The Elusive Beast known as Risk

How effective are you at risk analysis? Furthermore, how skilled are we as humans in general?

So far, so good, right? From a personal standpoint, if you’re reading this then you’ve so far managed to avoid the hammer strike of natural selection and you’ve even achieved a level of competency with the English language. What’s more, you were preceded by an incalculably lengthy procession of ancestors who each successfully navigated the hazards of our Earth at least long enough to continue their genetic legacy. You come from good stock, a fine pedigree that represents millennia of sound decisions. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re risk experts… Right?

Unfortunately not.

The fact that we are able to perceive, quantify and even pronounce the word risk we owe to our old friend, the human brain. Over time, the brain has developed a plethora of skills and quirks. Some of these are beneficial, others less so and the distinction is often blurred. Assumptions, heuristics and emotional responses are all part of the minutiae that allow our brains to work on a day-to-day basis without the laborious, wasteful process of over-analysis. For example, by virtue of years of experience, you instinctually know from which direction cars will come when crossing the road. It requires no thought, no consumption of energy. However, this can also work to our detriment, as it promotes a level of comfort with the familiar and eventual complacency. If you find yourself travelling in a foreign country in which cars drive on the opposite side of the road, your entrenched assumption suddenly becomes a risk.

Hang on… Slow it down there, Sport. You’ve been throwing the word risk around like its moustache wax at a hipster convention. What does it all mean? Dictionary.com defines Risk as “exposure to the chance of injury or loss.” In the outdoor world, we quantify hazards as they lie on the coefficient of probability and consequence. Some risks are highly unlikely, but catastrophic, such as the odds of a meteor striking me as I type this sentence. Some risks are very likely, but trivial, such as the possibility of me finishing my beer before I complete this paragraph. No matter which combination of these two elements exists, the result is some form of damage. I hope that explanation was illuminating.

The truth is that, for the most part, we are terrible at assessing risk mainly because we are terrible at perceiving it. There are many catalysts for this, but I’ll talk about three major reasons that I’ve identified amongst my musings. In no particular order, they are ignorance, familiarity and the outrage factor.

Firstly, let’s talk about ignorance, the fact that it is often equated with bliss notwithstanding. It goes without saying that it is impossible to assess something if you are unaware of its existence. A few months ago I was trekking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand. As I drew closer to the conical monolith of Mt Ngauruhoe, I began to contemplate a quick side trip in order to climb to the summit. In making my decision, I weighed up the distance I still had to cover, the speed with which I’d travelled up to that point, the prevailing weather conditions and the amount of time I had left to reach the hut before dark. In giving consideration to these factors, I was more than likely the exception to the rule. In 2006, the trail saw roughly 65,000 visitors. The vast majority of these have little to no experience in mountainous terrain and with the inherent volatility of the alpine climate. That same year also saw two deaths due to exposure as well as many injuries caused by rock fall, ranging from broken arms to caved skulls. It seems insane that anyone could be totally oblivious to the inevitable outcome of an argument between a falling boulder and a human head, but there you have it. Park Rangers are continually evacuating hapless trekkers who walk under other hikers on the treacherous scree slopes or begin the trail carrying little more than cameras and conversations. For the most part, they simply know no better. For risk assessment to take place, understanding and acknowledgment of that risk must first occur. Knowledge is power and without it we live by the mercy of chance.

The antithesis of ignorance is familiarity, though it can be equally perilous. As individuals and as a society, we are comfortable with many risky activities simply because they are common. In these cases, our willingness to place ourselves at risk is entirely independent of the statistical likelihood of a dangerous occurrence. For example, rock climbing is perceived by many as being an inherently risky exercise… which it is. As any label attached to a new piece of gear will tell you, “CLIMBING IS DANGEROUS”. However, you’re statistically more likely to die driving to the crag than ascending it. Fatality statistics in the USA reveal that automobile related deaths occur to 1 in 9000 participants per year, as opposed to 1 in 12,000 for climbing. Despite this, no one is in the grips of fear paralysis as soon as they jump behind the wheel. They may, however, be overcome by irrational terror on a bolted sport route, a practice which is demonstrably safer if conducted properly. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Through repetition, we develop confirmation bias and assume that because an activity has proved safe once before, it shall again. Statistically, this just ain’t so. Conversely, we tend to over-emphasise the risk of unfamiliar situations. The following excerpt comes from War by Sebastien Junger (the written accompaniment to the documentary Restrepo, which if you haven’t read, you should).

“Statistically, it’s six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan.”

That’s right, folks. Normal life is more dangerous than war (modern war at least). And yet, the anxiety that families feel when their young men and women deploy doesn’t carry over into their everyday life. It’s counter intuitive, but a lot of things on this Earth are.

The last concept, outrage factor, I lifted straight from the book Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt. I take no credit for arriving at this conclusion independently, but it sure makes a lot of sense. In Chapter 5, “Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?”, the authors explore the reasons behind why swimming pools cause no chagrin to society, whilst the issue of gun control has proved highly divisive. They make no political stance on the matter (and nor will I), but a child is 100 times more likely to drown than be shot. Despite this, there is no emotionally charged debate over pool control. Again, this ties back to the concept of familiarity, but the authors also pose that the outrage caused by a gun death is significantly harder to bear than that of a pool drowning. When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, it was heralded as a monumental achievement in the ensuing media frenzy. It was, however, not without its detractors. Many Keyboard Warriors unleashed a hail of vitriolic dissent, reasons for which ranged from “Who Cares?” to “Climbers are ego-maniacal, destructive, non-chalant and possibly communists.” There were many who thought that the risk, not so much to the climbers themselves but more importantly to the coffers of Joe American the Taxpayer, was simply inexcusable. We’re dealing with the outrage factor in a nutshell here. A world-class climber plummeting to his doom, only to be scraped off the valley floor by the Park Ranger Service, causes much more outrage than a pedestrian or cyclist killed in New York City, of which there were 178 in 2013 (Source: New York Police Department). This, experts agree, is around 178 more people killed than on the Dawn Wall ascent. Somehow, it happens to be the consensus that placing yourself at risk by crossing a street is acceptable, whilst placing yourself at risk by climbing is not. This is the product of smaller minds.

Grim tidings, friends. It seems that we’re all inept. So how do we combat millennia of conditioning and become risk experts? Through training, experience and critical, objective thinking. As outdoor professionals, the role of a Mountain Guide boils down to risk management. It is not in their mandate to eliminate risk, an inevitable proposition at best. It is their job to recognise, assess and mitigate risk, and in doing so diminish as much as possible the twin tenants of probability and consequence. These abilities are not limited solely to guides and can be applied just as readily by the recreational climber, hiker or skier but can only be achieved by dedication to the craft of the outdoorsman.

Experience is earned, not inherited. Stay safe and climb on.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in May 2015

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