The AIARE Framework
What is the AIARE Framework?
Why managing avalanche risk is hard
Traveling in the backcountry brings so much joy. It is also a place where the threat of injury or death due to avalanches exists. The backcountry, by definition, is a place where professional operations are not actively managing the risk from avalanches. You are your own avalanche risk management team.
Professional operations such as ski patrols or highway departments use risk management practices informed by international standards, professional duty, and a network of professionals collecting data and sharing information. The challenge of traveling in the backcountry for fun is that all the hazards and risk still exist, but you are doing this on your “day off” from your other job that may or may not be related to avalanches or even expose you to the snowy mountains on a regular basis. You also have the added challenge of trying to manage risk with your friends and family, which can add a layer of complicated social and group dynamics.
The AIARE Framework is a process informed by the best practices of professionals. These practices help counter the challenges of gaps in information, lack of experience, and social dynamics by establishing a methodical process facilitated by group consensus. It is also a learning process steeped in a modern understanding of how we learn from our experiences.
An uncertain environment
Winter backcountry travel is often referred to as a “wicked” learning environment. These are environments where consequences are not always clearly related to a specific action or where the same actions we take result in different results depending on small, oftentimes imperceptible differences.
How many times have you read a story about a “highly experienced” mountain traveler being caught in an avalanche, or heard someone reflecting after an accident that they rode the same line five other people took, but for some reason they were the one that triggered the avalanche? These are hallmarks of wicked environments – where the same actions can lead to different and sometimes deadly results.
Humans are wired to seek patterns to make meaning, and then to use these patterns to create shortcuts in order to make information processing and decision making easier. We call these shortcuts heuristics or sometimes human factors. Heuristics are what enable us to function in the world. But in a wicked environment these shortcuts can be based on incorrect information. And if the consequences of a wrong decision can potentially be fatal, we need a systematic process that has built-in checks to counter these heuristics. We need to use the power of a team to shed light on these shortcuts that might be in play and build plans that leave enough room for error in unforgiving landscapes.
What is the AIARE Framework?
The AIARE Framework is a step-by-step backcountry risk management process that consists of daily and seasonal routines and key agreements meant to foster consensus among a backcountry team. It is designed to help you develop a lifelong practice of intentionally gaining experience while managing risk in avalanche terrain.
At its core, The AIARE Framework is a practice to be used every time you go into the backcountry to anticipate hazards, create a plan in response, maintain situational awareness, and reflect on your experiences in order to learn. It is a risk management tool that combines international standards for managing risk with checklist practices gleaned from fields such as medicine and aviation, similarly complex fields with potential life or death consequences. Researchers have found that using checklists can significantly reduce the number of accidents by ensuring no steps are missed.
The foundation of The AIARE Framework are four practices and routines that take place throughout each season (PREPARE). As an engaged member of a group, you agree to keep skills sharp through rescue practice and continuing education. In order to be a fully contributing member of a group, you also need to commit to practices that track conditions and trip options throughout the season.
The primary process of The AIARE Framework is a daily routine of three components: PLAN, RIDE, and DEBRIEF. In this routine, the group anticipates the hazards they expect to encounter in the backcountry and creates a plan in response before ever setting foot in the backcountry (PLAN). The routine helps the group maintain situational awareness and continually modify their plan in response to what they observe in the backcountry (RIDE). At the end of the day, the group summarizes what they observed and what happened and then reflects on where the plan was appropriate and where it was off in order to intentionally learn from experiences (DEBRIEF).
Wrapped around this daily process are four guidelines (TEAMWORK) that make up a social contract that every group must agree to uphold during all parts of the day.
Competence as a backcountry traveler is a key ingredient to being a good partner. The four practices of PREPARE are ongoing throughout the season, even outside of winter, to ensure you are an informed and competent partner.
Continue your avalanche education. Avalanche education is a lifelong mentorship with the mountains. While formal training generally comprises three courses, opportunities abound to continue learning.
