The “Incident Pit” is a metaphor that illustrates the effect of small, unresolved issues, that while seemingly unrelated, tend to compound into a problem from which escape without outside assistance is unlikely. It is a powerful tool for demonstrating the importance of preparedness, training, honest assessment, situational awareness, and most of all decision making unimpeded by motivated reasoning. Common backcountry issues are easy to imagine, however imagining the compounded result can take some prompting. Forgotten gear can lead to prolonged cold extremities, equipment problems that can’t be solved lead to excessive exertion, and distraction that limits awareness. Add to these other issues that, like the first could be resolved, but for any number of reasons is not: frozen fingers that can’t operate electronics when help is needed, operate a small tool to fix gear, or use matches if a fire is needed for signaling, heat or water. A problem with gear (broken fastener, something not functioning as intended) can result in excessive energy use, again distracting from awareness, increasing caloric needs, increasing fatigue, all of which can lead into further, otherwise easily avoided problems. To avoid a trip into the incident pit, small problems need to be addressed or solved, plans modified, or the mission aborted. It can take painful honesty to not compensate for an issue that has the potential to end a team’s day, but countless catastrophic outcomes can be traced to a series of small problems, unresolved until the final issue incapacitates and dooms the team.
Fundamental to team performance, safety, and avoiding being the subject of post incident analysis is communication. At its most simple (but equally important) level, we think of good communication as the sharing of observations, conclusions, and clarification of unknowns in the field. This is effective, important, and easy, whereas voicing independent dissenting opinions, withdrawing from a team because of an honest personal assessment (too tired, too sick, not focused, injured etc.), revealing an issue that can compromise a goal, or expressing different tolerance for risk than the group is difficult, intimidating, isolating, but can avoid or guarantee a fall into the incident pit.
Fortunately, like poor decisions in avalanche terrain, poor communication doesn’t always lead to disaster (although immediate, disastrous feedback might be a better motivator). All of us have led teammates one or two steps into the pit, whether we like to admit it or not.
A recent, suboptimal day-trip served as a perfect example to share multiple small failures that had the combined potential for full systemic failure. The details have been diluted as to not implicate anyone, however this is cited as an example, not a fault finding analysis or a way to deflect blame.
A local group with whom I’d enjoyed trips almost two decades ago had a backcountry spring ski day-trip planned for an area with which I was unfamiliar. Keen to open up new terrain options, I signed up, agreed to the departure time, and packed my gear. Mistake 1: Although the trip was rated based on skill and fitness, I failed to ask any further questions about the plan, the organizer’s familiarity with the route, or the potential for obstacles. We met early on Sunday morning, and I arrived to find one other skier and three snowshoers. (I have no objections to snowshoers, however, ski-pace and snowshoe pace are decidedly different.) Mistake 2: Failure to clarify the trip’s composition, proposed pace, or how the differing snow-modes would be reconciled. Nope, I smiled with a raised eyebrow and loaded up. Mistake 3: The organizer had requested attendees bring radios if possible, and as a firm advocate of their benefits in the field I was happy to oblige, however upon donning packs and starting the approach, we did little more than agree upon a channel; no discussion of standard terms, use, or other aspects of even a cursory communications plan.
The organizer had estimated 30-60 min of approach time before finding consistent snow, which is about my hiking limit in hybrid boots with a flat sole, range of motion notwithstanding. When I inquired about approach footwear, he asserted not needing them (Mistake 4: Not assessing my own needs and blindly copying) and I unquestioningly shrugged and donned boots.
After 20-30 minutes of easy trail, we encountered a dense sea of young alder that a month earlier would have been covered by the snow. We forged ahead, pace slowing to glacial as we fought the springy ubiquitous branches. The terrain sapped our energy, devoured our allotted time, but had the secondary detrimental effect of causing massive frustration. Mistake 5: Do you make good observations and decisions when emotionally charged? Me neither. I cursed the route finding and planning through gritted teeth and pouring sweat.
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We teetered several steps into the incident pit: poor equipment choice, all but lost, frustrated, tired, out of cell range, and with poor overall communication in an unfamiliar group. Three hours in we stopped to reassess: the alder seemed endless, our objective was across a strongly flowing glacial stream, and I inquired about the plan to cross, it was revealed that such a plan did not exist. It had been assumed the stream would be less swollen or bridge by snow. Mistake 1 reared its ugly head: had I clarified at the outset that this was an exploratory mission with no certainty of an obstacle being overcome, my willingness to join would have been somewhere around the stream’s temperature. The need to abort could not have been more clear: we had no plan, no picture of the terrain ahead, low familiarity with each other (something that makes me more or less willing to accept risk, as strong team work can lower probability of encountering danger, and lower consequences if something bad does happen), and were facing a 2.5 hour web of alder that would have been almost impassable if the need to move a non-ambulatory injury arose. Enter motivated reasoning, and failure to assess and anticipate consequences: two people wanted to attempt crossing barefoot (“must get to stated objective at all costs!”) and begrudgingly held back after I described my experience as a swiftwater rescue technician. A third wanted to press on through the thicket, increasing all aforementioned problems and commitment for zero probability of achieving our intended outcome.
As experienced backcountry users, we hopefully have an enhanced ability to overcome bias, recognize the components of risk, and evaluate objectives continually. This however can lead us to assume that others process observations and outcomes in the same way, potentially landing one vigorously asserting to companions that NOW was the time to abort, further progress only compounded the current risks, and that the initial objective had long since faded from potential outcomes. Ask questions openly, share observations clearly and with context, describe concerns along with the process you used to reach conclusions, over communicate when in doubt, and trust your experience and instinct over the confidence of an unfamiliar group member. Stay thinking, stay smart, stay safe.