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glassgowkiss

Applauding risk acceptance beyond your own limits

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But are any of you going to stop alpine climbing because of some back of the envelope calculation? 

I won't at least.

The estimates of risk for any outing/route on any given day are wild SWAGs, at best, and quite unconvincing for me to give up something that has provided so much color to my life.  Too many variables, too little data.  For sure I've dialed back the "risk" or whatever over the years, but I think I'm mostly just deluding myself.

Watching my old relatives linger and die over the years convinces me that no end is great, so I may as well enjoy it.

My family wouldn't be that surprised, including my kids.  I've had enough partners die and been involved in mountain rescue long enough that death isn't an uncommon topic in our house.

I think the bigger issue is whether or not you believe this life is all there is.  The spiritual dimension is much more compelling than statistics, at least to me.   When it is your time, it is your time.  Death is coming for us all.

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28 minutes ago, JasonG said:

But are any of you going to stop alpine climbing because of some back of the envelope calculation? 

I won't at least.

Neither will I but I think it is helpful to think about to try to assess what routes to do and when to do them. For example, for backcountry skiing with the avalanche forecast tools we now have available, it is relatively easy to minimize the worst of the risks... i.e. don't go out on red days, stay in protected / low consequence terrain on orange days. 

For alpine climbing, avalanche danger is still a consideration but there are many other risks that are not as well forecasted. But other objective hazards like falling ice on a certain route, probability of bad weather coming in during a difficult descent, hidden crevasses on a glacier crossing, etc, could at least in principle be estimated well enough to inform decision making. Some routes have enough statistics to start to make quantitatively informed decisions. 

Other aspects of risk assessment could be used to inform best practices while climbing. For example, a lot of data over the years has shown high accident rates during rappels, and today most new climbers learn to rappel with backup systems in place (such as an autoblock or auto-locking belay device), which did not used to be a common practice.

Edited by ilias

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I probably should start backing up my raps.  Thanks for the reminder.

Loose rock has claimed two solid partners and almost got me this past year.  At least a rap back-up could help me on the way down.

And, I should add that I read ANAM and try and be safe about timing/routes/strategy/etc., but I've seen enough crazy stuff over the years (and had a number of close calls) that I have no illusions that I'm making alpine climbing really that safe.

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we could all just stop the judgement yeah? Marc had the fire back in 2009 when we attempted Slesse’s Nav Wall.  Incidents happen has this thread notes in every activity.  But, tie in as an emotional being and concern and care rises no matter the incident or result of the incident.  Not sure why I decided look at CC.com but I did.  Oh well.  But here is a photo of Marc in front of Slesse 2009 with a few words I put as an overlay.  

A7CBC856-6D34-4AE9-AD4B-3DE8647C18E9.jpeg

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@Joe_Poulton I don't think anyone is judging Marc here, it's just a conversation about life and risk. Thanks for posting the tribute to him.

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2 hours ago, bedellympian said:

Can you summarize the 3x3 concept for us Trogdor? I was Googled it and got lost pretty quick.

Also, while I agree mining accident data on a large scale is useful, I think that its important to compare against the number of successful ascents and the caliber of climber that is attempting. For instance I don't think that the South SIde of Mt. Hood is nearly as dangerous as a meta study of accidents would make out. On the other hand, despite having zero accidents and several successful repeats I would argue that the Slovak Direct on Denali is pretty darn serious and has some major risks involved.