Practice avalanche rescue. Even when you and your partners are doing everything to manage the risk, accidents still happen. Practice these vital rescue skills to keep them sharp. Hopefully you never have to use these, and practice is the only time you get to use them.
Track the season’s conditions. The snowpack is dynamic and constantly changing. Keep track of the hazard by following weather events and changes in the snowpack throughout the season.
Investigate trip options. The more options you have, the more likely you will be able to get out, even when conditions aren’t optimal.
Before entering the backcountry, it is important to put together and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your team (Assemble Your Group), identify hazards from avalanches or the weather (Anticipate The Hazard), then create a plan in response that chooses options that are appropriate to the combination of the group and conditions (Plan to Manage Avalanche Terrain). Finally, create an emergency plan to ensure you are prepared if something goes wrong (Discuss Your Emergency Plan).
Enter the backcountry with a well thought out plan and use the RIDE SAFELY process to maintain situational awareness (Monitor Conditions Along Your Route), communicate within your group (Check In With Your Group), discuss options (Recognize Avalanche Terrain), and then choose where to go, using terrain choices to reduce the risk your group discussed (Use Terrain to Reduce Your Risk). This process is repeated many times throughout the day, at every juncture, meeting or decision point of your group.
At the end of every day, there are lessons to learn both from what you did right and what you think you could do better. Nature is notorious for keeping quiet most of the time and providing unforgiving feedback when you want it least. If you fall into a bad habit, debriefing the day can help you recognize and change that habit while you still can. During DEBRIEF THE DAY, discuss what you saw (Summarize Conditions), how it was different from what you predicted and why, when you were most at risk, and what can be done to improve your plan (Review Today’s Decisions and Improve Today’s Plan) and then share your observations with others (Submit Observations).
Decisions made by consensus are the only way the rest of this process works. You will see that TEAMWORK is a set of principles that creates a social contract used by your group from the beginning to the end of the day. It is the glue that binds the whole AIARE Framework and the means to achieve consensus. Only travel with partners who agree to abide by these rules of engagement:
Travel together. Decide together: Meaningful discussion and consensus around an agreed upon course of action only happens when everyone is present and a part of making decisions.
Listen to every voice: It’s better to have the input of more than one set of eyes maintaining situational awareness. And while some group members may have more experience than others in the backcountry, people’s diverse life experiences can give them skills and expertise that are worth listening to in making decisions that involve everyone. Choose partners that offer their opinions, solicit yours and listen to everyone.
Challenge assumptions: When everyone is agreeing, it’s good to double check that everyone isn’t working from an incorrect assumption. There isn’t a need to be confrontational, but posing the question, “We are all in agreement, is there anything we’re missing?” can sometimes break habits or uncover blind spots.
Respect any veto: Everyone in the group has to agree to the decision, since every decision made in the backcountry can potentially result in harm. Choose partners that actively seek input and confirmation from everyone. Ensure partners always feel comfortable voicing their opinion and veto. Choose partners that will respect your input and veto.
When we use involvement with avalanches as our only metric for feedback and learning, we exacerbate an already wicked learning environment. To build experience as backcountry travelers, we want to set up a more responsive learning environment, one where feedback links the outcomes directly to the appropriate actions or judgements.
The daily process of The AIARE Framework can help set up a learning cycle to provide an environment where you get more direct feedback on how well you anticipated the conditions, or if the group missed identifying when something could have gone wrong. By creating a pre-trip plan, you effectively make a prediction against which you can compare at the end of the day. This comparison is a form of feedback and moves the group from simply trying to identify if or what went wrong, to identifying when their predictions were right and wrong.
The process of comparing predictions and observations sets up a feedback-rich learning environment. It considers the many factors that affect the hazard, such as group decision making, instead of solely focusing on events. Did you encounter anything unexpected? Were your findings in line with what you anticipated? Was everyone from the group engaged?
By using this comparison process, you are able to figure out what you did well and what you could do better. This builds the knowledge base from which you make your predictions. In short, you are learning from your intentional experience.