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App lets researchers into the risk-taking minds of backcountry adventurers

  • Author: Megan Edge
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published December 7, 2015

Alaskans who play in the snowy backcountry must make assessments of avalanche danger that, if wrong, can have tragic outcomes.

The current season, plagued with early season avalanches, is no exception.

But besides snow conditions, what factors actually contribute to how recreationalists make decisions in dangerous terrain?

Jordy Hendrikx, the director of Montana State University's Snow and Avalanche Laboratory, is leading a project he hopes will bring about a better understanding of those risk-taking decisions with a smartphone app.

"If we were all making decisions 100 percent based on science, then we would all behave the same under the same conditions, with respect to our terrain use, regardless of the group, motivations, leadership, familiarity, etc.," Hendrikx said.

"However, we know that this is not the case. Different groups use the terrain very differently under the same conditions -- some of which leads them into avalanche accidents."

The SkiTracks? app collects GPS data and gathers input from the day-to-day backcountry rides of skiers, snowboarders and snowmachiners -- not just when one of them is involved in an avalanche accident.

The crowd-sourcing project was launched two seasons ago but Hendrikx said it has gained momentum. Contributions have come in from participants all over the world.

And although the project has received data from Alaskans, Hendrikx would like to see more data coming from the Last Frontier.

"When you crowd-source data, you need as many different types of groups as possible," Hendrikx said. "One of the important things is geographic locations. The types of decisions you'd make in Salt Lake City is different than in Alaska."

Alaska's winter recreationalists are faced with challenges unfamiliar to those in other areas, Hendrikx said, including weather, terrain, limited daylight and the ability to ride, ski or sled in more remote and isolated areas.

Hendrikx blames two previous bad snow years in Southcentral Alaska and the project's lack of outreach as contributing factors in why it is short on contributions from Alaska. But after an early November avalanche workshop in Anchorage, he's hoping for more input.

Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center director and forecaster Wendy Wagner is an advocate of the project. According to Wagner, avalanche science and research in the U.S. are relatively young, dating back only to the 1950s, and are largely focused on snow science and weather research, not the human factor.

"There is lots of avalanche science to be discovered, not only in the snow science aspect but in the human decision-making part," Wagner said. "Folks know it's dangerous, but experts and beginners use some sort of personal justification and go anyway, when we know deep down we shouldn't. Everyone can justify why it was a good idea."

Wagner is hopeful the project will help give avalanche safety experts a better idea of how to not only help prevent avalanche accidents, but to help them learn how backcountry enthusiasts decide when and where to ride.

"It adds to the greater public safety of the avalanche community," Wagner said.

Preliminary data already shows researchers that age, gender and group makeup factor into decision-making.

"Even under the same snow conditions, different groups make different decisions," Hendrikx said. "This means that while snow science knowledge is critical, so is knowledge about our biases in decision-making. We do not operate solely based on snow and terrain factors."

According to Hendrikx, all-male groups use "much steeper terrain" than all-female groups. Another preliminary finding provides insight into risk "homeostasis," the idea that each person finds a different amount of risk acceptable.

"This is the idea that with more experience and more education we are pushing the boundaries of terrain," Hendrikx said. "What we are certainly seeing is the most experienced users on the most serious terrain. Is the experience and education enough to outweigh the risk?"

"We don't know if more experience leads to more accidents," Hendrikx said.

But Hendrikx hopes the project will lead to more answers. The project will continue at least through the 2016-17 winter. Hendrikx said his group hopes to get federal funding to expand the research.

Recreationalists of all experience levels are being sought. To participate, download the SkiTracks app and visit http://www.montana.edu/snowscience/tracks.html.

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