Stephen EginoireComment

The Cow Head's Curse and Cognitive Triggers in Avalanche Terrain

Stephen EginoireComment
The Cow Head's Curse and Cognitive Triggers in Avalanche Terrain

By R J Howe

Mike Barney emerges from the white room. Photo by  Jeff Cricco

Mike Barney emerges from the white room. Photo by Jeff Cricco

Red dirt does not look like gold, not even while squinting through the hot summer sun. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (cow’s head in Spanish) claimed this locale to be Cibola, one of seven golden cities. It was not. It was instead, on this fine July day of 1540, the Zuni red clay pueblo of Hawikuh (west central modern-day New Mexico). This trip was supposed to be about glory and melting stolen gold into currency. Hell, God was even on board. The expedition was 30-year-old Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s big chance to become a legend and make a pile of money in the process. On the muster roll were 336 soldiers; a compliment of catholic friars (they spoke for God, of course); 700 indigenous Mexican mercenaries; and herds of cattle and sheep. They even brought tricked-out gilded helmets and golden suits for their horses.

Every technology known to the empire of Spain was at Coronado’s disposal, accompanied by an A list baller crew of colonial philanderers, ready to enable his faux heroic exploits. Donny C and his homies – Pedro de Tovar, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, Friar Marcos de Niza and Pedro de Castenada de Najera – came ready to roll, son! They loaded up and left the southern mainland town of Compostela, Spain, in February 1540. 

The epic that ensued, for the sake of brevity and our troubled attention spans, was nothing short of blundering across the landscape of what is now Mexico and New Mexico. By July 7, 1540, in the heart of indigenous Zuni territory, the expedition found itself broken and exhausted of resources. How this transpired is another story, but we all know what happens when conquistadors are done blundering. That’s right, they start plundering. Coronado describes, in a report to Viceroy Mendoza, his raid on the people of Hawikuh: 

“On this account I saw that it was no longer time to hesitate, and as the priests approved the action, I charged them. There was little to do, because they suddenly took to flight, part running toward the city, which was near and well-fortified.  As that was where the food was, of which we stood in such great need, I assembled my whole force and divided them as seemed to me best for the attack on the city, and surrounded it. The hunger which we suffered would not permit of any delay ... I ordered the musketeers and crossbowmen to begin the attack and drive back the enemy from the defenses, so that they could not do us any injury. I assaulted the wall on one side, where I was told that there was a scaling ladder and that there was also a gate.” (Cultures and Histories of the American Southwest)               

The bummer about golden helmets is that they make really good targets. During the attack, a young Zuni boy drilled Coronado, square on the dome piece, with a boulder that he threw from the pueblo wall. This promptly knocked the Don off his armored Spanish pony. Again Coronado’s description:

“Thus, for myself, they knocked me down to the ground twice with countless great stones which they threw down from above, and if I had not been protected by the very good headpiece which I wore, I think that the outcome would have been bad for me. They picked me up from the ground, however, with two small wounds in my face and an arrow in my foot, and with many bruises on my arms and legs, and in this condition, I retired from the battle, very weak. I think that if Don García López de Cárdenas had not come to my help, like a good cavalier, the second time that they knocked me to the ground, by placing his own body above mine, I should have been in much greater danger than I was. But, by the pleasure of God, these Indians surrendered, and their city was taken with the help of Our Lord, and a sufficient supply of corn was found there to relieve our necessities.” (Cultures and Histories of the American Southwest)

Long story short, the expedition continues. They stumble on to the south rim of Grand Canyon, then sputter back east to the bison-rich plains of Kansas. The bumble fuck eventually dissolves, unceremoniously, on the banks of the Rio Grande in the winter of 1541. 

Mike Barney high above the town of Silverton, Colorado. Photo by  Jeff Cricco

Mike Barney high above the town of Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Jeff Cricco

Hold on a second, what in the name of God, gold and glory does this have to do with traveling in avalanche terrain? Well, if our minds are a byproduct of the cultural habits of our predecessors, then we may have inherited some character traits from Coronado. The conquistador approach to landscape and traveling upon it may still resonate through our behavior in big mountains. Clichés are annoying, but try this shoe on. A group of mid to late 20-year-olds – equipped with the finest technology of their day and a sense of entitlement-seeking adventure, fortune and glory – venture into the unknown with blind ambition. Sound familiar? 

