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Why Avalanche Victims Get Publicly Shamed - And Why They Shouldn’t

The scene following an avalanche on Ralph's Slide outside the boundaries of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort that killed two visiting skiers, and which prompted a vicious backlash online. Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center photo.

This January, a familiar cycle began. Authorities released information about avalanche incidents. As details of each incident became public, Facebook feeds and comment sections filled with polarized responses of sympathy and judgment.

Most people express condolences on behalf of the deceased. Others express outrage and disbelief about the decision-making that led to the incident, and they direct much of their fervor at the survivors in a very public, permanent way. If the incident included no fatalities, the internet drama explodes. It’s almost as if, because no one died, we as the digital audience feel empowered to judge avalanche survivors and what led to their incident.

The Monday Morning Quarterback: How We Publicly Shame Avy Survivors

We often call the latter response “Monday morning quarterbacking:” the ability to objectively assess in hindsight what mistakes were made and why. In December 2013, Sportgevity.com published Changing the Culture of Shame, an interview with the then-Director of the Utah Avalanche Center, Bruce Tremper, about the powerfully negative public reaction to a high-profile avalanche incident in Grizzly Gulch.

"We [at the UAC] feel that it’s extremely counterproductive to be a Monday morning quarterback,” Tremper explained, adding, “More importantly, almost all avalanche pros have several stories about their own near misses and accidents. We know that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When you deal with mediums like snow and weather, where there is so much uncertainty, our risk reduction measures can only take us so far.

We feel that it’s extremely counterproductive to be a Monday morning quarterback. More importantly, almost all avalanche pros have several stories about their own near misses and accidents. We know that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When you deal with mediums like snow and weather, where there is so much uncertainty, our risk reduction measures can only take us so far.

Ski photographer Adam Clark and pro skiers Kalen Thorien and Amie Engerbretson had hiked into the popular backcountry destination without all of their backcountry equipment on a day with considerable avalanche danger. As Clark shot away, Engerbretson sank a deep powder turn across a convex slope above a terrain trap. She triggered a slide, pulled her airbag, and got buried. Three different groups of nearby spectator assisted her rescue. Afterward, she discussed the group’s decision-making with Tremper and other UAC forecasters. She blogged about it. Later, she and Clark opened up about the incident to David Page for Powder’s The Human Factor.

One of the rescuers, an observer who had been skinning the snowcat road across the drainage, captured the moments leading up to the slide on a camera phone. The UAC included it in the accident report, various articles shared it, and the video went viral. Then, despite Clark and Engerbretson’s openness and willingness to talk about their misjudgement, the number of negative comments online about the incident skyrocketed.

Whereas the avalanche pros reporting on the incident (Bruce Tremper, Brett Kobernik) publicly discussed how this kind of event could happen to even the most seasoned backcountry skiers, many members of the backcountry community and even more members of the digital audience lambasted Clark and Engerbretson.

RELATED: January avalanche death toll soars; what's the snow industry to do?

The question is: why? They reported the slide. They admitted their error. They caused harm to no one. They publicly discussed the day’s decision-making. From every measure one could imagine, they were accountable for their mistakes in a spectator-less sport where, frankly, you aren’t socially compelled to be.

What Is Victim Blaming And Why Do We Do It 

Shaming the victim of a backcountry incident creates space between what the avalanche survivor did and what we’ve done previously in the backcountry, and it isn't healthy. Ryan Dunfee photo.

Unfortunately, what’s often occurring in the wake of avalanche incidents is a (sometimes subtle) form of victim blaming. It’s a challenging mental trap that, as an online spectator, is difficult not to get caught in. It’s our tendency to believe if we don’t make the same mistakes that victim did, we’ll most likely be safe. Given the same set of circumstances, we’d have made different choices. We’d be calculated and cautious. We might think, "I hate to say it, or think it, but he or she was reckless somehow."

Whether we’ve typed in those thoughts in a forum, in a Facebook comment, or just in private with our touring partners, all of us have passed judgement in some way after hearing news of a human-triggered avalanche.

