Mindfulness: Talking About Risk in Climbing

There is a brief moment in a free fall, right when you see and understand what is happening, when, in retrospect – in the endless replay of the event that breaks you out in a sweat months later, it seems like you should have been able to do something. Leap spider-man-like back onto the rock; grab a cam off your harness and shove it really quick into that crack your fingers just vacated; twist around like a skydiver to land with a forward role so that you pop back up like a cartoon character, arms extended: Ta-Da! And for my next trick I’ll [collective gasp] place protection!

I don’t really know what happened, how far I fell (10, 15, 20 feet?) or why (hold broke, foot slipped, pulled on a snag?), but my most fruitful climbing season thus far came to a sudden halt that May afternoon when I dislocated my left ankle. About six months later a woman took a similar fall in the Gunks and died. Friends of mine have fallen farther, stood up, laughed, and walked away. Friends of mine have also free soloed the climb I fell off of. Sometimes it seems like there’s not a lot of logic in how things turn out.


Risk in outdoor activities is a nasty topic. Discussing accidents, why they happen and how they can be prevented, brings out the full range of unpleasant human emotions, from self- righteous anger to full blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone who thinks they understand and are satisfied with how they assess risk is either a genius or an idiot, and in either case has probably been very lucky. The core of the issue is this: the things we love get us hurt for the reasons that we love them. The wilderness is a changeable medium: snow slabs avalanche, rocks fall, weather happens. Without this changeability, activities like alpine climbing and backcountry skiing would not have the appeal that they do, yet it is precisely this changeability that gives them the potential, no matter how well we prepare, to kill us.

Idiots, or geniuses?  If these guys fell, we’d likely say the former, and if they succeeded, let’s say, on a ground-breaking first ascent, the latter.  Objectivity is illusory, and risk is in the eye of the beholder.

In the past year it seems that the amount of attention given to risk and accident prevention in extreme sports has increased sharply; from Kevin Corrigan “Unbelayvable” column for Climbing.com to Clifbar’s firing of prominent climbers for supposedly risky behaviors, it is a topic that seems to be on everyone’s mind. The human element in accident analysis was recently examined at length in an expansive five-part article by David Page for Powder.com. He cited a series of “heuristic traps” experienced skiers fall into that make them less likely to correctly analyze a snowpack and avoid an avalanche. What he is citing is actually an older article by Ian McCammon that is fairly widely referenced in avalanche safety discussions. Considering what causes people to make mistakes is clearly an important part of accident analysis, but the problem with this kind of thinking is that the psychological causes of people’s mistakes are only identified, isolated, and criticized when the outcome is bad. Each of McCammon’s heuristic traps, familiarity, consistency, the expert halo, acceptance, scarcity, and social facilitation, is usually a beneficial thought pattern, or at least an inevitable one in the case of acceptance and scarcity.

The basic issue with Page and McCammon’s mode of analysis, and with so much accident analysis in general, is that it looks for after-the-fact explanations of what went wrong that ignore the concept of reasonable expectation and assume that accident victims are always at fault if choices they made, however menial, could have averted the incident. What this amounts to is a basic flaw in how risk is viewed by the adventure sports community. We reward those who take risks as long as they are lucky while denigrating those who fall on the other side of the coin. We assume that those who survive did so by their own strength and intelligence and those who did not got what they deserved, forgetting how much of survival in these changeable environments is pure chance. We so desperately want our lives and deaths to mean something that we insist on the irrational: that we have control.

This does not mean that there are not practices that can measurably increase the safety margin in any outdoor activity. Wearing an avalanche beacon and knowing how to use it, knotting the ends of a climbing rope, having an ice axe in hand when a fall would require a self-arrest, all of these are good general rules that should be followed the majority of the time, yet none of them is without exception. Avalanche equipment is heavy and on high altitude climbs with limited weather windows, speed can be safety. Knotting rope ends makes a rappel safer, but introduces another variable and forgetting to untie those knots can cause a world of problems. Having an ice axe can allow you to self-arrest, or it can be a useless psychological prop when the only real safety would be placing protection. The sad truth is that some of the worst accidents are the most random. Many climbers have been killed by rock fall an arm’s length from their partners; through no reasonable fault of their own, one man lives and one man dies. Last summer two of my friends accidentally let loose a flurry of rock fall while scrambling in the Canadian Rockies – the lower of the two was badly injured while the higher was unscathed. Another friend of mine tore a flake the size of a coffee table off a route in Squamish the guidebook rated “top 100” and miraculously survived with only minor injuries.

There are no good reasons for any of these tragedies but as humans, we innately rebel against the notion that our actions are sometimes irrelevant. This is why we believe in higher powers and concepts like destiny and fate. We say things like “everything happens for a reason” because the alternative is so horrifying. We don’t have very long to live under any circumstances and the idea that our lives can be altered, ruined, and even ended, without good cause strikes us as impossibly unjust. The unfortunate truth is that there do not seem to be any higher powers and if there are, they don’t seem overly concerned with human notions like fairness. Like Santa Claus, they may be somewhere out of sight keeping score, but at least within the world for which we have any evidence, we are on our own.

What we need more than new ways of mitigating risk are new ways of talking about risk. We need to be less judgmental and more self-questioning. We need to be less sure we know what other people are doing wrong and more compassionate toward those who don’t deserve the tragedies that have befallen them (which is virtually everyone whom tragedy befalls). We need to find ways to sort out our own motivations so that we can assess dangers rationally and know what it is we are risking. I don’t really know how to do any of these things – I have some ideas but nothing certain. What I am certain of is that I am tired of horrible things happening to myself and my friends and not knowing how to deal with it. I am tired of just standing (or lying) there in mute horror, wondering what went wrong. From almost every accident or near miss I’ve experienced there has been some practical takeaway, but it all seems so trivial compared with the consequences. It always seems to be some random little thing completely unconnected to the bigger problem, to our lack of an adequate way of dealing with the risks inherent in the activities we love. I may someday die in the mountains, as may most of my friends, that is something we all have to accept if we want a lifetime of climbing. If that day comes I want to be able to have some measure of acceptance, I want to have known exactly what we were risking and why, I want to have looked my circumstances in the face and, knowing fully what they were, said yes.

Jacob Smith is a climber, writer, and historical scholar based in Seattle. He recently graduated from Seattle University and has been climbing and reading about climbing for about five years. Jacob Smith is also our very first visiting contributor at Fringe’s Folly – and we’re delighted to have him!  We are always looking for great work (like this) from members of the community (like you).  If you have stories, ideas, opinions, photos, videos, paintings, music, poems, light, love, or anything else that you would be interested in contributing, please send us an email.


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