The basic idea is that for avalanche risk, you have a hazard rating (H = 1-5 = Low-Extreme). That rating sets a base line hazard for the day. Then you can take steps to reduce your exposure to that hazard (lower angle slopes, avoiding N aspects / problem aspects, controlling group size and travel habits). The steps are given a corresponding reduction factor RF. The equation is risk R=2^H/(product(RF)). At R=1, you get to the 1/100,000 likelihood of dying on that tour. At R=2, 1/50,000, and so on. The table in your link does a good job of distilling those daily odds into lifetime likelihood based on ski days / year. So, if you like the idea of having a 99/100 chance of not dying in an avalanche in your life, and you ski 20 days a year, and you plan to ski for 50 years, you need to average R=1. If you think you have a 99/100 chance of not dying in an avalanche, but you run some quick calcs and see that you are averaging say R=3, it might be time to revisit your basic big picture behaviors. I like the simplicity of the tool for pointing out how a rather trivial decision can quantitatively affect the risk you expose your self to. For example, how much more dangerous is it to always ski 37 deg terrain vs 33 deg terrain - turns out its a factor of 2. What does group size do to risk? I don't calculate a munter risk for every tour, but I do think a lot about how it is the accumulation of risky behavior that catches up with us, not a single risky decision. I try to be honest about the risk I expose myself to, and I try to honestly assess what risk I am willing to accept. In skiing, most of the time you will get away with bad decisions, so having a statistical framework around decision making, rather than waiting on bad consequences from your bad decisions can be helpful. 

I think rock climbing is quite a bit different. For R/X trad or free solo we generally go into it with a strong sense of technical ability and likelihood of success based on well protected climbs performed in the past. For example, what's the likelihood I'll fail on a 5.4, 5.6, 5.8, etc. Am I comfortable soloing or running it out given what I think those odds are? What if I'm off by a factor of 10, is that still acceptable risk to me? In contrast, if I tried to solo 5.14, there would be a 100 % risk of failure.

Alpine climbing gets more complicated. There is no simple avy report for alpine climbing. And as I complained above, there isn't really great data that breaks down the risk factors (beyond say 8000 m peaks vs not). So instead, you get the gut feelings about risk exposure described above. 

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@Joe_Poulton I agree, which is why this thread is separate from the one about Marc and Ryan. It's natural for people to want to talk about risk, but this is not a critique of those guys, its a separate thread where folks talk about their own relationship to risk and climbing. We're actively trying to avoid the sort of muddle that's currently going on in the Supertopo forum thread about Marc and Ryan.

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No matter where one stands on the issue of risk, this thread is an important and necessary conversation for climbers of all ages and skills.

Like many climbers, I believe, my relationship and outlook on risk versus reward in climbing has been complicated from the very beginning. That relationship spans 26 years, more than half of my life. My view of risk has had many faces through the years, and it continues to be complex and fraught with contradictions. Which it should, if we are being honest with ourselves and continuing to play the game for the longhaul.

Perhaps the most consistent element of it for me is that even in my younger age when I thought myself more 'bulletproof', I've always gone into every serious alpine climb with a very clear-eyed attitude as to the danger I was willingly embracing. "I could die on this trip", is something I silently recited to myself, as the plane lifted off in Talkeetna, or I stepped off the pavement in El Chalten, or I began traipsing up some Rockies drainage towards my objective. While just verbalizing these words didn't change the objective risks I would be facing, it allowed me to proceed with commitment and decisiveness into that zone, and to fully accept the potential consequences. It also served as a reminder of the responsibilities I had at home, the responsibility I had to get back home, which means that aforementioned commitment was not without conditions or limits.

I don't regret any of the adventures I've undertaken over the years, nor my lifelong commitment to climbing. Yet in some respect, today I have an increasingly difficult time reconciling my desire to celebrate these memories, with a nagging question of why I have survived, when so many others I knew have not. My wife and I never had children, but I know that if we had, I would have done much less than I have. My wife is a saint for having tolerated so much time away, so much of our money spent, and so much worry that I have subjected her to, in what has been inarguably a selfish pursuit. We have been able to navigate it successfully out of a mutual recognition that a passion for something is what makes a person who they are. I think she has been simultaneously admiring of and appalled by my dedication.

