The avalanche at the Tunnel Creek was a major disaster resulting in several casualties. The notable characteristic of the event is that the involved individuals were experienced skiers with vast experience of backcountry skiing, including numerous runs on-site. The following case study analyzes the case of Tunnel Creek avalanche to identify the factors responsible for the event, evaluate the role of group norms on participants’ behavior, and determine whether the introduction of psychological safety would influence the outcome.
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The first thing that needs to be taken into account in the analysis of the case is the combination of environmental conditions. As was noted in the case, Tunnel Creek had an impressive record of major avalanches, including those ending with multiple casualties. Even more importantly, the conditions before the event featured a combination of unfavorable factors for the backcountry skiers. Specifically, the ice layer formed on the snow surface, followed by the cold temperature for several days, contributed to the formation of what is known as surface hoar. This layer creates major instabilities in the snow surface. The surface hoar was then covered with more than 20 inches of new snow, which preserved the surface hoar intact. The result was the layer of unconsolidated snow on top of a weak layer consolidated by surface hoar – conditions are considered highly risky.
Another factor worth mentioning is that increasing the risk is the timing of the event – the relatively high temperature of the day allowed for the consolidation of snow, which could be avoided by starting earlier. It is also notable that the team did not conduct precautionary measures that are relatively common among backcountry skiers – for instance, they did not assess avalanche conditions by digging a snow pit. Finally, the sheer number of participants is a huge risk factor – the group consisting of sixteen members that set off simultaneously is much more likely to trigger the avalanche. At this point, it is worth mentioning that all of the identified factors are well-established knowledge among skiers and would be expected to be acknowledged by the team in question, especially about their experience and skill in the area. However, it can be argued that instead, the latter served as aggravating factors and led to a decreased sense of safety and riskier behavior.
The first component that likely contributed to the disaster was the fact that the group sought the high-risk setting. The primary reason for such counterintuitive behavior was the high level of experience and acclaim associated with team members and the fact that overcoming a more difficult challenge would yield greater psychological and emotional satisfaction. In other words, the group has (probably unconsciously) sought the hazardous conditions and, as a result, were predisposed to ignore or downplay the risks to increase the perceived sense of danger. Under these conditions, the decision to ignore the precautionary measures would be expected due to the tendency to compensate for the risk.
The next important factor that probably contributed to the cause was the diffusion of responsibility, where each member of the group is less likely to feel responsible for an important decision when being a part of the group. In this particular case, each of the skiers was likely to be aware of at least some of the factors identified in the paragraph above but chose not to voice his or her concerns upon observing the peers’ apparent confidence. Also, most of the members were closely familiar with the site, which could have contributed to the false sense of safety and acted as a mitigating factor for the observed dangers.
Finally, it is possible that some of the perceived factors, such as the experience and reputation of the peers, accumulated to create the sense of confidence whereas other, such as the unfavorable environmental conditions and the excessive number of skiers, were downplayed to create a consistent approach to the selected decision. Simply put, the skiers have found it hard to steer away from the decision to descend due to groupthink and conformity and sought every opportunity to confirm their decision, thereby solidifying it and, by extension, making it difficult for each member to assess the situation and make a reasonable decision adequately.
As can be seen from the information above, each of the risk factors was likely to be known to each group member. Their proficiency, skill, and experience suggest that they were more likely to anticipate the danger than overlook it. Instead, what served as a cause of the risky behavior was the group mentality, diffusion of responsibility, and risk compensation tendency. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the lack of established group norms, such as the necessity to voice the concern upon detection of risk instead of withholding the observation, was among the major determinants of the disaster. By extension, it is also possible to state that the introduction of psychological safety would shift the perception from the false feeling of security towards the need to account for the identified risks.