Now, we know snow is complicated. It exists at a triple point between liquid, vapor and solid. Snow is a shape shifter. To make matters more difficult, the landscape upon which it falls is rugged and unforgiving. Add to that the randomness of mountain weather and you’ve got yourself a big bag of question marks. Yet, the modern human appears far more complex. It seems that traveling in avalanche terrain has less to do with the inner workings of snow grains and more to do with the head space of the rider. In order to understand our minds, we have to grapple with the lessons of history. So enters the Cow Head’s Curse.

It hurts to admit, but I’ve blundered like a Cabeza de Vaca in the high country plenty of times. How often do we bring ambition, technological crutches and hubris-laced entitlement into the mountains? It is of no merit to detract from the sublime happiness, the visceral stoke or the moments of crystalline clarity that come from a day spent riding the velvet canvas of snowy summits. But, we have to at least recognize our inherited cultural predisposition to be blinded by our goals, noisy minds and complex tools. We may have learned this from our ancestors, but a curse is really only the repetition of past mistakes. To move forward, we must deconstruct our cognitive habitude.

In the swirling flux of thought, what we once took to be concrete morphs into what we hold true at any given moment. This is our brain at work. Continued research has introduced the idea of heuristics into the realm of decision making in avalanche terrain. This is a classic observation of social science and psychology. We take mental shortcuts that are based on habitual norms. These short cuts are an energy-saving adaptation of a busy human mind. For example, the coffee was in the top drawer yesterday.  Instead of launching a search for the coffee today, our brains make the assumptive jump that the coffee will be there once again. We open the drawer and voila! 

In a sense, you could say that we have two minds. One that operates on the quick, making fast intuitive decisions. Another that operates slowly, making analytical decisions. The interplay between these two facets should, in theory, produce sound judgement. Big buzz kill here: when it comes to making choices in avalanche terrain, energy-saving short cuts can produce wildly irrational and myopic behavior. So, how do we change a deeply grooved brain habit? You guessed it, mindfulness. More specifically, situational awareness. There is a boat load of research on cultivating awareness out there. Good news, it’s not just for hippies anymore! Give this a try, in a cyclical fashion, on your next backcountry tour: STOP, LOOK, GO.

Mike Barney gets in one last lap before sundown. Photo by  Jeff Cricco

Mike Barney gets in one last lap before sundown. Photo by Jeff Cricco


  • This can be for two seconds or 20 minutes. 

  • Pause, refuel, thermoregulate and reconnect with the snow and your partners.

  • Use a cognitive “trigger” or “reset” phrase that grabs your attention (e.g. “let’s take a look here” or “are we missing anything here?” or “what’s the worst that could happen here?”.


  • This can be for two seconds or 20 minutes.

  • Take in new information and observations.

  • Make a plan, communicate and make sure that everybody is on board.


  • Execute the plan.

  • Move with purpose and focus.

  • Re-evaluate, continue or run for cover.

To avoid degenerating into abject paranoia and mental fatigue, engage this process anytime your tour is at an inflection point. Examples would be terrain changes (like slope angle, aspect, elevation, configuration and consequence), group changes (like ambition, energy level and attitude) and snowpack changes (like wind loading, new snow and signs of instability).

Of course, this is an oversimplification of a complex process, but so often the things that cloud our judgement have little to do with the task at hand. Anything we can do to refocus and redirect our awareness, to what is happening under our feet, will help us make a more rational choice. In the mountains, we are only as good as our last successful decision. Each moment requires awareness and skillful attention. We have to tune into the landscape and the dynamic medium of snow. We cannot afford blind ambition and loud minds. In other words, we must not be cow-headed conquistadors.

R J Howe is a writer of hopeful Renaissance through ecological awareness and restoration. He combines optimism with observations and lessons learned throughout history. In other words, he is a delusional slow learner.