I became friends with Marc Leclerc a few years ago in Patagonia, where we shared a number of dinners and trips to Domo Blanco together. He seemed an astonishing soul to me, and someone who was extremely kind, humble and unassuming, especially considering the wavelength on which he was operating in his climbs. When I have observed some of the achievements and risks that he and others like him have taken, I am certainly impressed by the athleticism and the mind control they exhibit. And I've also just shaken my head in a manner that represents neither condemnation nor unbridled approval, but rather, an honest acknowledgement that these sorts of achievements are so far outside of my own abilities and comfort zones that I simply don't understand what they are. It is almost as though I'm watching an entirely different sport. It's tempting to frown on extreme risks, and yet as I myself have taken more than my own share, I'm not in a strong position to judge. In fact, I think we must recognize that their propensity and ability to take such risks is an intrinsic part of their character, the very thing for which we love those of this group that we know personally. And so if Bob's concern about applauding high risk has any merit- and I think that it does- I think it's that the community needs to be brutally honest with themselves about what we are witnessing, even if we choose to admire it.

The brutal and honest truth for me is that I have ceased to even feel shock, much less surprise, by each one of these successive tragedies. Ryan, in fact was a good friend. Last fall as we unsuccessfully tried to synch up for some rock climbing in the Cascades, he glowingly told me how he didn't want to be away from his 2 year old son for very long, and that he no longer needed climbing to fill a void in his life. So heartbreaking to think back on this exchange now. But I fear that I've become so accustomed to these accidents as to be desensitized, out of a simple need to protect myself from a total meltdown. I have a photo from my own wedding, in 2006. In it, Lisa and I are surrounded by 7 of my closest friends. Three of them have since died in the mountains. A photo from one of the happiest days of my life now causes pain. Amidst the deaths of numerous casual friends through the years, the loss of Lara Kellogg, Joe Puryear, and Chad Kellogg, leaves a hole in my heart that can't ever be repaired. The widespread wreckage left behind from incidents like these can't be understated. A friend of mine here in Alaska who used to do some cutting edge stuff likes to remind me of why he scaled back the big alpine. "My wife says, you won't care when you’re gone, but I will".

The losses that have touched me, my work commitments, being well over 40, and most recently, having a serious illness have all conspired to blunt the sharp edge of my formerly insatiable motivation for the mountains and big adventures. And yet I still do it, and I still hold ambitions on which I plan to execute in the near future. Amidst the flood of mixed emotions and out of a cloud of darkness, certain things have become clear. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with the ultra rare and very lethal adrenal cortical cancer. At the time, I thought that if I somehow survived it, getting a second chance on life, I could never justify taking serious risks for recreation anymore. Two years, two major surgeries, and a month of radiation treatments later, I'm somehow not only still here but cancer free, and throughout much of this time, I've been able to climb at full speed. I have so far gotten off easy. But I've deep dived into the world of this disease and what I've seen is neither pretty nor dignified. And I'm not out of the woods by a longshot.

I know who I am and what has taken me to this point in my life. I've wrestled over and over again with how sustainable this activity is. I've simultaneously envied those like Marc who at a young age had the vision and heart to become committed in every fiber of his being to climbing mountains, and also had the talent to be one of the very best; but also guys like Simon McCartney, who at age 24, with Jack Roberts,  established the hardest route ever done on Denali at the time, the massive southwest face. It was the zenith of what had been a meteoric few years of serious and groundbreaking alpine ascents for him. But high on this climb, Simon nearly succumbed to altitude illness in a harrowing ordeal, and afterwards, quit climbing cold turkey, moved to Australia, got married and started a successful business. Simon told me: "I knew what I needed from climbing at the time, each climb had to be harder and more audacious than the next. I could see exactly how that was going to end. I didn't want to die, not at that age". Simon is now 62 and has had a happy life.

I've come to realize that as long as I have a chance of dying of cancer, and that if I could choose the manner of my death between that or climbing, I'll take the mountains. Ultimately, between the all or nothing of the above examples, I hope to walk a fine line right down the middle on my way out of this life, whenever and however that happens. Onward, and upward-

 

Edited by W
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15 hours ago, Rad said:

I think this has more to do with media coverage of climbing than anything else. In today's world, clicks/likes = dollars, so this drives the media machine. Look at Loren and Jens' TR on Jberg. It drew a lot of clicks, even if a fair number of people talked about how it was an unwise risk. Would Into Thin Air have become a best seller, or even been written, if everyone came back alive? No. Death and death defying feats sell.

