MIS40670 – Buxton’s Avalanche Case

From Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences (Buxton, 2007).

This case sets  the issues for high-tech design. Design that works “in the wild”,
that works for real people in real situations and facilitates achieving their human goals.

Bill Buxton sets the scene for us with his avalanche responder case. It is an incident
experienced by Bill’s good friend Saul Greenberg, Saul Greenberg, and three friends when
skiing in high mountainous terrain in Canmore and Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.

The group was traversing a valley slopeimage when a lethal avalanche fell across their path.
The three skiers in the middle of the group were caught in the slide. The lead (Saul’s wife)
and the last skier could only watch the disaster
unfold as the three others were engulfed
by the avalanche.

One was simply knocked down, one was buried up to her shoulders and the last  Saul, was missing.

The group was well prepared in that the equipment they carried consisted of transceivers, probe sticks & shovels.


But more than just the technology; it also requires knowledge, shared practices, skills, and analysis of a concrete situation (among others). When skiing in avalanche prone conditions, you work one of a number of simple systems depending on the severity of the risk. One was simply knocked down, one was buried up to her shoulders, and the last, Saul, her husband, was missing. The normal procedure when traversing is to spread out. Lookouts at either and and traverse one-by-one. Retain one lookout.Triage; rescue the most able first (and they may be able to assist later). Go to the approximate location, judge if carried, then guide using transceiver. Use avalanche probe. When the victim is felt you start to dig. And dig. Judy started digging. Steve arrived and asked if she had verified the spot with her probe, she hadn’t. Judy was confident that she had the right spot, but by this time she had had to dig so deep that her confidence was wavering…

What did Saul do? He tried to ski his way out but got caught in the hollow (avalanches can travel at up to 200km/hour whereas 40km/hour is really fast for a skier). He got caught in the trough, a ‘feature trap’, that also meant he was buried deep! But he had cupped his hand over his mouth and nose, preserving a small air space so he could breathe. He waited, imageburied under the weight of the snow, and tried to relax. He had to trust in his partners, their training, his and their gear.

None of the participants had ever been in this situation before. The total time from slide to rescue was about 10 minutes. Under the conditions, after 20 minutes he would have been dead.

Ask yourselves; After the ‘who’, what saved Saul? If avalanches are so lethal how or why  did he survive? If there is a system here? There is isn’t there? If so what is it?

Well I think the system is there and it consists of a combination of human & technology factors. I this case human factors consisted of

1) Ad-hoc Problem Solving: None in the group had ever been in this situation before. But they devised methods ad-hoc to rescue Saul

    • Context
    • Ad-hoc
    • Adapting

2) Training: Saul used his training and put his hand over his mouth & nose to preserve a small air space, this proved to be crucial as it was taking time to dig him out.

    • Rescue Training
    • Survival Training

And technological factors involved were

1) Procedures: The group spread out so that there are always lookouts in such emergencies

    • Lookouts at either
    • Traverse one-by-one.
    • Retain one lookout.
    • Triage; Rescue the most able first (and they may be able to assist later)

2) Equipment: The group had transceiver, probe and shovel at their disposable for such situations

    • Transceiver
    • Shovel
    • Probe Stick

But still it was the combination of the two that saved Saul. Though technology to locate accurately was available Judy relied on her eye sight & instincts and was confident that she was digging the right spot. But when she could not locate Saul her confidence wavered, so if she would have relied on evidence, she would have been sure about the burial location. And if transceiver would not have been there and as Saul was buried too deep, it would have been extremely difficult for the group to locate him.

We have our intentions for technology, it should just work. The system just works, in the wild. But what do we need to do to get it to work?

First have trust in the technology and then rely on it. And ensure that the system does take care of the context and environment landscape where it is supposed to function.

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1 Response to MIS40670 – Buxton’s Avalanche Case

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