Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Experience, A Necessary But Not Sufficient Precursor For Situational Awarness

After any outdoor accident, you'll hear people talking glibly about situational awareness. What most of these people seem to mean is an awareness of what is going on around you in your environment. Few people, apart from trained ACMG guides, seem to really understand or demonstrate situational awareness, which is not only being aware of your surroundings, yourself and your peers, but recognizing patterns and understanding what they mean for you/your group, and finally, projecting forward in time and recognizing potential outcomes.

There are times when I've experienced, what feels like, near perfect situational awareness; suddenly everything coalesces into a coherent picture and, as if a movie were playing in my head, a series of different outcomes unravel each preceded by a different action - or inaction - on my part. I choose the appropriate action and we move on, the entire experience running almost outside of conscious thought.

The same people who comment slickly on situational awareness assume that their own level is high from their "years" of outdoor experience. While experience is a necessary precursor to situational awareness, experience alone does not produce situational awareness. A number of other antecedents are necessary.

The first is a wide range of experience under a wide range of conditions with a wide range of people. This is harder to achieve than most people assume, because, without real ambition to improve (something that is rarer than you think), most people take the comfortable route and recreate under good conditions, with the same (they assume) reliable partners, and, all too often, even in the same areas, doing the same hike, climb or ski trip over and over again. Such a narrow range of experience while comfortable will never lead to situational awareness. Friends of mine, who have gone on to become ACMG certified guides, spent multiple years going out in bad conditions, over terrain that was novel, with all kinds of different partners to build up this range of experience.

Even years of experience under a widely varying array of conditions will not lead to situational awareness if the experience remains unexamined. Close scrutiny of everything that went on during every trip with an eye to what could be improved upon is necessary. Painful, if one is honest, but necessary nonetheless. In a perfect world, every recreationalist would have an omnipotent mentor who could give the necessary feedback. The reality is, however, that most recreationalists bumble along with partners who are at a level close to their own and are thus not qualified to provide feedback - even if they knew how. Astute recreationalists can critique their own trips and recognize their own weak areas, but, this assumes a level of knowledge that many recreationalists never reach, caught as they are in a cycle of marginal competence. Competent enough to achieve some objectives, but not competent enough to recognize their own weak areas and how to improve upon them.

Finally, a thick skin, determined attitude, and internal motivation to improve are necessary. A thick skin helps keep your self-esteem intact when you come back from every trip with a list - long or short - of things you could improve upon, and there is always something. A determined attitude will see you through the hard times when it would be easier to just go out and do an easy trip you know well, with comfortable partners. People who are motivated by what their friends are doing, what the cool people are doing, or what is fashionable at the time, will never succeed, as the moment the going gets tough, or the influential people change sports, they'll be gone, onto the next trendy activity. The people who really succeed are those that keep going no matter what their friends or the local trend-setters are doing.

Developing mastery, which by definition, includes situational awareness, has been widely studied in many fields from aviation to chess, and, the consensus is that mastery requires a minimum of ten years of focused practice. That isn't ten years of going out occasionally - or even frequently - to have fun with your friends. That's ten years of going out every day working harder than you did the day before, analyzing your experience and adjusting your behavior accordingly. Rare indeed. 

A simple scramble made more 
difficult by bad weather and conditions

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