Avalanche Science & Risk at Altitude

November 2017

The following post is an update of my previous article from Dec 2015…. (see original here). As winter approaches and we prepare ski touring and snowshoeing trips away from the groomed and secured slopes questions of risk in the mountains come up. See our page Safety in the Mountains for practical information about how we manage risks on our trips.


Avalanche Science

There is growing awareness of and research into the human element in avalanche accidents (see NY Times article). To make a totally obvious point, an avalanche is not a accident until there is a human being in it. Avalanches are everywhere in the mountains, as are floods, rock and mud slides. The mountains are a study in gravity. Gravity is acceleration (speeding up) at 9.8m²/sec, which makes gravity dangerous! Defying gravity is wondrous, and it is wondrous because it is improbable – we know this when we see it, which is why we are amazed. But no-one defies gravity for very long.

Having lived in the mountains for 14 years I have heard my fair share of stories and experienced the pain of people we know dying in avalanches and other accidents at altitude. Often it seems there is an almost fatalistic acceptance that this is part of life in the mountains. Powder Magazine and Black Diamond have teamed up to produce a haunting feature on the subject, called The Human Factor (sadly the magazine article no longer available on-line) which shares stories and the developing science. The follow up feature is also excellent. One key finding is that even as technical awareness of the snow pack and avalanche science has increased the death rate has remained stable. So more technical knowledge is not necessarily helping to reduce accidents. The videos from the first article can be watched here. The second article in the series is here: The Human Factor 2.0

Sébastien Escande from the French Snow and Avalanche Centre says “We see a discord between the analysis and the decision. In effect we have something unconscious that intervenes, that makes us deviate completely from what would otherwise be a logical decision, based on good analytics, to a decision that is ultimately completely incoherent with regard to what we should be able to see.

The SNGM (Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne), the National Association of Mountain Guides in France concludes that whatever the results of the science, they are intent on pursuing a global culture change privileging the idea of the mountains as a terrain for the expression of human qualities and values rather than a terrain for great performance feats. This is an excellent aim and one we wholly subscribe to. Articles available (in French) here.

Mood and Mental Health at Altitude

At Hotel Les Templiers in Luz we have some cycling clients from Utah in the USA and I stumbled on a radio interview with Professor Perry Renshaw when listening to our client being interviewed. He and his team have been researching what they call the Utah Paradox. Why people say they love the mountain lifestyle, and Utah is rated as the USA’s happiest state, but why it has some of the highest rates of suicide and antidepressant use in the USA. Apparently the reason may be that altitude (specifically less oxygen in the air, rather than pressure or another factor) affects the way our brains produce both serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is the happy hormone – it makes us feel relaxed and stable, and as a result also has a pacifying effect. Dopamine is the doing hormone. Like a cup of coffee it helps you focus and act. At altitude our brains make less serotonin and more dopamine. If your brain makes enough serotonin then the reduction in production when you are at altitude probably won’t matter – you may just experience a boost from the extra dopamine. But if you already have

low serotonin production then a move to altitude might lower it to levels that start to cause problems for your mood. The effects begin at about 600m, and start to become significant when you’ve stayed there for over 30 days. So a week’s skiing holiday will probably give you a dopamine boost (as will the adrenaline associated with the speed and fun) but won’t have any impact on your serotonin levels. But if you stay for a couple of months, it might. The higher you go the larger the effect, simply because there is less oxygen in the air. Utah as a state has an average elevation of 2000m. As a comparison Luz is at 700m, Chamonix at 1000m and Gavarnie at 1300m. Something I didn’t know was that women make 50% less serotonin than men. And make less as they get older. So middle aged women are the hardest hit. Might this be why women in our area are always wanting to retire down the valley and men would often prefer to stay up high? I always presumed it was better shopping and more people, but perhaps there is another factor! One solution might be extra oxygen through a breathing apparatus at night. Read more about it here. A final twist is that Utah has 50% less ADD and ADHD than New York – the hypothesis is that the extra dopamine helps focus.

Risk Taking at Altitude

While coming to the end of writing this newsletter it occurred to me there might be a link between altered brain chemistry at altitude and decision making in avalanche terrain. A quick google search reveals that dopamine (as we might well imagine) is indeed linked with appetite for risk. A study (1) where people were given a dopamine supplement drug found they were more likely to take larger risks. Further reading suggests that it is not even the winning that causes the release of extra dopamine, but the actual taking of the risk. Which is why we might continue with risky behaviour such as gambling even when we don’t win. This National Geographic article gives a nice overview.

More surprising for me was finding that lowered serotonin levels also increase risky choices (2). So at altitude its a double whammy – the lack of oxygen increases our dopamine production and lowers our serotonin production. Add that to an inherently risky mountainous environment and you have a triple whammy. Next time you are making a decision in a high altitude environment these findings are worth taking into account. Let’s remember all the things we love about the mountains – the extra sunshine (sure serotonin booster), the clear air, the views, and arriving at the bottom safely for a beer with our friends!


(1) Rob Rutledge, Aug. 2015, https://www.sfn.org/Press-Room/News-Release-Archives/2015/High-Levels-of-Dopamine-May-Lead-to-Increased-Risk-Taking

(2) Long et al., 2009: Serotonin shapes risky decision making in monkeys, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Vol 4(4), pp. 346-356.


Altitude training is a favourite with athletes – why do some respond and some not?

Your Brain on Altitude- How altitude can cause or prevent depression?

Why do different people have different levels of dopamine to start with? Might altitude be the answer for those who are short of a  dopamine receptor or two… Altitude as a cure for addiction.