Have you ever had the experience where you are so tired that you just don’t care anymore? Making any kind of decision becomes hard – even “easy” decisions like choosing what flavour of ice cream to have. I’ve certainly had days where choosing between chocolate and mint chip seemed like that hardest thing in the world!
Fatigue comes in many varieties: mental fatigue from working on a complex project, physical fatigue from pursuing a big mountain objective, or emotional fatigue from navigating relationship issues. All types of fatigue affect our decision making abilities.
As a mountain athlete, my ability to make good decisions is critical to staying safe. Whether it is choosing a low-risk route through avalanche terrain, or building a safe rock climbing anchor, I need to have my wits about me. As fatigue sets in, it’s easy to default to the “easy” choice instead of consciously assessing the situation and making the safe choice. Here, the “easy” choice can be one that’s physically easier, or one that’s mentally easier.
A physically easier choice is one that requires less physical exertion. For example, you are out for a ski tour, and have just finished your last ascent of the day. You switch into downhill mode, and descend a short ways to a plateau where you can scope out the descent. As you scan the run, you notice a few signs on instability. If you ski the run, you could get caught in an avalanche. But it the end of a long day, you are tired, and it’s the fastest way back to the car. There is a safer route down, but it means putting your skins back on, skiing uphill, and taking the long route around. What do you do?
Obviously, the conservative answer is put your skins back on and ski up. In reality, fatigue often gets in the way of rational decision making. Many times, the party will ski the run – one of the reasons that accidents often happen late in the day. There are a few things you could do to set yourself up for making conservative decisions.
The first has to do with picking objectives that are within your physical abilities so that you are not making tough decisions while fatigued. But let’s be realistic here. Sometimes you are going to be tired (after all, that’s how you expand your abilities).
The next strategy has to do with making certain decisions in advance. In this case, it would be stating at the start of the day that if you see X, Y, or Z, then you will turn around and ski down your up-track. By pre-making your decisions, you don’t have to make them at the end of the day when you are tired. The key here is staying alert for conditions X, Y and Z.
The third strategy that you could employ here is keeping your skins on until you get to the plateau where you are able to scan the run. It’s much easier to turn around and head back up-hill if your skins are still on your skis than it is if you have to switch back to uphill mode.
Let’s consider another scenario. Imagine you are out with a couple of friends who are in better shape than you. It’s getting close to the end of the day, and you are exhausted. You’d really like to ski the mellow ridge line back to the car, but your friends are stoked to ski the steep couloir. The mentally easy option is to just go with the flow, and ski the couloir. As you think about the situation, there are a few thing to keep in mind. First, in your fatigued state, do you have the physical ability to ski the couloir safely? And second, could your friend’s stoke be blinding them to avalanche risk factors?
Despite understanding the effects of fatigue on decision making, paying attention for signs of fatigue in myself and others, and speaking up about it, sometimes I still get caught. A couple of weeks ago we were rappelling down a multipitch climb. Although the climb hadn’t been physically taxing, it was still a long day out and we were keen to get back to camp. The first rappel reminded us how difficult it is to manage ropes on low angle slab. So over the next couple of rappels we started using “saddle bags” to manage our ropes better. However, by the last rappel, I just wanted to get back to the ground (and dinner). Rather than taking the extra couple of minutes to coil the rope into a saddle bag and bring it down with me, I took the “easy” way out and just tossed them down. Let me tell you, I spent way more time untangling the ropes on my way down than it would have taken to coil them in the first place. Lesson learned.