RATS: Planned Communication To Mitigate Avalanche Terrain Travel Danger and Heuristic Errors

Just before the Illumination Rock slide.
During the slide ….
Post slide crown.

By Joe Poulton, MTI Contributor

In November of 2015, I had been on the Reach and Treat Team for a couple years. At this point, I was contributing by instructing our annual avalanche trainings. I was also fully enjoying photography. On this day my ski partner and I were gunning for Illumination Rock, clearly an inconsequential objective as snow was concerned.  

We didn’t even discuss avalanches until we were standing next to the West Chamber in a moat along the southeast face.  I communicated that the snowpack was barely there resting on boilerplate with erratic winds, but mainly westerly despite clear skies. The potential for a slide was high.  We made the choice, being so close, to just look around the corner. I wallowed up the powder filled moat to a rock step. My partner climbed out a little bit further onto the slope and I saw this perfect angle for a photograph.  

He stepped into frame on my suggestion and I captured an image, at the same moment I heard a collapse. I wasn’t moving, but the slope–an arm’s reach away in front of me–was sliding with my partner on top of the broken slab.  

At that moment, errors of the day hit with intense reality.  

It was early season, NWAC had yet to ramp up forecasting and we failed to plan beyond agreement of route choice.  There had been one storm on the mountain that November that occurred long after an October event, which we didn’t even consider. In that moment, the only tool I had was my camera so I kept taking photos since we had no avalanche gear. 

My partner began to roll trying to get off the slab, I was yelling with intent to motivate that action since the slope nearby was not sliding.  Thankfully he was able to roll off the moving snow, while the slide continued down over rough terrain below as it picked up more volume.

Our Mistakes

Two significant heuristics were at play with the incident.  One being that we were recreating and in the mindset of having fun that became influenced by our commitment to continue outside of a specific detailed plan. In order to decrease these we have to move forward with a deeper level of communication. 

The second heuristic is one I just recently read. In the August 2022 research paper Trend effects on perceived avalanche hazard  looks at how we evaluate forecasting data and average that data giving more emphasis on the past data instead of the current environment.  If it’s been stable, but the stability is leading towards instability during a trip, our perception of the actual increased risk is decreased due to the familiarity of a stable past.   A message from my avalanche instructor noted, “The single key applicable conclusion is that heuristics are part of the way we think and using a framework is the best way to avoid being influenced by them.” 

RATS: Respect, Attitude, Trust, Skeptic

Today, there are frameworks to engage with these heuristic patterns that weren’t available during my first avalanche course in 1995.  ALPTRUTH and FACETS are beneficial examples and have been discussed in many articles and avalanche courses.  They are valuable tools, but are significantly limited  by how and when we communicate. The impact of mitigated speech and complacent statements diminishes the value of these other important tools.  We must learn to be direct and specific in our statements and questions.  I propose a new tool, RATS, modeled after FACETS and ALPTRUTH, but taking in new research:


Basic in field dynamic framework:

    • Respect – Was there a change and have we discussed the current avalanche conditions?
    • Attitude – Am I silent because I don’t understand the avalanche hazard or assume someone else knows more?
    • Trust- Is my commitment influencing my perception of the current avalanche hazard?
    • Skeptic – Do we need to increase the margin of error with a new plan?

Respect is the foundation of communication where specific direct questions and statements that are assertive but not aggressive are required. Complacency is unacceptable. Instead of mitigated speech, “I don’t know if this aspect is good.” With respect for yours and the team’s safety dig a little deeper. Why are you thinking that thought? You see the wind and the spindrift loading the slope you’re on or about to be on. Say it directly and immediately. “We can’t be here, it’s loaded and waiting for a trigger.” 

Respect is for yourself and family, for your partners and for the avalanche conditions. As Jeremy Jones notes in The Art of Shralpinism that mountaineers often lament after a huge effort and turning around short of the summit that it was their greatest failure. Coming home is success and turning around is a lesson, not a failure.  

