Common pitfalls or ‘heuristic traps’
We’re all liable to fall into lazy, false or habitual ways of thinking, perhaps especially at moments of extreme fatigue or stress. As a climber, it is precisely at those moments that you’re at your most vulnerable.
The most common ‘heuristic traps’ can be categorised under the acronym FACETS (Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Expert halo, Tracks, Social):
Familiarity – if we are familiar with a particular area or route, and have not previously encountered any problems with it, we are likely to assume that it is safe, even when it is not.
Acceptance – we all have a tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect. It’s natural to want to impress others in the group, and this may cause us to overlook warning signs.
Commitment – we’ve come a long way, we often feel compelled to remain consistent and continue with the route, regardless of any warning signs we may encounter.
Expert halo – we often place our trust in a group leader, and allow them to make critical decisions for the group, even if those decisions do not seem to us the most sensible.
Tracks – “This pristine snow looks so good, there are no tracks on it. I just have to ski, walk, climb it, and be the first one” This is about how we sometimes overvalue things that may be scarce.
Social – sometimes in a group we feel social pressure not to be the one ‘making a fuss’, expressing our concern about the conditions or route choices that have been adopted by the group.
When you go out in the mountains, it’s important to be aware that we are all vulnerable to these ways of thinking. Always do your own preparation: research your route, and take note of the weather forecast. Trust in your own observations, and don’t be swayed by others who may seem more knowledgeable than you (it could just be bravado). Remember that you are never committed to a reckless course of action, no matter how far you’ve come; you’re always free to change your route, or turn back. The mountain will be there tomorrow – make sure you are.