Recommended Reading: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch
Mike | Hike For Pow(der)
February 27, 2023
Recently I finished reading this book for the second time and realized it definitely deserves more public awareness. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch isn’t your everyday avalanche safety or snow science book. It’s more an exploration of the mind of a backcountry skier and our decision making processes. If you’re an experienced backcountry traveler interested in making better decisions, this is a must read.
About the Author
Author Bruce Kay has over 35 years of experience as a mountaineer, skier, and climber and has worked in avalanche forecasting for the Ski Patrol at Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler. He has also worked in the avalanche industry as an educator and providing avalanche safety services to a variety of industries (mining, logging, construction, film productions, etc.). In his book, he draws from his own experiences in the field as well as from his peers’ and includes some very memorable real life stories.
About the Book
I’ll warn you right away that this book is pretty heavy and not the easiest read, but it’s so worth it to stick with it. Although from the title it sounds like a book about avalanche awareness or avalanche safety, it’s almost better described as a book about psychology. You may have heard the term ‘the human factor’ thrown about over the last few years – that’s essentially what this book is all about.
book cover page
What cemented the term The Human Factor in my mind was the Tunnel Creek tragedy at Stevens Pass in 2012 that claimed the lives of 3 skiers. Powder magazine did an excellent writeup after the fact, aptly titled The Human Factor that is well worth checking out if you haven’t already. It was this series that started shifting my thinking to not just snow stability but also to my own decision making process. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose briefly touches on this event (as well as others) and the decisions that led up to it with an analytical view. No spoilers here – you’ll have to read the book.
The book touches on so many interrelated subjects that it would be tough to list them all here, so I’ll just highlight a few things that jumped out at me.
If you haven’t heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect, you’ll read about it here. Particularly in the aptly named ‘Level 1 Disease’, which, as you may have guessed, is the over-confidence of new graduates from their first avalanche course.
“Chance is on their side . . . much like in Russian roulette.”
Here’s a great quote from the book that I think captures it perfectly: “This book is intended primarily for skilled and experienced recreational backcountry users who find themselves, like so many of us, still struggling to make sense of all the variables and unknowns after so much experience and effort.”
This captures the nature of the problem we face – there are so many variables and so many unknowns in avalanche terrain. How do we make sense of them all? The author explains that this is what is known as a ‘wicked problem’. That is, a problem that is uniquely variable, seldom fully understood and ever-evolving. Sound like a snowpack throughout a season to you?
The author goes on to look at how people make decisions, pulling from knowledge of experts such as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. He describes our intuitions and biases in terms of how they can both help and hinder our decision making processes. He compares this with our much slower, but more logical ‘system 2’ decision making system which is our conscious decision making process.
He touches on the importance of terrain management, luck, snow stability, teamwork, risk framing and so much more. How is useful experience acquired? What are some tools to get around my personal biases? Are there rules of thumb I can use in the field? All of this is answered along with many other questions you may not have known existed.
There is a ton of relevant content packed into Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose and it’s presented in such a unique way that it’s tough to describe. As a fairly experienced backcountry traveler, I learned many things (or relearned things I’d forgotten) both times I’ve read it and plan to read it again next season. And likely many times after that. Grab this book, read it and keep it on your shelf.
Best Avalanche Safety Books?
Terry E | Mountain Project
January 19, 2022
I can’t find an existing thread, so thought I’d start this one. Most of us know about Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”, which is probably the most commonly recommended book on avalanche safety. I’m wondering which other titles you’d recommend? That said, I want to put in a plug here for one I HIGHLY recommend; Bruce Kay's, “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch”. Many people don't know about it, but it focuses specifically on human errors re. avalanche safety. Very interesting and well written.
I read this book at the beginning of each winter season!
Patrick Jerome | CAA Member and Mountain Guide
November 15, 2020
I am a professional member of the CAA and a mountain guide based in Canmore. I have had your book now for about 4 years and it's an excellent book - I do actually read it at the beginning of each winter. I can only imagine how much work you put into this book - its been a really important body of work that has definitely helped me recognize my own weak links and serial bias.
My Favorite Avalanche Book
Marcus Baranow | Ski Uphill Review
January 18, 2019
This was the book I was searching for after reading every other avalanche book that only touched on the human factors. Instead of focusing on terrain and snow it dives into why we make mistakes and how to catch ourselves before they become an issue. I highly recommend this book for anyone travelling in avalanche terrain!
The "I" of Human Factors
Marc Piché IFMGA Guide | genuineguidegear.com
February 8, 2017
There is no surprise that we have left the hardest part for last. For years, the focus of research has been on making small and incremental changes to the ‘snow science’ side of things. Now it has become abundantly clear that moving forward, the greatest gains in avalanche safety will be made by looking in the mirror.
