Initial Publication Date: August 17, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022

Ethical Dilemmas of Backcountry Skiing and Guiding

Dave Mogk, Emma Vigers and Matt Wood, Montana State University-Bozeman


This case study explores decision-making in high risk settings such as back-country skiing. The scenarios presented have application to many field-based studies where of physical injury or even death may be an outcome in circumstances that have known predictable risks that must be evaluated. Go? or No Go? What factors must be considered to ensure the safety of the group while achieving desired objectives? What are the ethical responsibilities of group leaders and group members in high-risk situations? Recommended readings on high-risk decision making are provided.


This case study can be used in a range of Earth Science classes including Introductory Environmental Geology to upper division courses.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students should be familiar with the 7 Step Ethical Decision Making Model:

How the activity is situated in the course
We advocate using these Case Studies as a "5 minute challenge" inserted into any Earth Science course to support Teaching Geoethics Across the Curriculum. Regular exercises focused on considerations of Geoethics can be integrated to reinforce ethical principles in the training of future geoscientists and for the general public. Group discussions, role playing, and short reflective writing exercises may be used to engage these issues.  Students should do assigned reading from the suggested articles (bottom of page) in preparation for class activity that could be: small group discussion, role playing exercise, Socratic questioning, etc.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The primary goal of this activity is to provide the opportunity for students to practice ethical decision-making using a real-life scenario. This includes a careful assessment of the facts of the situation, formulating a course of action, and considering the consequences of these actions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Ethical decision-making is closely aligned with critical thinking skills. Resolution of ethical dilemmas requires both synthetic and analytical reasoning.

Other skills goals for this activity
Communication skills are required to present analysis of the case study and to defend a recommended course of action.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Personal and group responsibilities are addressed to determine how to respond to high risk situations in the field. In this case, the scenario is focused on back country skiing in avalanche prone areas, but the example extends to any situation in the field where there is significant risk of physical injury or death.

Description and Teaching Materials

This case study investigates ethical decision-making in the high-risk setting of back country skiing in avalanche prone areas. Students are asked to review numerous incidents where catastrophic avalanches resulted in injury and death. How are decisions made in these situations to proceed or not? What is the ethical responsibility of group leaders? Of individual participants?

Case Study Scenario

Many skiers killed in avalanches are expert skiers who have lots of experience traveling in avalanche terrain. For example, in 2003, Ken Wylie and Ruedi Beglinger guided a group of 19 experienced skiers into the British Columbia backcountry. Many of the skiers, including Wylie, had a bad feeling about the couloir's stability but did not speak up. An avalanche was triggered and seven people were killed. Nine years later in Washington, sixteen of the nation's top skiers and snowboarders tried to ski Tunnel Creek. An avalanche was triggered and four skiers were buried, three of whom were killed. Why do so many expert skiers trigger avalanches, despite their experience and training? Many Earth Scientists work in settings that are physically hazardous. How can these scenarios inform responsible decision making for scientific expeditions in high-risk areas?

Download the full Case Study and supporting materials: Ethical Dilemmas of Backcountry Skiing and Guiding (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Aug17 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students should be given time to read and reflect on the scenarios that are presented. Supporting articles from the popular press and scholarly journals are also provided for deeper exploration of these topics. Class discussion (or Case Study written review) can be guided following the 7 Step Ethical Decision-Making model. There are no absolute right or wrong answers here--but students should be encouraged to understand the full context of the situation and possible responses and their consequences. Recommended decisions should be based on the strength of evidence presented.

Students should be encouraged to do their own investigative work to explore these issues in more detail.

The background information provided in the scenario and supporting materials can be used as the foundation for classroom practice such as these strategies from Pedagogy in Action:


Personal Reflection:

  1. Identify your own relevant personal values in relation to this ethical dilemma
  2. Identify any societal values relevant to the ethical decision to be made
  3. Identify the relevant professional values and ethics

Written or Oral Responses to this Ethical challenge:

  1. Develop your own rubric for the 7 Step Decision-Making Model, to demonstrate the completeness or maturity of student thought for each step.
  2. As an example, apply this rubric on Assessment: Measuring Students' Moral Development from the Illinois Institute of Technology,  :

"One tool for grading longer, more complex essays and case study responses is the Pittsburgh-Mines Engineering Ethics Assessment Rubric. This grading matrix was developed by a team of researchers from engineering, philosophy, and bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines. (6) While made for analyzing students' analyses of engineering ethics cases, variations of this kind of rubric could be used for almost any assignment of this kind. The rubric measures the following five attributes: on a scale of "1 (lowest) through 5 (highest)"

Recognition of dilemmas
   (1) students fail to see problem;
     (5) student clearly identifies key ethical issues.
     (1) students ignore important facts;
     (5) students identify unknown facts and use their own expertise to add appropriate information
     (1) students provide no analysis;
     (5) students cite analogous cases, offer more then one alternative solution, and identify risks for each solution.
     (1) students have wondering perspective;
     (2) students have one perspective;
     (5) students have global perspective.(6)
     (1) No resolution, resolution lacks integrity;
     (5) resolves case thoroughly through clear argumentation and understands consequences of various actions.

References and Resources

Branch, John. "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek." New York Times (2012): n. pag. Web.

McCammon, Ian. "Evidence Of Heuristic Traps In Recreational Avalanche Accidents." International Snow Science Workshop (2002): n. pag. Snow Pit. Web.

O'Connor, Joe. "The Day The Mountain Fell." National Post (2014): n. pag. Web.

Page, David. "The Human Factor." POWDER Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

Stuart, Ryan. "Reflections After the Avalanche." POWDER Magazine. N.p., 20 Nov. 2014. Web.

Research on Back Country. Skiing Decision-Making

Hendrikx, J. and Johnson, J., 2014, September. Using global crowd-sourced data to understand travel behavior in avalanche terrain. In Proceedings of the international snow science workshop (pp. 224-227).

Hendrikx, J., Johnson, J. and Shelly, C., 2016. Using GPS tracking to explore terrain preferences of heli-ski guides. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 13, pp.34-43.

Hendrikx, J. and Johnson, J., 2016, October. Understanding global crowd sourcing data to examine travel behavior in avalanche terrain. In Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop, Breckenridge, Colorado, USA (pp. 737-743).

Johnson, J., Haegeli, P., Hendrikx, J. and Savage, S., 2016. Accident causes and organizational culture among avalanche professionals. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 13, pp.49-56.

Johnson, Jerry, Andrea Mannberg, Jordy Hendrikx, Audun Hetland, and Matthew Stephensen. "Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm in avalanche education: Past, present and future." Cogent Social Sciences 6, no. 1 (2020): 1807111.

Mannberg, A., Hendrikx, J. and Johnson, J., 2020. Risky positioning–social aspirations and risk-taking behaviour in avalanche terrain. Leisure Studies, pp.1-18.
Mannberg, A., Hendrikx, J., Landrø, M. and Stefan, M.A., 2018. Who's at risk in the backcountry? Effects of individual characteristics on hypothetical terrain choices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 59, pp.46-53.

Sykes, J., Hendrikx, J., Johnson, J. and Birkeland, K.W., 2020. Combining GPS tracking and survey data to better understand travel behavior of out-of-bounds skiers. Applied geography, 122, p.102261.