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‘..you have a moderate brain injury...’ the problem of language in avalanche awareness

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
And that was the phrase the consultant used as I came round from eight hours of amnesia following a big mountain-bike ‘off’. I remember coming back to reality after someone asked ‘would you like a cheese sandwich?’ - apparently I had been conscious but bonkers for hours. ‘Ah you are back’ said the consultant. She said ‘you have a moderate brain injury’....and I said ‘ah good, I thought it might be bad news...’. I was thinking ‘moderate chance of rain’, ‘moderate scratching to the base of your skis’ etc etc. ‘No no no’ she said. ‘ Mild is little problem, serious would mean that you are no longer the same person, moderate is quite bad....’.

And the very sad thread on the Canadian avalanche death made me think about language and risk. Avalanche Level 3 - and level 2 ‘moderate risk’ sound innocuous. But the stats say that most accidents occur at these levels. I do wonder whether a psychological effect is in play here, attached to inappropriate interpretation and ‘resonance’ of the word ‘moderate’. In head injury parlance, ‘moderate’ means something significant has occurred. Not life threatening, but significant nonetheless. And ‘moderate’ is a bad, falsely reassuring word to use for it. The medics know what it means, so that’s good. But the general public’s interpretation of that same word is something different, much more relaxed.

Likewise, even at leve 2 (seemingly low out of 6) moderate’ avi risk can mean significant local risk of serious slides. Avi 3 sounds low out of 6, but again means significant local risk of serious slides. Slides which readily can kill. I think the language may falsely be giving people a measure of confidence and risk which is at odds with objective dangers.
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 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Avi levels goes up to 5, not 6!

I have wondered before about the wording before about level 2, but for the French-used word "limité". Limited to me sounds less severe than moderate
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 Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Yup. OK, even if we take 'moderate' to mean a smallish chance of a slide... if we ski a fair amount at that level then we are looking at a much increased chance that we may actually be involved in a slide. If we can concentrate on that aspect we start to pay more attention to danger signals and the terrain we are looking to ski through.


Last edited by Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see? on Sat 27-04-19 8:32; edited 1 time in total
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Nobody takes any notice of avvy warnings unless they sit at 5.

Everything else is fair game.

1 = cr*p snow.
4 = vintage day.
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@leggyblonde, ah ha ... possibly not ... 0-5 in my book is six levels....but it's true, you can count it both ways. Goes 0-5 so 5 is top, or 0-5 equals six levels....

5 extreme
4 high
3 considerable
2 moderate
1 low
0 no rating

see

https://avalanche.org/avalanche-encyclopedia/danger-scale/


Last edited by Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do. on Fri 26-04-19 20:32; edited 2 times in total
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@Scarpa, precisely...well said
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 Then you can post your own questions or snow reports...
Then you can post your own questions or snow reports...
Interesting. Perhaps because I have a reasonable experience in medical areas, but 'moderate' to me means something which I'd rather not hear - just as @valais2's doctor used it (hope that it wasn't too bad, after all). 'Mild' is a low grade problem, an acceptable risk (maybe); moderate means that there is a definite issue, a risk which is serious; serious or extreme or high or bad mean just what they say. I would not therefore feel comfortable with a "moderate" risk level, and to me it is not innocuous or reassuring at all.
Maybe there are too many levels of avalanche risk, and trying to distinguish between moderate, high or considerable is not necessarily easy in even one's native language, never mind another's.
Of course, only the relative numbers should really matter, not the words - but again, are there too many? There's only really 'as safe as it can be, considering', 'could be dodgy, at your own risk' and 'no way'. So maybe simplification is needed, not an attempt at more information.
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 After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
No rating does not mean 0! No rating is exactly that, there is no forecast for that area. Your link clearly says their are five levels in bold capitals at the start of the article -

THE U.S. AND CANADA USE A FIVE-CATEGORY ESTIMATION OF THE AVALANCHE DANGER: LOW, MODERATE, CONSIDERABLE, HIGH AND EXTREME.

It also doesn't have a number 0 next to no rating.

Personally I think the word moderate is fine. Dictionary definition is pretty much "medium" which sums up the risk ok - more than low, less than high.

Percentage of avy fatalities are highest on 3 "considerable" (at least for USA, Canada, and Switzerland). Considering 4 means avoid avalanche terrain, it's not surprising there are more deaths at 3. Remember it is a nonlinear scale with the hazard doubling (approximately there is some disagreement exactly) with each level so adding and removing levels is not so simple.