Which is an aspect of attitude that can revolve around your past trend with risk acceptance. Have you been complacent in acknowledgment of your personal risk acceptance? What is your attitude towards being assertive with questions and statements? Be assertive, but not aggressive. 

Since past avalanche conditions influence our perception of current stability we need to question how much we trust the perceived conditions. This also acknowledges the effect of our past attitude and social value trends. 

How important is the video clip over avoiding an avalanche?  You have an avalanche air bag and a full kit of avalanche gear? What aspect of your social network drives up importance of aspects not associated with the avalanche hazard? 

On that point, the value I placed on photography was the final heuristic that triggered the Illumination Rock slide. In conjunction, was my partner’s choice to climb on the harder surface and not follow my wallow in the moat. This indicates need for specific dynamic plans to be discussed in the field. Remember, bailing because of safety to return home is always solid, respectable option.

There is evidence that a direct question can actually work as noted in Risky positioning – social aspirations and risk-taking behaviour in avalanche terrain:

“This instrument consists of a direct and simple question about willingness to take risk.” “We, therefore, elicited risk-preferences via the simple question; ‘When it comes to riding, how willing are you to take risks?’? In accordance with Dohmen et al. (2011), we asked participants to answer on a scale from 0 (not at all willing to take the risk), to 10 (very willing to take risks)”

When “thirty-three percent” involved in the study mentioned above “state that their level of satisfaction with a riding weekend would be affected by other riders’ terrain choices.” This makes uncovering these aspects of your team an important point of conversation in the planning stage.  The article further notes that this group cares “about social position. This finding is in accordance with previous research, which finds that many individuals care about relative consumption and performance.”   

With this information, the most important point to move forward is respect. 

The order of planning and in-field decision making then will tackle RATS followed by FACETS, a communication plan and then ALPTRUTH. 

I see RATS as similar to SAMPLE and OPQRST from EMS patient assessments.  Once the initial assessment is checked off you then continuously reassess throughout the day.  

Radio communication is a key element in the field for any operation and travel in avalanche terrain is no different. Radios must be used between the planned locations on route to immediately communicate instability. If you see it, speak when you see it. When you’re traveling in avalanche terrain a radio check every 40 minutes is needed to reassess RATS and comment on ALPTRUTH changes.  

If anything changed pull the brakes, and re-evaluate at the next safe location.  Radios also enable group to group comms in some regions where a common channel is utilized. This must be found out in the planning stage to use.  Plan exact locations to regroup and reassess the current conditions, not past stability. Similar to a wildland firefighter, constantly evaluating the wind,  has it changed?  At each planned stop location discuss RATS and ALPTRUTH.

If no one noted signs of instability over radio between checkpoints, ask each other directly if anyone saw recent avalanche signs, active loading, unstable snow or signs of warming. 

Silence is the worst form of mitigated and complacent speech.  Everyone on the team has a voice of equal weight. Avoid mitigated speech such as, “I wonder if there’s a safe slope to ride?” instead of making a statement that directly addresses the concern, “I’m seeing these signs of instability. We need to stop and reevaluate now.”  

If the lead is breaking trail, he/she will notice instabilities that the rest of the group will miss. This too must be relayed to the group. Before moving from the checkpoint, the Acceptance of FACETS must be weighed against the current signs of instability then loop in the Attitude and Trust of RATS that play against the actual avalanche hazard.  The final question before moving on is the Skeptic: do you need more margin for error?

When the trip is complete, debrief the STAR (RATS) regardless of how the trip went. In this fashion, you opened the loop of communication in the planning with respect and you end it with Respect. This will uncover the potential false positives related to our individual and group heuristics that can impact future trips.   

Joe Poulton has worked in EMS for 12 years with the last 8 being on the Reach and Treat team in Clackamas County OR.

