBC documentary on last years avalanches would support the two ideas of more snow and longer winter. I recommend you check it out here.

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