Enhancing avalanche safety through philosophy

Every year, there are approximately 100 avalanche fatalities in Europe alone, with many more people injured in avalanche accidents whilst participating in outdoor sports. In an attempt to enhance safety in avalanche terrain, one Stirling academic has been exploring the role of human decision-making in avalanche accidents, with his findings helping to inform best practice among mountain safety practitioners, professionals and educators around the world.

person skiing in the mountains

Decision-making in dangerous territory

Dr Philip Ebert is a Senior Philosophy Lecturer at Stirling and qualified ski leader with many years of experience on the snow. His research on risk, rationality, and reasoning has dovetailed naturally with his passion for outdoor sports – where decision-making in dangerous territory can be a matter of life and death.

After his involvement in an avalanche incident in 2012, Dr Ebert delved further into the nature of how people make decisions in outdoor sports environments. He explored, for instance, how avalanche decision-making can give rise to an overconfidence bias. This can easily arise when an individual decision-maker misinterprets successful avalanche avoidance as a sign of competent decision-making. 

More recently, Dr Ebert identified a set of core lessons for decision-making in avalanche terrain which inspired fellow researchers from the world-leading Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Switzerland to test and corroborate his theoretical lessons.

Finally, since most skiers venture into the outdoors in groups, Dr Ebert’s most recent research focuses on how groups can improve their decision-making by drawing on insights from social choice theory – a branch of philosophy, economics, and political theory that focuses on formal theories of group decisions.

"The concepts Philip has illuminated are passed to a wide range of instructors, climbers, leaders, leisure managers and coaches on an ongoing basis and provide credibility to the nature of my own practice and the genesis of that of others."

Alan Halewood, Technical Advisor National Indoor Climbing Award Schemes

Influencing avalance education

From 2013-2020, Dr Ebert presented his research on avalanche terrain at several International Snow Science Workshops - the world’s largest workshop forum for snow and avalanche education, as well as at smaller workshops in France, Norway and Scotland.

His work is cited in one of the most widely used textbooks in avalanche education in the English-speaking world, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper, former director of the Utah Avalanche Center. Dr Ebert was also invited to contribute content for the British Mountain Guides (BMG) training programme on avalanche decision-making – the only UK qualification valid abroad for climbing and skiing off-piste on glacial terrain.

The Stirling academic has also worked closely with outdoor educators at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre, where he presented his work at the largest Continuing Professional Development event in the UK for outdoor instructors. He has since interacted with a wide range of outdoor professionals, e.g. with Alan Halewood (Technical Advisor to NICAS – the UK’s young climbing scheme) who credits Dr Ebert’s research as having “informed and underpinned my own practice as a professional Mountaineering Instructor.”

Dr Ebert has presented his research at workshops around the world, and his research is cited in one of the most widely used textbooks in avalanche education, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper.

Exploring the philosophy of risk

Comfort Zones is a short film featuring Dr Philip Ebert that examines what motivates some people to move from piste skiing to more explorative steep gully skiing. The aim of the movie is to challenge widely held misconceptions of “extreme” skiers as mere daredevils or as reckless risk-seekers. It also draws on research by and an interview with Professor Laurie Paul from Yale University. The film has been screened at 14 different international film festivals and received very positive reviews in national newspapers.

Enhancing best practice and communication

In recognition of Dr Ebert’s expertise in avalanche safety education, he has been invited to fulfil a number or roles with national organisations.

In 2019, he was invited to become the first academic philosopher on the board of the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS). He forms part of a reviews team that identifies new research of particular relevance for education and will attend future International Snow Science workshops in his capacity as a SAFOS representative.

Dr Ebert also provides advice and professional expertise to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, which issues daily avalanche bulletins for skiers and mountaineers in the UK and attracts around one million visitors to its website each year. In this role, he recently worked with the organisation to produce an extensive survey that is designed to enhance the way avalanche bulletins communicate risk to the many different people who rely on the Scottish Avalanche Information services when venturing into the Scottish Highlands in winter.

Dr Ebert's work with professional bodies and educators has also helped to inform his own research. He is currently leading an AHRC-funded project entitled Varieties of Risk, with his colleague Dr Martin Smith (Edinburgh) which brings together academics from the UK, Europe, and US to challenge existing definitions of risk. The project has received over £600,000 in funding from the AHRC and will run until 2023.

The AHRC-funded project "Varieties of Risk", led by Dr Ebert and his colleague Dr Martin Smith (Edinburgh), has received over £600,00 in funding to challenge and explore existing definitions of risk.

Related news

Scotsman review of Comfort Zones short film

Read the Scotsman's review of Comfort Zones - a short film narrated by Dr Ebert that explores risk vs. reward on the slopes. The documentary was shown at 14 film festivals across Europe from 2018-2019.

Varieties of Risk

An AHRC sponsored joint research project hosted by the University of Stirling and Edinburgh. The projects brings together researchers in philosophy, economics, and psychology and discusses the prospects of a form of risk pluralism.

Adventure Sports Coaching Conference

Dr Ebert highlighted some of the difficulties of developing competent decision-making skills at a Glenmore Lodge training event.

Related publications

Varieties of Risk

Ebert PA, Smith M & Durbach I (2020) Varieties of Risk. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 101 (2), pp. 432-455. https://doi.org/10.1111/phpr.12598

Bayesian reasoning in avalanche terrain: a theoretical investigation

Ebert P (2019) Bayesian reasoning in avalanche terrain: a theoretical investigation. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 19 (1), pp. 84-95. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2018.1508356

Know Your Own Competence

Ebert P (2015) Know Your Own Competence. Avalanche Review, 33 (4), pp. 22-24. https://www.americanavalancheassociation.org/tar-archives

Competent vs incompetent rare event forecasting and success

Ebert P & Photopoulou T (2013) Bayes' beacon: avalanche prediction, competence and evidence for competence. Modelling the effect of competent and incompetent predictions of highly improbable events. In: Proceedings, 2013 International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), Grenoble, France. International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) Proceedings. International Snow Science Workshop 2013, Grenoble, France, 07.10.2013-11.10.2013. Grenoble, France: Montana State University, pp. 363-370. http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/item.php?id=1817