OLD & NEW THOUGHTS ON RISK TOLERANCE
By Dick Dorworth
Like many older people I find in recent years that I learn more from those younger than from my peers. I recently gained a new sliver of insight into the matter of risk tolerance from my youngest son, Jason, who lives in Santa Cruz, California and is an avid surfer. Several years ago I heard about Mavericks, the famous, big, dangerous wave an hour north of Santa Cruz. I asked Jason if he knew about and had been to Mavericks. “I don’t do that kind of thing, Dad,” he replied. As a parent I was understandably relieved. Last year the fine biographical film “Chasing Mavericks,” about two Mavericks icons, was released. It is, in my view, a superior film about the human quality of risk tolerance and much more. After I saw it I asked Jason if he had seen it. He knows some of the people portrayed in the film but his busy life as a parent, husband, firefighter, surfer and mountain bike rider had left him no time for the film. But he said something that resonates with lessons for those willing to learn them. He said, “You know, there are only a handful of surfers in the world capable of riding Mavericks, and within that handful there are only a few who want to.”
About 20 years ago I was talking about the latest casualty of the mountains with a friend, a fellow climbing guide. It is a theme that people who live, work and play in mountains return to all too often. Our discussion that day veered away from the specific most recent death of a climber we knew to all the people we had known who had died in the mountains over the period of our lives. Some of them had been friends, a few close ones. For reasons I’ve forgotten, we decided that we would search our memories and each make a list of all the people we knew who had died in the mountains. The next day we resumed our conversation with our respective lists which totaled more than 70.
We were both surprised. We should not have been.
There are more names on those lists 20 years later, but neither of us have kept track, nor shall we. People die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and it is both easy and practical for mountain people to acknowledge the inevitability and constancy of such events. It is not nearly so painless to move beyond acknowledgement to acceptance. Death and injury, untimely or not, and the questions and diverse answers that arise from them are often neither common nor sensible to everyone, and they are never painless.
Nor are they limited to people and activities of the mountains. They are integral to human life, regardless of where or how lived. There is a usually accepted perception (belief?) that people who engage in such mountainous activities as climbing, skiing, hang gliding, paraponting, kayaking, snowmobiling, snowboarding and the like put themselves at more risk than the general public. A physician I know who views climbing and, I suspect, climbers with jaundiced eye once showed me an article in a medical journal claiming that, statistically, a climber on Denali was more likely to be injured or die than a soldier in combat. I have no idea what data was used to determine that statistic, but that it appeared in a mainstream medical journal illuminates the aforementioned perception. When confronted with such a factual overview of an aspect of life you care about, it is always good to keep in mind the Disraeli adage “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” For me, conflating the unnecessary degradation and horror that war brings to humans with the fundamental beauty, pleasure and spiritual uplifting that mountains instill in them is tasteless in the extreme and a disservice to human understanding of the process of the life, which, inevitably, encompasses death to skier, climber, soldier, housewife and spy alike. I don’t know how to determine such a thing, but I suspect that, statistically, physicians who have climbed on Denali lead healthier, happier, and more creative and perhaps even longer lives than do battlefield and more mainstream physicians. And, yes, it is tasteless and an impediment to both understanding and appreciating life to conflate the two, a risk and a choice I am not willing to take. My suspicion is neither a certainty nor a statistic, only an affirmation of the integrity of each person’s preference of how to live and of the individual tolerance for risk that choice entails, whether in mountains, cities, battlefields or industrial farms.
I am reminded of Tom Patey’s well known verse:
“Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may.
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow,
Were the tigers of yesterday.”
Patey, a fine climber (and doctor), made a simple, human mistake and died in a rappelling accident at the age of 48.
Like all people who have spent a significant amount of their lives engaged in mountainous pursuits, I have dealt with, thought about, observed, engaged in and been affected by the risks and the simple human mistakes inherent to that life. The operational human quality in dealing with those activities I choose to call, for a reason that will soon be clear, ‘risk tolerance.’ Personally, I am more comfortable (and, I will argue, safer) pursuing a day of any mountainous endeavor with which I am familiar than, say, driving the congested freeways of southern California, walking the streets of many neighborhoods of any large city on earth, dining regularly in the best known fast/junk food restaurants or, needless to say, engaging in violence, whether personally or patriotically inspired. This implies that people are more comfortable (and safer) with the familiar than with the exotic and unrecognizable, but even that does not insulate them from death and injury. Every year more than 30,000 people are killed in car wrecks in America (in 1972 it was 54,000). Every year more than 2500 people are killed in house fires, almost all of them caused by nothing more complicated, risky or unusual than cooking a meal, and more than 13,000 are injured in these fires. In 1978 more than 6,000 people were killed and more than 20,000 injured in house fires. These statistics do not include the firefighters killed and injured trying to save the lives and homes of American people engaged in an activity no more exotic or exposed to risk than cooking dinner for their families. Cooking a meal and driving to the store are not considered high risk activities, at least not statistically, but every day people die and are injured in their pursuit because something went wrong.
And after nearly every accident in the mountains and elsewhere there is a search for answers to why it happened, seeking lessons to be learned to prevent the same mistakes being repeated, sometime assigning blame, always striving to make tidy and comprehensible the complex and often inconceivable. And more often than not those searches turn up human error as a primary factor, sometimes incomprehensible error, sometimes completely conceivable. That the lessons are not learned is self-evident. As mentioned, people die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and so they will continue to be.
That people often act like sheep and will follow the herd even when knowing they are walking toward the wolves is well established. At least two recent, well-publicized avalanches that resulted in multiple deaths illustrate this. In instances like these, personal tolerance for risk, personal judgment and personal integrity itself are sacrificed (sic) to herd bravura. This dynamic can be observed every day from small groups in every walk of life to entire counties including but not limited to our own. This does not imply that the herd is always wrong just because it is a herd. Sometimes the herd avoids the wolves while one of the sheep goes to them.
