By Katie Wallace, Preventive Search and Rescue Specialist, Kane County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue
“This is a real wake-up call for me. I am an Eagle Scout.” Earlier that day, he had been hiking with family in the Dry Fork area off the Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While his party continued on to explore Peekaboo Gulch, he turned back, deciding he had had enough after the steep descent. During his return to the car, he got disoriented and strayed far from the trail. When his family returned to the car and did not find him there, they
got worried and called for help.
A couple of Kane County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Bureau of Land Management Rangers went to the scene and both conducted interviews with the family and conducted a hasty search of the most likely areas he might be lost. The Kane County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team was alerted and began the process of gearing up and driving out. An all-night search ensued, and eventually, a faint voice was heard in response to yelling his name.
His voice echoed strangely around the canyon walls and it took time to track him down, but the team was eventually able to pinpoint his location, give him snacks and fluids, walk him to the parking lot and drive him and his vehicle back to town to be reunited with his family.
His comment upon being rescued (see above) really stuck with me. It had been probably 30 or 40 years since he received his Eagle Scout award, but he wielded its presence in his life as if it were a free pass to smart outdoor decision making. The dynamic at play here is actually not so uncommon.
“Overconfidence bias” is a well-studied phenomenon, particularly when it comes to outdoor recreation accidents: the famous Yosemite climber who forgot to tie a knot into the end of his rappel; the guides who died instead of turning around on Mt. Everest in 1996, featured in John Krakauer’s biopic, Into Thin Air; a dear mentor of mine known to be a very thoughtful and smart individual who died in an avalanche in 2019.
A few weeks ago, even I succumbed to overconfidence bias. While hiking a trail I had done a couple of times previously, I down-climbed a boulder jam via a fixed rope with knots in it. I should have approached the descent more carefully and picked a different line for my feet, but I watched a group ahead of us descend a particular way, and feeling quite confident in my own strength and abilities and quite familiar with the canyon, I followed suit without taking a few extra seconds to
determine what my best route down would be.
As I got about halfway down, my feet slipped, transferring all my weight into my hands, resulting in my ring finger getting crushed onto one of the rope’s knots. X-rays turned up a fracture and 12 weeks of typos while I figure out how to navigate life with a finger brace.
It was a simple mistake that could have happened to anyone, but I would bet that my first descent into that canyon had been much more cautious. Familiarity breeds overconfidence.
Our brains can play other tricks on us too. “Confirmation bias” is when new information is either discredited or made to fit an original plan or idea. This one is often brought up when it comes to political ideology – it is easy to dismiss new information as “fake news” in order to hold onto one’s preciously held ideas. This circumstance is also quite common in Search and Rescue. I think about the groups who accidentally get to the Wave parking lot far later than they know they should start hiking, but they know that Wave permits are hard to get and they only have them for one day, so they disregard the inconvenient circumstance and start hiking anyway, requiring later rescues for heat exhaustion or getting lost while trying to hike back at nighttime.
Confirmation bias shows up often in navigational situations, too – despite any number of clues that someone might be headed in the wrong direction, the human brain has a tendency to get stuck on an idea such as “it should be in this direction. I’ll keep going.” Even savvy map readers can be guilty of trying to make the terrain match the map rather than use the map to figure out which terrain is in front of us.
Another cognitive “trick” we sometimes see in Search and Rescue is what is known as “expert halo,” where we over-trust someone with perceived experience, knowledge or skills. If you are new to a particular outdoor pursuit, you obviously want to trust in those who are more experienced. However, this can have its limits. If you have doubts about what your group is getting itself into, speak up! Perhaps your “expert” has overconfidence bias!
When we do technical rope rescues, every system gets safety checked several times, every system has a back-up system and every single person is capable and culpable for making sure the scene is safe. One of our standard procedures is that anyone at any time can yell “STOP” and everyone will repeat it loudly and stop what they’re doing.
Even if they are brand new to rope rescue, if something looks “off,” we value a hard stop to double-check that it’s correct before we move forward.
Next time you’re adventuring, take a little extra time to sort through your brain’s unintended biases so you stay safe out there!
Got a SAR question or an idea for a future article? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The SAR team familiarizes itself with routes around the Wave to prepare for possible future rescues. Photo courtesy of Kane County Search & Rescue.