Perhaps the best approach would be to completely remove the scale. Instead just have a report with expected problems (e.g. increased temperatures today may cause loose wet slides, there is a persistent weak layer between 20-40cm deep depending on altitude, wind slabs on south facing slopes). Stops the "it's only 2 so must be safe mentality" and also focuses people on the reported problems (they often don't read that far once they see a 2 and think oh it's ok). I'll be honest and say I've never dug a pit on a 2 day, however if I'm anywhere without a report will always dig one. So without a number I would certainly be more cautious. I'm not sure how ethical it is to know the danger is high and not report it letting people go out though.
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@boarder2020, sorry - you are absolutely right, it's not a continuous scale 0-5 and it was wrong of me to say so. As you rightly say, 0 just means that a rating has not been issued, so in reality on the hill it could be 5, and 0 means you need to do the evaluation yourself and not rely on anything formally issued. In such a critical area of mountain craft I should not have been so lax. Apologies.

The suggestion of removing the numbers is interesting. The psychology of communication of risk or danger by a numbered scale or by scaled descriptions is much discussed and argued over. I quite like the French 'limite' over 'moderate' since it communicates the idea of risk being present in 'limited areas' i.e. there is a specific risk in specific places. In contrast, the American 'moderate' communicates a 'ho hum that's not too bad' general notion of risk. But I know that this is all a question of interpretation of words, with people bringing their own construction and interpretation of the words.


On changing the scales, this article is quite interesting:

FATAL AVALANCHE ACCIDENTS AND FORECASTED DANGER LEVELS: PATTERNS IN THE UNITED STATES, CANADA, SWITZERLAND AND FRANCE
Ethan Greene1*, Thomas Wiesinger2, Karl Birkeland3, Cécile Coléou4, Alan Jones5, and Grant Statham6

And on whether it is 2+3 which has the highest numbers of fatalities or 3+4, I have read table which say it is the former, and having looked a bit more last night, I can see some which state the latter - the variation is actually very interesting, and suggests that there are different factors in play in different States and nations - terrain, backcountry habits etc.

But this is interesting...:

The greatest increase in the likelihood of a fatal accident occurred between Moderate and Considerable (Levels 2 and 3), with only a slight increase from High to Extreme (Levels 4 and 5). One main conclusion of his work was that the High and Extreme levels could be combined to create an effective four-level scale.
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Quote:

In contrast, the American 'moderate' communicates a 'ho hum that's not too bad' general notion of risk


Over the last few years I've only snowboarder in canada so I can't speak too much about USA. In Canada I use the avalanche Canada website for avalanche reports. They are far more detailed than simply issuing a number, they list current issues in the snowpack, details of known avalanche activity, and explain how confident they are in each days report. Anyone just looking at the number is being lazy at best.

For example I could read a report see the avalanche danger is moderate, but the confidence in the report is low due to strong winds and varying snow accumulation in different areas. That wind slabs are a problem and most likely to be found on north facing slopes. There have been a number of small (size 1) slides reported on north facing slopes at altitudes above treeline. In which case I could make the decision to avoid all north facing slopes as although it's moderate I'm not confident enough in those slopes.

Of course I'm sure there are many people that just see the number is "low" and decide that means it's "safe" and don't read the details. There also seem to be others that ski in the backcountry regardless of the report.


Quote:

And on whether it is 2+3 which has the highest numbers of fatalities or 3+4, I have read table which say it is the former, and having looked a bit more last night, I can see some which state the latter


From the most recent edition of the Bruce templer book:

Avalanche fatalities by danger rating (USA, Canada, Switzerland,)
Moderate 26%, 7%, 29%
Considerable 37%, 49% 54%
High 34% 35% 12%

I'm sure different areas in different years will give you different stats though.
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Yesterday was a Level 2 day in VT but
quite a lot of fresh had fallen and I was definitely conscious of avoiding roll overs and a particularly vulnerable aspect. I traversed one micro bowl where ordinary instinct would have been to 'ave it and sure enough some substantial sluff ran off. Wouldn't have been fatal but that sort of micro terrain trap can make for a bad day losing a ski etc.
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@Dave of the Marmottes, early on in my education on the hill some of the texts we read included incredibly tiny slides, only 20cm deep in small bowls only a few metres high, but nonetheless fatal to the skiers traversing them. And one very notable one was in the forest, where most people assume a slide is impossible, not merely unlikely. Very salutary. It made me very aware of the importance of being aware not only of the general level of warning, but the micro conditions. We of course had the unusual avalanche in Crans Montana, which is still under investigation. I constantly am aware of how much a pit gives (scary and vital) information which is not readable from the overall analysis or the 'surface' appearance of things. This season also saw massive slides in CH, including a monster above Grimentz, in the Val D'Anniviers, our front garden:

https://www.tetongravity.com/video/news/video-a-few-crazy-avalanches-in-the-swiss-alps
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