Last winter four experienced, competent, knowledgeable backcountry skiers were at the top of a steep bowl covered with a foot and a half of fresh snow draining into a long gully with a couple of flat spots along the way. Three of them skied, one at a time, down skier’s right of the bowl, into the gully and to the bottom where the snow ran out and they were safe. The fourth skier waited for them before moving left to the center of the bowl and jumped off a fifteen foot cliff to land on the steepest part of the bowl covered with new snow. Naturally, predictably even, the slope avalanched immediately and took the skier for a 1500 foot ride that temporarily buried him in one of the flat spots before a second wave of the slide pushed him along until he wound up at the bottom partially buried, a bit beat up, but very lucky and alive. His friends dug him out and they all went on with their lives. Nice story that easily could have ended not so agreeably. At the end of the official report of this incident was a section titled ‘lessons learned.’ Not included in those lessons was what seemed to me the obvious one of avoiding jumping off cliffs onto steep, freshly snow loaded terrain. When I queried the writer of the report about this exclusion he replied, “Some people have a higher tolerance for risk than others.”
While the statement is true, it seems to me in this and other instances it sidesteps the onerous task of learning the lesson which, as human history illustrates, is quintessential human behavior. This dynamic is succinctly summed up by Kurt Vonnegut’s response to the well known George Santayana insight, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
As a species, as a culture, as a lifestyle, as members of communities of skiers, mountaineers, firemen, housewives, school teachers, politicians, writers, sky divers, bartenders, bankers, clergy, drug addicts and thieves we are, as the great Vonnegut noted, doomed to repeat the past. That is what it is to be alive. The silver lining in being alive is that as individuals we are sometimes capable of learning, sometimes without even remembering the past, much less having to repeat its mistakes. As a group, any group—any group—that capability is not so evident.
There are always those individuals in every adventure and aspect of life who stand out from the group by their ability to learn the lesson, gain the insight, raise the standard and in some small or large way expand the limits of the possible by example. Sometimes these individuals learn from their own egregious mistakes, sometimes they learn without them. (The skier mentioned earlier who jumped off the cliff onto a loaded steep slope reportedly told a good friend, “That will never happen again.” Good for him, the individual who learned.) Usually, those who raise the standards become the stars, the leaders, the ones to emulate and, eventually, exceed. They become the beacon and the authority, and they do not last long. It has been only 60 years since Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to climb Everest, a milestone in mountaineering and human endeavor. Now any person with $60,000, a modicum of fitness and the desire for a piece of the action can climb Everest. My old friend Yuishiro Miura, who climbed Everest when he was 70 years old and again when he was 75, just climbed it again at the age of 80. A couple of weeks before this writing Ueli Steck, arguably the finest climber in the world at the moment, and his two climbing partners were attacked by an angry mob of a hundred Sherpas whose profession involves getting those $60,000 clients up the mountain. The Sherpas were angered by a perceived violation of ‘etiquette’ on the part of the climbers.
Risk tolerance and etiquette delineate boundaries and, like fences, create good neighbors. When they are crossed some of the dynamics of accidents and high achievement in the mountains and elsewhere come a bit more into focus. I will argue (admittedly without having been there) that Steck’s personal experience, focus, knowledge and unusual skill provide him a risk tolerance and security for both himself and those around him not available to any of the professional Sherpas who were so offended by and, according to reports, violent toward him and his climbing mates. But the Sherpas do not and should not be expected to understand that. Unlike the intention of etiquette, risk tolerance is not democratic. For the Sherpas, Everest is for clients, not climbers, and one ignores that cultural reality according to one’s own tolerance for risk. Ho ho.
In an age when personal and professional spraying and promotion via films, I phones, the internet, GoPros, You Tube and Facebook are both immediate and endemic to the mountain culture, the latest exploit of the standard bearers, the super stars and the icons of the edge is immediately known and available to the world. The levels of achievement and risk tolerance of every super star of the mountains, seas, plains and cities in history are connected to and built upon the efforts of their respective communities. But those levels, no matter how well sprayed and promoted to the general populace, are only available to a few. Just because one sees a film of someone jumping off a cliff onto a steep slope and carving great turns in powder does not mean that every other similar mountain slope will not slide. Every slope, like very person, is different. The reasons for this are complex and obvious and, for some, difficult to accept and impossible to learn. As the good Kurt observed, we are as a species doomed to repeat the past. As individuals we can make some progress.
The level of risk tolerance for, say, Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, Shaun White, Kristen Ulmer, Will Gadd and others who came before and more who will follow, is different in both kind and degree from those of less commitment and effort, mountain intelligence and instinct, attention to detail and that indefinable quality that some are born with and most are not that can be polished and enhanced but never earned. It can be called ‘genius’ but might be
nothing more than having been born with better vision or hand/foot-eye coordination than others. However one chooses to define it, that quality keeps some alive in mountains where others perish. As standards move up so do expectations, personal and cultural, but in all things there are only a few who are ca
pable of living on or close to the edge. And none of them can live there for very long, time being as relative as levels of risk tolerance. And when the many push to where only the few can, with luck, survive there will be accidents remarkably similar to those in the past.
Jason’s insight is always worth keeping in mind. That is, always listen to yourself—not the herd, not the promotion, not the cameraman, not the super star, not the comparison, certainly not the expert or authority—just yourself, your trusted friend who is the only one who can differentiate between wanting and thinking you should want to. Only you know what a tolerable risk is for you, and usually, not always, that risk is made more dangerous to the degree that it is comparative.
Dick Dorworth is the author of Night Driving and a longtime contributor to the Mountain Gazette.