“Look where you want to go!”
I have conveyed this message to wilderness course participants countless times, shouting, screaming, and using hand signals when necessary. Sometimes I’m yelling above the roar of a set of rapids or the sound of an adjacent waterfall.
“Look where you want to go!”
I emphatically issue the same advice while watching climbers rappelling down a cliff, or verbally guiding a student on a mountain bike through a sketchy section of trail. In each case, the point of my shouting is to get the students to stop looking at the obstacle.
“Look where you want to go” really translates as “Stop looking at the obstacle! Don’t fixate on the hazard!”
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Wilderness First Responder approaching the scene of a backcountry incident, or a student on a wilderness course attempting to navigate a perceived hazard or obstacle, looking too closely at a hazard you want to avoid can be very dangerous.
At first glance — no pun intended — you might think it wise to actually look closely at the hazard you want to avoid. No argument there. You absolutely need to identify obstacles, especially in the backcountry and other places considered Wilderness. In fact, identifying an obstacle is a key factor in remaining safe.
But here’s the thing: If you’re focusing all your attention on the obstacle ahead, you are either going to hit it, fall into it, or fall off of it.
The idea is to identify the obstacle and then look to where you want to go. You want to take the action that enables you to go where you want to go in order to avoid the obstacle, and maybe start moving in the direction away from the identified hazard.
Target Fixation and the Incident Pit
The term “target fixation” was originally coined during World War II when it was discovered that fledgling pilots practicing for combat would crash into the targets on which they were supposed to be dropping bombs.
Target fixation also comes into play when hikers, climbers, and other outdoor adventurers overly focus on an outcome, such as getting to a destination on time, summiting a peak, or running a rapid. An example of this would be summit fever, where the individual’s focus is in achieving a goal, meanwhile failing to identify hazards — or even ignoring hazards in order to be successful.
Bottom line? By looking too closely at the obstacle or target and you’ll either miss an opportunity to avoid danger or you’ll ignore all the warnings that lead to incidents of greater consequence.
Which brings us to another term: The “incident pit.”
An “incident pit” occurs when an individual or team ignores, or misses a series of hazards, which can lead to an incident such as injury or even death. Dismissing obstacles can be a fixation situation as stated above, or it could be due to experience bias or lack of understanding how small things eventually become big things.
If you think of a pit or a hole, you know that as the sides get steeper, it becomes more difficult to get out of the pit, and the sides start to collapse and bury whatever is in that pit.
Let’s take a solo climber’s experience as an example. Our climber decides to solo a moderate alpine route, choosing to undertake the route in late winter. He ignores the fact the weather is warmer than expected. En route to the climb, it becomes foggy — whiteout foggy. Visibility is incredibly low and the climber can’t see the route from the base of the ravine.
Spotting a giant boulder and assuming it is at the bottom of the route, the climber waits for the fog to clear in order to start the ascent. During the wait, the climber gets cold, maybe eats up some of the rations that were meant for the climb and begins to experience stiff arms and legs from inactivity.
In our “incident pit” analogy above, the hole is starting to get steeper, but not yet beyond getting out. So, the fog clears, the climber assesses his location and realizes the route is nowhere near the rest stop.
Forty minutes of holding a lantern over deep snow in the growing darkness and trying to avoid rocks sliding out of the snowpack, our climber finds the route. Exhausted, he nonetheless puts on crampons, gets out axes and slowly starts his ascent — three hours behind schedule.
The incident pit is getting deeper and the sides steeper.
Three quarters of the way up the climb, and with the summit in view, the climber kicks through the ice, the right leg waist deep in ice that is melting and peeling off the headwall. It’s at this point that our climber admits to an unacceptable level of exhaustion and realizes the danger of the warm temps and the rotten ice conditions.
He makes himself as comfortable as possible on the ravine floor, staring up at what could have been — either an amazing free solo of the headwall, or a bad slip or a fatal fall. Neither event happened, which leads our climber to a sense of disappointment for not finishing the climb, and a sense of relief for having avoided a terrible misstep.
At this point, the incident pit was both deep and steep, but our climber made the right choice: Time to turn around and head for home. Could he have made the choice earlier, based on conditions? Could the climb have been successfully completed?
I’ll never know. But what I do know is that I was able to get home safely that day with lessons learned. I became hyper aware of the need to access danger, avoid “target (obstacle) fixation” and avoid falling too far into an “incident pit.”
I learned the importance of thinking, taking my time, identifying potential obstacles and hazards, moving to avoid them and beware the hazards of placing goals and objectives over safety and well-being.
We all want to return home to tell the stories of our triumphs, failed attempts and mishaps. Many adventurers have forgotten to take these precautions, leaving it to others to tell their stories.
For more information on backcountry safety and site management, expedition planning, and returning home better than when you left, please contact our staff here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education. Target fixation and incident pits are topics that are covered on our backcountry courses, as is protecting yourself when entering the scene of a backcountry incident while in the role of a Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness EMT.
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About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field of outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.