Nearly 25 years ago in Colorado, my climbing partners and I nearly made a tragic error. We glissaded down a sun-blasted gully on an Indian Peaks summit in the early afternoon. My friend Mike was nearly buried in a wet snow slide. Within 20 minutes, every other gully in the cirque slid on its own. We had no avalanche gear, skills, or education.
Pretty much everyone who has spent any significant time in the backcountry can identify similar close calls. Risk is part and parcel of recreating in the mountains, and an element of danger and uncertainty is part of its attraction. Incidents like this invite self-reflection on our relationship with risk. We each have to decide what kind, and how much, risk is acceptable.
Determining acceptable risk is a highly complex, subjective, and individual calculation in which motivation plays a central role. Currently there is discussion in the outdoor community about whether the proliferation of GoPro cameras and the lure of internet fame (or infamy) is seducing adrenaline junkies into accepting risks they can’t manage and normally wouldn’t take if they didn’t have their own YouTube channel. Debates rage about whether the additional protection offered by avalanche safety gear such as beacons and avalanche packs is offset by the inclination to take on more risk because of that protection. Clif Bar ignited a controversy about the role of sponsorship when they unceremoniously dropped some of their high-profile sponsored athletes, free-solo climber extraordinaire Alex Honnold among them. In explaining the move, Clif Bar said, “…these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go.” Steve Casimiro, in his essay Clif Bar and the Power of the Corporate ‘No’, says sponsorship “…creates cultural pressure on athletes to outperform themselves and others.”
Pressure to not “wimp out”, to earn notoriety, to avoid disappointing friends or sponsors, to make an investment of time/effort/money worthwhile, or to achieve a goal can be a powerful influence. It causes skiers and climbers to ignore warning signs or minimize their significance, sometimes resulting in tragedy. Skier/researcher Ian McCammon, in chapter 1 of The Human Factor – an excellent new multimedia series focusing on decision-making in avalanche terrain – calls the subconscious pressures that negatively effect decision-making “heuristic traps.” A heuristic is a sort of mental shortcut; a rapid, unconscious decision that in the wrong context allows undue influence to factors that have little or nothing to do with managing the current situation. “Someone else skied it, so it must be safe,” is an example of a very common heuristic trap. McCammon has identified 6 categories he calls FACETS that are common in avalanche accidents. Applying a process designed for efficiency in an environment where data and decisions need to be carefully and rationally examined opens us up to all kinds of irrational choices, resulting in exposure to greater risks than we should rationally accept.
Casimiro suggests that Clif Bar saying “No” is a good lesson because, like deciding to turn back on a tour, “It takes courage to risk losing money or customers, or acknowledge that you’ve reached your limit and willingly face the criticism or derision you know will come.” Alex Honnold, who lost his sponsorship, agrees. “The risk decision that Clif is making is the same kind of decision that we all make as athletes…That’s the same kind of line I draw with risk.”
“Drawing the line” is where the rubber meets the road – or the ski meets the snow – in the decision-making process. To be clear, I am no extreme athlete. Compared to many (most?) of my skiing and climbing friends I am tilted solidly to the conservative end of the risk spectrum. But that does not mean I am risk free. I have made plenty of questionable decisions: some ignorant like the incident in Colorado, some calculated and deliberate, and also a handful that in hindsight I recognize as the result of McCammon’s traps. To be sure, I have been lucky on occasion, but I believe that mostly I have gotten away with it because my tolerance for risk demands that I generally operate with a substantial margin for error.
Nowhere do I like that margin larger than in avalanche terrain. Unlike all those years ago in Colorado, I now know enough to know it is impossible to be perfectly safe in avalanche terrain. The harsh reality is that we educate ourselves about causes, weather factors, methods of evaluating snowpack, safe travel techniques, etc., but we can’t know with certainty what is going on under the surface; there are too many unseen variables. In “The Human Factor,” Garrett Grove, the lucky survivor of a ride in an avalanche in Alaska, describes what makes avalanche hazard unique: “In rock climbing, you can see that crimpy little hold just beyond your outstretched fingertips. You can see the 500 feet of gaping air between you and the scree field below. An avalanche, on the other hand, is invisible.”
My main climbing partner and I had a motto: Discretion is the better part of valor. It served us well and I still say it frequently. I am proud of my long track record of “drawing the line”. I have turned back; I have second-guessed the weather, my health, and my ability; I have not skied a line; I have listened to that vague gut feeling that things just weren’t right, and the feeling that I didn’t have “it” that day. I may have missed out on occasion, but I am OK with that because I also didn’t die. As Alex Honnold put it on his Facebook page: “We all have to be comfortable with our own choices.”