Article in 'The Professional Mountaineer' on Heuristic Traps

Article in 'The Professional Mountaineer' on Heuristic Traps by Adrian Nelhams

(1) Excerpt from 'Haunted by the Ghost' - Wham! It’s seemed to come from nowhere. I’m leaden above my waist & my arms stop working. I feel myself losing grip of the ice tools, my hands totally pumped & solid. My fingers are opening up and I there’s nothing I can do about it! I look down at the ropes but they are just hanging limp & lifeless, arcing away out of sight - I can’t even see the last screw. My heart is pumping so fast, cold sweat is pouring down my face & in my eyes. I’m losing grip! Why can’t I get the weight back on my feet? It all feels undercut & overhanging. Leashless. I let go with one hand and try to shake it out, hoping that I’ll at least start to get some relief. But as soon as I let go with one hand the other feels like it’s giving out and I grab the tool again. I try again, again and again, hoping that the slightest relief would start to loosen up the lactic acid that’s gone solid in my hands and arms. I’ve never experienced this before; my whole upper body is solid and I don’t know where it’s come from. It’s serious here, 5 pitches up, 2 hours walking in through thick pine forest and 1 hour of serious off-road driving to the roadhead. I look down again as the void engulfs me, and prepare for the worst.

I watch my hands unclenching. Almost detached now, my gaze wanders to my leather gloves. The gloves have a short cuff that I can see clearly, as my jacket sleeve has ridden up. As a final throw of the dice, I hook the cuff of my glove over the finger spur on the very end of the ice tool. Suddenly there’s hope! Suspended by the cuff I’m able to drill in a screw, calm myself down and finish the final 50m ice pitch.

But it left me shaken. Only the day before had I climbed a hard and rarely formed and fragile grade 6 ice pitch and it was one of my best leads on ice ever! - I couldn’t understand it. This route was 5 pitches of grade 5, standard stuff when all winter I’d been climbing that grade and harder. This was my third visit from the Canadian Rockies and had climbed this route twice before – it didn’t make sense.

But that was the problem! In retrospect I realize that I was tired. I was tired on the 2 hour approach – it was the last day. I felt fatigued on the initial easy pitches and failed to ignore the warning signs,

“But I’ll be ok, it’s only grade 5!” I had fallen into the heuristic trap of familiarity.

Humans make mistakes, and a common human trait is that we recognise common patterns of data and instinctively apply the ‘Rule of Thumb’, This experience-based approach to problem-solving is called Heuristic. I had applied the ‘Rule of Thumb’, and looking back realise I ignored some small warning signs. Unfortunately being a professional, or an expert or just a very experienced person in a particular activity doesn’t safeguard you from falling into the Heuristic trap of Familiarity.

When groups of experienced and inexperienced climbers were compared, the experienced climbers, as you might expect, were at a distinct advantage on unfamiliar terrain where they critically examined available data. However, on familiar terrain there was little difference between experienced and inexperienced groups. This can be seen clearly in this graph:


As professionals we need to be aware of this Heuristic Trap of Familiarity.

We need to give thought as to how we can build in Safety mechanisms to protect us against this in our own fields of expertise.

I learned from that near miss! My protection is through training, knowledge and experience, coupled with a constant checklist - questioning what I do and welcoming others questioning those decisions.

  • Planning
  • Blank sheet
  • Transparent guiding
  • Create the right culture
  • Constantly assessing

I plan the day from information that I collect from other BMG and foreign guides, experienced climbers, climbers that have been there more recently, the hut guardian (cast your net far and wide, the internet [twitter, blogs and websites]), weather forecasts past and present, ability and experience of the clients - bearing also in mind their aims and objectives

I always start each day with a ‘Blank Sheet’ - I take into account all of the planning, but what has the actual weather overnight, what is the actual weather today (here and now) how do you as the guide feel, how do the clients feel: is it still the right decision as planned, or do we need to change our objective today?

I’m transparent in my guiding so that clients are already bought into (the sometimes difficult) decisions I make, as they understand the process of decision-making you go through throughout the objective/goal and as an upshot will learn more through these experiences and from it, and your decisions will be made easier. (editor’s note: the recent Sheriff’s recommendations after a fatality on Skye endorse this approach as well as equipping the clients to deal with the possibility of the leader becoming incapacitated for any reason).

This also creates the right culture and environment for leaders to make better decisions. My clients feel that they are able to question my decisions and feel that it’s a learning and constructive environment which in the end allows me to analyse the situation better and ultimately make better decisions.

Don’t fall into the ‘Expert Halo Trap’ whereby you’re the leader and others just follow, thinking you know best. But we’re all human and you need to get people to take personal responsibility.

I’m constantly assessing the terrain, the weather, the clients, the objective, the time and what implications any of these have to the outcome of the day.

Enjoy the ice this winter, but just because you’ve done the route a hundred times before, don’t be complacent, take in all the information and then start the day with a blank sheet.

Stay safe!

Adrian Nelhams

(1) See ‘Haunted by the Ghost’ in the BMG book called ‘A passion for Mountains’ Edited edited by Hannah Burrows-Smith for the rest of this gripping tale.


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