In this 'Demystifying Avalanche Concepts' post, Steve Conger explains when to HUCKEM in avalanche terrain and why it's an important tool for any group to know.
Steve Conger of Golden, B.C., isn’t your average avalanche forecaster. Throughout his career spanning more than four decades, he has explored numerous outlets for his love of snow and avalanche science, starting with patrolling and highway avalanche control in the ’70s and ’80s and evolving into what he now describes as “consulting scientist and avalanche professional.” His focus is on mapping, tech development, and forecasting methods for backcountry and resort-based commercial ski operations. But while most of his work is focused on helping create tools and developing protocols for operational avalanche management services, he also cares deeply about avalanche safety on a recreational level. That’s why in 2020 he published an article in The Avalanche Review outlining a mnemonic, HUCKEM, that he hopes will help people better manage human factors in the backcountry.
HUCKEM stands for Hazard Unknowns, Collaborative Knowledge, and Exchanged Mindset — and as Conger notes, “HUCKEM builds on a lot of the instructional work I've been doing and how to bring things out of the theoretical world and make useful tools.”
Here’s how Conger explains his new mnemonic:
- Hazard Unknowns is all about being able to identify what you don’t know in any backcountry situation. He recommends backcountry enthusiasts spend some time thinking about what we know the least about in terms of that hazard right now directly related to the likelihood of triggering the slide: the location, the problem, any of the components of hazard, and just which one it is that you know the least about. And that's when you either find out more information about what you don’t know or that's where you draw your fence around your safety margin—around that unknown component.”
- Collaborative Knowledge is the simple part of HUCKEM. The idea is to encourage everyone in a group to contribute to the discussion about the hazard uncertainties laid out in the first step. He emphasizes that no one should be making unilateral decisions in the backcountry and that decisions that are made collaboratively tend to counteract the tendency for people to rely on the “expert” partner in the group for all of the decision-making.
- Exchanged Mindset, the final step in Conger’s plan, encourages everyone in the group to publicly state what they think about the day’s strategy and terrain choice.“ Exchanged Mindset allows you to instantly recognize where everybody's at if they’re on the same page with their perspective of why they're out there. This can happen at the trailhead, driving up the night before, on the phone, or just standing there in the field.”
The goal of HUCKEM is, in many ways, a natural follow-up to the famous FACETS acronym presented by snow scientist Ian McCammon in 2004. “Ian McCammon gave us the human factor pitfalls. He identified them, and then he used FACETS (familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, tracks, social facilitation) as the acronym and that was really good,” Conger notes.
But Conger felt there needed to be something more. “We didn't have anything to help us address, ‘Yeah, here are the pitfalls, but what do we do about it? How do we launch a friendly conversation that gives everybody the power and safe ground to discuss the day’s dynamics?’” And he says about why he chose HUCKEM specifically, “I wanted it to be kind of funny and memorable. The original first two words of HUCKEM were Forecast Uncertainty, but I figured that would be a little hard to sell. But it had a great tagline — ‘So you don't get screwed.’”
In the world of avalanche safety, acronyms abound, and while Conger admits that at times things can start to look like alphabet soup, he argues that there is a time and a place for a well-thought-out mnemonic to help people remember proper protocols for avalanche safety.
“There are two camps of people: some people hate acronyms, and some people love them. Some people think that there are too many acronyms in our business, so it's just a matter of which camp you fall into,” Conger explains the tendency for the avalanche world to rely on wordplay to remember procedures. “But if you want to have a simple process that people remember, it needs to be written on the top sheet of their ski, (or on the dashboard of their sled). I actually had a student in a professional course who had the entire process written down on his top sheet.”
Conger believes that it’s critical to have a system that holds group members accountable for proper communication while in the backcountry. He hopes that HUCKEM is a simple yet effective tool that anyone can bring along for a day in avalanche terrain. And for those who like the idea of a top sheet reminder, he’s even made stickers that he sells on his HUCKEM website so you can brush up on your communication no matter where you are on the skin track.
READ THE ENTIRE SERIES:
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Steve Conger explains when to HUCKEM in avalanche terrain and why it's an important tool for any group to know.