Checklists to live by: How to make decision-making a “process.”

By Rob Coppolillo

Nothing loses style points faster than dying in an avalanche. Imagine what it would do to your profile on OutdoorSingles.com. Consider the heckling your lifeless corpse will endure at your next avalanche workshop!

Fear not, because we have a number of effective tools to help us avoid the losing end of an avalanche. Between state-of-the-art gear, our indispensable forecasts, dedicated educators, and our well-practiced companions, we can stack the odds greatly in our favor. Add to this arsenal of avoidance the under-appreciated checklist—and bam, you’re even less desirable to the monster of the Great White Death.

Avalanche Checklists

Like writers do, I’m stealing this idea, though I at least have the decorum not to present it as my own. (Google has made plagiarism so risky these days!) I’m nicking it from the wise folks of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), Avalanche Canada, the WSL Institut für Schnee- und Lawinenforschung SLF (Swiss institute for research on snow and avalanches), as well as Dr. Atul Gawande of the Harvard Medical School and others.

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Avalanche Canada’s Avaluator.

Tom “Murph” Murphy helped co-found AIARE in the early ‘90s, in an effort to help the US gain admission into the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA). Over the ensuing decades, guides and educators helped refine AIARE’s avalanche curricula, incorporating new data, snow-stability tests, and decision-making wisdom. IFMGA guides like Howie Schwartz and Colin Zacharias helped, as well as academics, forecasters, and ski patrollers.

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Download the AIARE Communication Checklist here.

AAI began teaching avalanche safety courses in winter of ’73-’74 (whoa!) and has developed its own Level 1, 2, and 3 courses, all recognized by the American Avalanche Association (AAA) and the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). They’ve relied on certified ski and heli guides, pro patrollers, as well as snow scientists, to update and develop their curricula over the years.

During their lifespans, AAI and AIARE developed several checklists within their programs. Two of the best-known AIARE checklists are the “Communication Checklist” and “Decision-Making Framework” or DMF, both prominently featured in the current AIARE Field Book. If you’ve done your AIARE 1, you’ve undoubtedly seen them.

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The AIARE Field Book is one of many snow study tools available for order from the BCA online store.

Other relevant checklists include Avalanche Canada’s “Avaluator,” Ian McCammon’s “Obvious Clues” or “ALPTRUTH” method, or Werner Munter’s “Reduktionsmethode (Reduction Method).” Each of these checklists provide probabilistic decision-making strategies for the assessment of avalanche risks in unprotected alpine areas.

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The Manifesto

Other industries have developed their own checklists over the years, too, most notably aviation and medicine. One of the first writers to popularize the effectiveness of checklists—and indeed, one of the most vocal physicians to endorse them—is Gawande. His 2009 book The Checklist Manifesto, was a bestseller and draws on foundational research in medicine, as well as case studies in aviation and construction. In the Manifesto, he advocates for checklists for any of us executing complicated procedures or making complex, life-or-death decisions. Sounds a bit like surviving in avalanche terrain, eh?

Gawande trundles out several interesting cases, in each of which a relatively simple checklist saved lives and reduced complications. In 2001 at Johns Hopkins, a five-point checklist reduced “central line infections” to near zero, avoiding 43 infections that, based on historical statistics, saved eight lives. The same checklist, adopted by intensive care units in Michigan, dropped infections 66 percent and saved an estimated 1500 lives over a year and a half.

He describes similar results in the construction of skyscrapers, the development of the B-17 aircraft, and the resuscitation of hypothermia victims. It’s convincing stuff and the book is well written, entertaining, and informative—worth the time if you’re into it.

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AIARE Quick Reference for Avalanche Rescue.

Checklists for Us

In a review of the Manifesto in The New York Times, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar writes, “Failure, (Gawande) argues, results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).”

Consider, for a moment, the average avalanche accident—we usually trigger the avalanche that kills us and typically, the victim(s) had enough information to make a better decision than they did. It’s ineptitude, not ignorance. Put another way, we suffer not from a lack of information in the age of the Extended Column Test and the Avatech, but rather, from a reliable system to make smarter decisions and execute plans in the backcountry. Checklists can be an integral part of your system.

An “A-” Isn’t Good Enough

In a related study at Hopkins, a researcher observed patients in the ICU. In the course of a day, he noted 178 actions required by doctors and nurses to care for the patient. There was only a 1-percent error rate, but that translated to two errors each day for each patient.BCA-Tremper-Staying-Alive-in-Avalanche-Terrain-940x1413

Put that into terms relevant to us in the backcountry. Do we make two errors per day? Is that an acceptable rate?
Consider Bruce Tremper’s imagined actuarial table in his benchmark book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. Assuming we travel in avalanche terrain 100 days per year, crossing ten avalanche paths on each of those days, with the snow stable enough to cross 95 percent of the time, and that for every avalanche we trigger we get caught every third time and killed every tenth time—a 99-percent success rate (like our doctors and nurses above) would see us dead in one year. 99.5 percent success? Dead in six years. 99.9? Dead in a decade. Turns out an A- isn’t going to be good enough.

A Repeatable Process

So, we have the information, it’s just the execution we need to perfect. Risk-management experts tell us we need a “repeatable process” to help manage our information, formulate a reasonable plan, and execute that plan. If we just commit to a random “out with my bros” approach, we begin to stack the odds against ourselves—relying too much on “gut instinct” or letting the stoke take over our decision-making.

Remember the AIARE Communication Checklist? Read through almost any accident report from an avalanche, but have the Comm Checklist beside you as you read it. Put a small check next to any point in the checklist that relates to a mistake one of the victims made…you’ll quickly see the Checklist helps derail any number of human factors.

Is it rocket surgery? Not really, but incorporating those simple questions (and voicing them!) like “Is anything wrong with our plan?” or “What’s the consequence if we have a problem?” into your repeatable process might just have the same effectiveness that five-step list did at Johns Hopkins—getting infections from 11 percent to zero. And that’s what we’re after—zero mistakes.

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Photo: Mark Gallup/Outside Online

Courage, Wits, and Improvisation

I don’t mean to say we’re all robots and we need to tour around, droning into our smartphones about checklists. I like what Gawande himself wrote about checklists in The New Yorker: “It’s ludicrous, though, to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation.”

We’re all in the backcountry for a variety of reasons, but I think most of us enjoy that it requires some courage, sharp wits, and regular improvisation. Develop your repeatable process—or learn one in an AIARE or AAI Level 1. It can be an effective defense against emotional decisions and mistakes resulting from human factors.

Incorporate checklists into your team’s backcountry planning and execution, while at the same time keeping your eyes and ears open for anything that falls outside your checklists’ reach. A checklist is only as good as the situations it’s designed to manage—and a checklist never trumps common sense and your brainpower!

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AIARE’s backcountry decision making framework.

Play Along

Not everybody will be into the process. You will encounter resistance. Certain partners won’t want to “play along” when you crack out the Comm Checklist or refer to the DMF. Ask yourself, then, if a person isn’t willing to “play along,” is s/he the right person with whom to make life-and-death decisions? I say “no.”

Chances are you’re already relying on checklists for many things, especially if you’re a pilot, an EMT, or engineer. Next time you’re headed into the backcountry, consider yourself an ER physician, managing a complicated case. Reach for your checklist, save your patient, save yourself! And slay some pow.


Rob Coppolillo co-owns Vetta Mountain Guides in Boulder, Colorado. He uses checklists!