What we don’t realize is we’re participating in an attribution bias.

Here’s a less serious example: when your friend doesn’t respond to a text message in a timely fashion, you curse their ditziness. Then, on a completely separation occasion, you’re busy at work, forget to respond to a text, and get defensive when you’re confronted about it. You blamed your friend for an internal quality, their ditziness, regardless of whether that’s an accurate judgement. You defended yourself because of external circumstance, your work schedule, and didn’t recognize the similarity in you and your friend’s actions.

Because you’ve separated what you perceive your actions to be and what your friend’s action were, you don’t empathize. This is where, in avalanche incidents, we create space between what the avalanche survivor did and what we’ve done previously in the backcountry. We use this distinction to justify why said person got caught in a slide in the first place, and then, we blame them.

What is so critical to remember is how often we've made the same mistakes as these victims – gone riding in an area we weren't familiar with, didn't pack the right gear, didn't heed a red flag in the conditions – and remember to emphasize with them, understand how lucky we've likely been ourselves, and learn from the experience to go about our own days in the backcountry smarter. 

It’s brutal. I have no idea why this goes on like that. “Dig a pit”, “Do an ECT”. It’s like every jackass with a level 1 or AST feels like they have license to preen and show their expertise off at the expense of the persons involved in the avalanche

I doubt Alf Egan or Stein Eriksen worried about judgmental people and micro-aggressions. People need to toughen up.

It is a tough subject lately.  I am confused at why they are always referred to as “accidents” instead of mistakes.  Humans make mistakes which lead to “accidents” these accidents didn’t happen by chance and nobody forced people to be there.  “Human triggered mistakes” would be a more accurate description.  Sometimes the mistake was skiing that day or being in a certain area at a certain time of day or not bringing your beacon.  This leads you to make even more mistakes taking you down a path of poor judgement leading up to a grave set of decision making in the mountains that can be deadly. If u wake up making mistakes what do you think you’ll do when it is 1pm and u need to make the right decision?  Accidents don’t just happen.  There is always a trigger whether human or natural.  Decision making in the mountains is a deep rooted pattern of practised protocol, weather & route planning, skill and expertise and it still can go wrong for the very best. Sometimes the biggest mistake is being there in the first place. Nobody has the answers.  I definitely don’t.  But i hope we are all learning about making better decisions instead of glazing it over as an “accident” and saying things like “it could happen to anybody” because it cant happen to anybody especially if u don’t make the mistake of skiing that risk that day and decide to sit on the couch and post comments on TGR.

Hi, first I completely agree with Johnwellsma, that being caught in an avalanche is a human mistake. Either you missjudged the snow conditions and triggered the avalanche or a spontaneously triggered avalanche caught you, which means the general avalanche risk was too high. It is difficult to teach people to how important is to do an ECT or some other test if they hadn’t witnesed the power of an avalanche themselves.
The aspect I wanted to point out is about Airbag systems. Having ABS raises your chance of survival in an avalanche. But if you take bigger risks because you have ABS it is pointless to have bought it in the first place. I wrote this in belief that you should always have beacon, probe and a showel in your backpack and be in the backcountry with a partner.

I agree that many people Monday morning quarterback an accident, or as pointed out below a lapse in judgement / human mistake.  However, if we are going to learn from our mistakes, we have to breakdown the accident and assign blame.  Experts evaluating an airplane crash do not spare feelings of the crew to not properly report the root cause.

I don’t think it is my place to judge other people’s situations.  However, a seasoned veteran of the backcountry or newbie, we all can make mistakes.  As a community, we need to be frank and honest with each other.  An accident is an oppurtunity for us all to learn.  That means we need to look at the facts and point out the warning signs that were missed.  Lets also be honest. We are engaging an a high risk activity.  There will always be a risk of death or injury.  We can not enjoy the unspoiled mountains without entering into an area of risk.

Be safe out there.

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