People don’t typically have accidents because they miscounted the number of taps in their compression test or didn’t identify the correct crystal type in the weak layer. It is what we do with that information that matters. Only now are we starting to grasp how much baggage each of us brings to the table when it comes to making decisions in this challenging environment.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pay a lot of attention to how my actions or inactions impact decision-making within the group. By acknowledging how my actions influence others and how the actions of others affect me, I believe I am better able to see the train heading off the rails and hopefully steer it back on before it’s too late.
This is a complex topic and formal avalanche education has yet to find an effective way of teaching it. There are many great, albeit dry, books on the subject of human factors in decision-making but until now only one has been written with a focus on these issues in the avalanche world. Autonomy Mastery and Purpose by Bruce Kay is an entertaining read that does a great job of introducing these concepts and drawing parallels between decision-making and avalanche terrain and other high-risk environments.
Tristan Rasmussen | NorthShoreRescue.com
March 13, 2017
I highly recommend reading Bruce Kay’s excellent book Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch.
Submitted by Mary Clayton | Communications Director | avalanche.ca
December 7, 2016
It’s not a new question. How do people with training, sometimes very advanced training, still manage to get caught and even killed in avalanches? Ian McCammon introduced the concept of heuristics to the avalanche patch in the early 2000s. While not the first to explore the effect of human factors on decision making in avalanche terrain, McCammon certainly brought the term to the forefront. His ideas have been hugely influential over the intervening years and have gained increasing traction across many boundaries.
In this new book, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch, author Bruce Kay dives deeply in to this question. He builds on McCammon’s concepts and more, bringing in work from Nobel Prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman and research psychologist Gary Klein, famous for his work in decision making. If this sounds like advanced-class thinking, that’s because it is. Kay cautions the reader that his book will take some commitment, and even gives a guide to ‘the best bits’ for those who don’t want to tackle the whole book.
The warning is overly modest; this is a very good read. Kay’s writing is conversational and engaging as he skilfully guides the reader through an understanding of how the varied research he uses to develop his thoughts applies to the ‘wicked learning’ environment of the avalanche patch. Personal stories, some hair-raising, others heart-breaking, are peppered throughout the book, illustrating the points being made and underlining the assertion that education in the mountains is never really completed. There’s always something more to learn, both about the snowpack and ourselves.
As the title suggests, this book is not for the backcountry neophyte. Kay speaks from long experience in avalanche risk mitigation and his lessons are aimed at those who have a serious interest in this field, whether as a professional or an advanced recreationist. As a skier and climber Kay speaks solely to this user group, which I found needlessly exclusionary. There are plenty of snowmobilers in his target audience but they’ll likely have trouble with the dismissive way Kay describes their sport.
Despite the occasional judgmental tone, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch is highly recommended. The way Kay applies Kahneman’s theories, which are based on decision making in economics, to the natural world of avalanches is fascinating and thought provoking. With this book, Kay has taken us to the next level in understanding the complex world of how we make decisions in avalanche terrain. I am sure that reading it will make you think hard about how you approach your next day in the field.
By Ken Wylie | Contributor | powdercanada.com
April 28, 2016
It could be hard to believe for a group of people like us “cool mountain folk” that we are slaves to culture, but it seems to be true. We are a group who values freedom from the confining rules of the larger society, and we go to the mountains to find liberation. We even named our textbook after the deliverance we experience in the mountains, so how can we be shackled by anything? This is one of many compelling ideas in Bruce Kay’s recent publication Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: In the Avalanche Patch. Kay has the courage to say outright “As much as we might think otherwise, our (mountain) culture often holds the levers of influence over us rather than the other way around.” In this statement he makes clear at least one of the unseen pressures on our decision-making in the high stakes game of backcountry skiing and riding, our culture.
Kay distills the work of other noted thinkers and academics and pours a “shot ski” filled with the latest research on intuition, bias, thinking, heuristics, culture, and his own hard won wealth of human observation as an avalanche professional. His work helps us to better understand human factors as they relate to avoiding pain-filled involvements with avalanches. He takes a diligent unapologetic look at our behaviour and motivations for sometimes inappropriately dropping into consequential mountain terrain in winter. In so doing, he casts a steady illumination on a large part of the problem of avalanches, ourselves.
Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose is a refreshing antidote to the trance I see backcountry riders in. Kay holds up a mirror and we can see the pinwheels swirling around in our eyes, providing us with a profound awareness of who we are and the issues we share. We place ourselves in the cast of his riveting stories because he uses the fact that history repeats itself to profound affect. His remedy is a pragmatic and reasoned tool-box for overcoming our flawed approach to our pursuit of powder; like how to use human behaviour to get the most benefit as opposed to focusing on the problems posed.
It is hard to know the meaning of consequence unless we have lived them personally, but where wisdom resides is to learn the lessons from others or before the sting of profound ramification. Kay helps us with this task, and ultimately, if we would like to preserve our freedom from regulation, we will embrace and put into practice his message and take more responsibility out there for ourselves, because with responsibility comes the freedom we seek.
Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose is a must read and study for those who travel in avalanche terrain in the mountains in winter. Bruce Kay has taken a personal risk to be critical about what we are doing as a mountain community. His critique of us is purposeful, to help us all get better at what we do by seeking the book’s title as expressed goals for how we operate in the high risk environment of backcountry skiing and riding.
By Allen O'Bannon | Instructor | americanavalancheassociation.org
Bruce Kay, a former ski patroller and avalanche industry professional, has written a book that is right up my alley. I love reading about how we make decisions and what we can do to improve the process. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch captures in one place a lot of the theory that is out there. It relies heavily on Daniel Kahneman’s definitive Thinking, Fast and Slow and does a nice job of summarizing some of his important points, theory and strategies. If you ever wondered how our brains function to process information, make a decision and what system 1 and system 2 are, but don’t have the time for Kahneman’s tome then this is a book for you.
Kay has done more then simply summarize Kahneman’s work though. He has captured a lot of the other research on pitfalls we can fall prey to, such as the Dunning-Kruger effect where we as humans often overestimate our knowledge, skills, and abilities.
Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch is really a book about why we as humans have a hard time making good decisions in very complex, low feedback, high consequence environments – such as avalanche terrain or say for instance global warming since he touches on this a bit as well. We learn how our subconscious works to sidetrack us into making decisions that if we were to look at them objectively – assuming it is possible to objectively analyze them – we probably wouldn’t make.
Kay also gives us some examples in the form of true stories and mistakes he and others have made to illustrate many of the book’s points. Nothing like learning from the mistakes of others.
I particularly liked the section on judgment, and while none of the information was new to me, I liked how Kay brought together a lot of the current thinking, and shows us why we are so fallible and how our intuitions can lead us astray - or not. We learn that our subconscious has a lot more to do with our actions then we would ever want to know.
In the last two sections Kay also leaves us with some tools and ideas that can help us better frame the risks and possibly even get us to realize them. One that I have been using for a long time is the pre-mortem where you purposely ask yourself and/or your partners what is going to go wrong with the decision you just made to ski a slope or whatever else you are planning on doing, the idea being to skeptically look at your decision to find the flaws in your assumptions.
At times I had a hard time following Kay’s line of thought, especially in his first section “Landscape” where he is painting a picture for the reader of who we are and how we behave. There were also times when I felt I had come into the middle of a conversation that had been going on for a long time. And while the conversants knew all the background context, I was left to guess or figure out what I could about the conversation. For example, the Avaluator, which is one of the tools we should find useful, is not really explained and it is up to the reader to find an example of it at the back of the book. Luckily I have heard of the Avaluator and so had an idea of what it is all about and how it was developed, but for a number of readers outside Canada more detail would probably be appreciated.
Overall though I think most readers will enjoy the book as I did. Decision-making and judgement are huge fields of thought and research and Kay does a good job of presenting some of the most useful information for us. Lastly, if you are an avalanche educator looking to develop a class on human factors then you will find plenty of material here.
By Ken Wylie | Founder | mountainsforgrowth.com
April 10, 2016
These are thoughts about my current ski guiding practice and in relation to Bruce Kay's book; "Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. In The Avalanche Patch" It frightens me to watch people with skill get humbled out there and it seems to be happening more.
The mountains are not dangerous unless we are there. As backcountry skiers it is our job is to be masters of knowing when, where and how. However, it seems apparent to me that we are falling prey to the pressure to succeed. Surely we learned from the Everest tragedy in 1996 about the folly of perceiving we can push at all cost. If we do that we may just succeed at cost.
Put a frog in a pot of hot water and they jump out. Put the same frog in a pot of cool water and slowly turn the heat up and it boils to death. Do film makers of ski porn have their fingers on the dial that turns up the heat? Have there been changes to backcountry skiing that have been so slow that we have not taken note? Has the greed for more of "everything" affected us so deeply that we are no longer making choices in line with human longevity? Is there a disconnect from our own better judgement?
I have a perspective that fortunately few share. However, my guess is that as backcountry skiers we all share the loss of someone in the community. Whether or not we are responsible for their death or not may be the difference I am underlining. It is hard to know consequence unless we have lived it, but that is where wisdom resides, to learn before the sting of profound ramification. Learning can only be done through deep personal reflection based in the notion that we are responsible for our actions in the winter mountain environment.
Backcountry skiing is profoundly important. Some people need adventure and if they do not get it they make it in destructive ways. Anecdotally we know that adventure in the mountains saves and enrich lives. It teaches us how to make difficult decisions (or it should) which helps us with our daily lives. But it is a deeply personal practice to be good at this game. It is our mountain martial art that can only be done well by a deep understanding of who we are and why we are making the choice we are making. It is my belief that this is the frontier of risk management, mastering ourselves. A scary but important journey and one that gives life, ultimately, more meaning.
Bruce Kay's book is a wonderful read for any one who cares about getting better at the real game. It is not about the turns, it is about ourselves.