Want to be a paid, MTI Contributor? Email a current resume and three specific topic ideas to rob@mtntactical.com. Writing topics can include fitness, nutrition, quiet professionalism, leadership, and all areas of safety and professionalism in the mountain and tactical worlds. 




Communication topics discussed at Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop 2022 in Seattle

  • Making and communicating pertinent observations mitigated speech
  • Risky positioning – social aspirations and risk-taking behaviour in avalanche terrain

Andrea Mannberga, Jordy Hendrikxb and Jerry Johnsonc

https://doi.org/10.1080/02614367.2020.1831046 Figure 1 Page 3

“This instrument consists of a direct and simple question about willingness to take risk. Dohmen et al. (2011) found that simply asking participants about their risk-attitudes outperformed more elaborative measures (e.g., lottery experiments) in terms of predicting risk-taking behaviour in a large and representative sample. Questions that asked about specific types of risk-taking (financial, health, and sports) outperformed general questions about risk (Dohmen et al., 2011). We, therefore, elicited risk-preferences via the simple question; ‘When it comes to riding, how willing are you to take risks?’? In accordance with Dohmen et al. (2011), we asked participants to answer on a scale from 0 (not at all willing to take the risk), to 10 (very willing to take risks)”

Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm in avalanche education: Past, present and future Jerry Johnson , Andrea Mannberg , Jordy Hendrikx , Audun Hetland & Matthew Stephensen


“Both schools of heuristic thought share the constraint of bounded rationality: that people must make decisions within the limits of both their cognitive resources (knowledge, skills and abilities) and their environment (time and information). These natural limits to our decision-making powers and the available evidence about the objective state of the world are most important for decision making in avalanche terrain that is, there is a good deal of inherent uncertainty and the probabilities of snowpack failure are seldom absolutely known. Outcomes can only be subjectively, or at best probabilistically determined.”

2.2.4. Group-wise comparison bias

The nature of accident data is that one cannot always distinguish individual decisions within the group from collective decisions made by the group. Nor can it identify the role of specific individual traits of the decision maker (Adams, 2005). This is referred to as the level of analysis problem (Bartholomew et al., 2008). Behaviors are attributed to the group when in fact, one individual may have been instrumental in the decision that resulted in a group accident. Analysis and conclusions from accidents reports often confuse the level of analysis by conflating both individual and group behaviors within the same accident.


 Trend effects on perceived avalanche hazard




“Although we recognize the pedagogical utility of providing illustrations of poor judgments stemming from heuristics, overemphasis on inaccuracies may present two problems. First, too much emphasis on poor judgments may create the perception that heuristics invariably lead to misjudgments, and students may fail to recognize that heuristics are shortcuts that generally work. Indeed, it is because heuristics work so well that people may overuse them. Second, our experience teaching heuristics through examples of poor judgments reveals that students become adept at recognizing misuses of heuristics but have difficulty recognizing or generating examples of when heuristics work. To ensure that students have a full understanding of heuristics, we propose that instructors provide students with examples of heuristics leading to good judgments alongside examples of heuristics leading to poor judgments”





Jim Frankenfield



“I think there is room for work on communication very specifically in planning. Human factors in general including communication has been beaten to death at this point. Much of it now is academic and wanna-be academic in nature (i.e. not at all actionable). But most often it is explicitly or implicitly about communication in the field. Planning is also emphasized a lot, in a more practical way in many cases. But communication during planning has not seemed to be addressed specifically.

In many or most cases planning appears to come down to one person or a small subset of a group. It may often be based more on their familiarity with an area than on objective and group factors. I suspect it is rare for groups to communicate during their planning about the various factors including the groups abilities and risk propensity as well as the current objective factors.

Heuristic traps has certainly been beaten to death and has little direct applicability. The original interest in this was in order to develop the avaluator as a framework to avoid heuristic traps rather than to directly address them. The single key applicable conclusion is that heuristics are part of the way we think and using a framework (such as any of the ones in module 9) is the best way to avoid being influenced by them.” 

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