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Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Posted by Kindra at Nov 15, 2017 12:10 PM |

The Forest Service and Baylor University have teamed up to see how they can improve visitor experience and safety on this popular trail.

The Big Four Ice Caves trail is a great family hike. Short and relatively flat, it offers a taste of Washington's natural wonders. In the summer months, the trail ends at a viewpoint of naturally formed ice caves. These ice caves are beautiful and intriguing, but they are also unstable. Falling and collapsing ice has led to a number of very serious injuries and deaths.

Ice cave formations viewed from the Big Four Ice Caves trail. Photo by trip reporter gobozov

The Ice cave formations make this a popular hike, but these caves are unstable and should only be viewed from the trail. Photo by trip reporter gobozo.

Last spring, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest entered into a collaborative project with Baylor University to explore new ways to improve visitor experience and visitor safety on the Big Four Ice Caves trail.

What has been studied thus far?

Starting in March, the research team conducted a number of phone interviews and focus groups. The goal: to better understand people's past experiences at the ice caves, impressions of safety concerns on the trail and what kind of information they felt should be included in signs used to warn visitors of dangers in the area.

Next, experts in areas of park interpretation, messaging and park design provided recommendations for messaging strategies and trail design used specifically for visitor safety.

During the month of August, the height of hiking season, graduate research assistants collected data from visitors for 21 days. On each day they changed the type of signs, design and content that visitors encountered on the trail. Then they followed up with a questionnaire.

From those data, researchers were able to determine:

  • What percentage of visitors engage in risk behavior near, on, or in the ice caves.
  • Who is going into the caves (male/female, age, level of education, history at the ice caves and prior outdoor experience)?
  • Visitors’ perceptions of the dangers associated with the ice caves and perceptions about their ability to control those dangers.
  • The effect of different signage strategies on risk behavior.
  • The effect of different signage strategies on how friends, family, other visitors judge risk behavior.
  • The effect of signage strategy on the quality of the experience of the visitor.

How you can help

The research team needs your help with the final phase of this study to help the forest improve the visitor experience and visitor safety on the Big Four Ice Caves trail. In addition, there are other areas and trails like the Big Four Ice Caves that are easily accessible, experience high visitation and draw hikers with a wide range of experience levels and outdoor knowledge. Your feedback will help determine the best way to communicate and educate while providing a quality experience.

For the final stage of this study, the public is being asked to watch an 8-10 minute video and complete a survey. This survey will be open until December 15.

Findings from this study should be release in mid-Spring 2018.

Who is involved in the study

The primary researcher overseeing this study is Dr. Kelli McMahan.  Her colleague Dr. Chris Wynveen is assisting her with the project. They are both professors in the College of Health and Human Services, in the department of Health Human Performance and Recreation at Baylor University. In addition, Dr. Gary Ellis is serving as a research and statistical consultant. The researchers organized and consulted with a natural history interpretation design team that was made up of faculty from Baylor, Texas A&M and staff from Museum Studies at Baylor University. Two graduate students in the public health program at Baylor University provided research and data collection assistance. The project was also supported by design and architectural rendering experts.

If you have any questions or comments about this study or the survey, please contact Dr. Kelli McMahan at or by telephone at (254) 710-3712.


LarisaB on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Quoted from the sign: "Look around the beaver ponds for evidence of their damn construction."
Umm, please don't swear at the beavers?

Posted by:

LarisaB on Nov 30, 2017 08:05 PM on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

I think they need a sign that says: You are responsible for your own actions. Do NOT Take Risks YOU cannot Resolve; Help may NOT be Available Quickly enough.

Posted by: on Dec 01, 2017 10:29 AM

Paul Kriloff on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

No sign will keep people from going in the caves. They’ve had signs. They need to prohibit entry and put up a fence. People will still circumvent, but a lot fewer will. Even a symbolic barrier will discourage a high percent of people. Otherwise, the temptation and the mindset of “it won’t happen to me” will be too strong.

Posted by:

Paul Kriloff on Dec 01, 2017 10:35 AM

Jon Lee on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

The survey is confusing. It asked how likely I am to do this or that, and let's me choose 1-7, but doesn't say whether 1 is very likely or 7 is very likely. I started filling this out, but stopped when I found myself making conflicting assumptions about the scales.

Posted by:

Jon Lee on Dec 01, 2017 11:12 AM

GoOutside on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Very nicely done; I think some people will still enter the caves because that is the nature of people--unfortunately. I could see myself going up closer...but never in or on top of the caves. The proposed viewing area is a great idea--and may help with keeping people away from the caves...but knowing people...some will still go in or very close to the caves. A fence is not practical due to snowfall and avalanches.

Posted by:

GoOutside on Dec 01, 2017 02:50 PM

Skout on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

The word "avalanche" is misspelled on the sign that appears at 5:14. A one-line description highlighting the "why" for the sign at 8:01 could be helpful.

Posted by:

Skout on Dec 01, 2017 07:53 PM

Muledeer on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Good video and the interpretive signs will add a lot to the hike, making it more than just a hike to the caves. I agree with the poster that mentioned a sign saying ' Be responsible for yourself, help and cell coverage is a long drive out' or something to that effect. As to the survey, I think the questions are too obvious. Also, people taking this survey from a hiking site are going to be much more aware of the dangers than the general population.The proposed signage along the trail is a good thing, tho, and the proposed viewing area make it more like a good stopping point.

Posted by:

Muledeer on Dec 05, 2017 09:33 AM

PamSW on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Bald face facts may help illustrate the real risks:
“Since Dec 2017, X people have been killed ignoring the signs here. X people have been seriously injured.”

Posted by:

PamSW on Dec 10, 2017 10:53 AM

thebrink on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

The survey was confusing in some parts. It looks like a new trail is proposed but it is difficult to determine where it will be. An aerial view would have made the route clearer. Toady I got the latest issue of Outside Magazine and one of the feature photos is a view taken from inside the ice cave looking out. This will encourage people to want to experience what this photographer did.

Posted by:

thebrink on Dec 12, 2017 07:58 PM

LizzyWA on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

Considering fencing off the area is a very bad idea (as someone commented) - that would be like putting guardrails on hiking trails. There is huge danger from rock/ice/debris fall from the cliffs above. Many do not realize that danger and feel that sitting on the edge of the ice field is perfectly safe. This needs to be highlighted - that the danger is also from above.

Posted by:

LizzyWA on Dec 17, 2017 09:15 AM

thebrink on Studying Human Behavior at Big Four Ice Caves

One of the questions seemed to be a quantity-experience that asked how often or how far we backpacked, but there was nothing about just hiking or day hiking in general. I presume that most of us taking the survey are mostly day trip hikers. That means that our, at least my own qualifications may not bear much weight even though I have gone on hundreds of hikes and put in thousands of miles of distance.

Posted by:

thebrink on Dec 17, 2017 03:27 PM