I agree with others above that climbing needs a better culture of rational risk assessment and management. These may be better in other fields, such as avalanche safety and paragliding (apparently). One challenge is that climbing has way more things that can go wrong and hence risk factors to assess compared with avalanche safety.  An organization like the Mountaineers could play an important role in this education.

I question whether we can blame the media for applauding risk taking.  While certainly one can point to examples of such, I feel that the majority of media may not.  While it is tedious to try and quantify every media in this case, let us look at just one, such as our most substantive and popular Rock and Ice magazine.  In this months issue, there are interviews with safe sport climbers and dare say "normal people".  They have a long running column of My Epics that highlights people's mistakes and the pain that follows.    They also have an accident analysis like Accident in north america mountaineering.  With my short memory, I can't remember a single written media that glorified (yes some reporting but not glorify and suggest we all follow) a crazy dangerous act.   Tons of articles of peoples death..

And regarding Honnold's elcap solo, are we suggesting that the magazine should scold him for doing such a thing or simply report that the climb was done? 

I feel like it is easy to remember the few examples of maybe glorification but forget the thousands of examples of supporting safety and positive education regarding climbing.

Now the videos could be completely different.  :)

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11 hours ago, JasonG said:

But are any of you going to stop alpine climbing because of some back of the envelope calculation? 

I won't at least.

 

originally this thought to quantify risk came to me after I had my rappel failure at index.  My thinking was that we all feel fine with a act that is 99% safe.  If I were to offer you a gamble where If you won with a 99% chance to receive something positive and a 1% of something negative, I feel most people would take it.   99% safety feels safe but in reality and over time, your 1% will catch up you. 

My goal was to not suggest that anyone stop climbing but to encourage that we pursue reducing that chance to .1%.  Keep safety at forefront and be ever vigilant for along climbing career.  A 1% failure rate at rappels in unacceptable in the long run. as seen by my accident.  and so many others.

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26 minutes ago, genepires said:

originally this thought to quantify risk came to me after I had my rappel failure at index.  My thinking was that we all feel fine with a act that is 99% safe.  If I were to offer you a gamble where If you won with a 99% chance to receive something positive and a 1% of something negative, I feel most people would take it.   99% safety feels safe but in reality and over time, your 1% will catch up you. 

My goal was to not suggest that anyone stop climbing but to encourage that we pursue reducing that chance to .1%.  Keep safety at forefront and be ever vigilant for along climbing career.  A 1% failure rate at rappels in unacceptable in the long run. as seen by my accident.  and so many others.

Not to beat a dead horse, but 0.1 %  failure rate rappelling is no where near acceptable. That would give you a 65 % chance of failure over a relatively modest 1000 rappels. That seems like a typical 1-5 years for an avid climber.  Maybe less for some folks. 

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6 hours ago, W said:

I've come to realize that as long as I have a chance of dying of cancer, and that if I could choose the manner of my death between that or climbing, I'll take the mountains. Ultimately, between the all or nothing of the above examples, I hope to walk a fine line right down the middle on my way out of this life, whenever and however that happens. Onward, and upward-

 

Really glad to hear you’ve been able to battle the cancer. The conundrum it sets up between taking accepted risks while climbing versus beating the uncontrollable risk of illness is really tough to comprehend. 

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1 hour ago, TrogdortheBurninator said:

Not to beat a dead horse, but 0.1 %  failure rate rappelling is no where near acceptable. That would give you a 65 % chance of failure over a relatively modest 1000 rappels. That seems like a typical 1-5 years for an avid climber.  Maybe less for some folks. 

you actually can't use that calculator that Rad links to as it allows for all possible combinations.   In the context of rappelling accidents, you may get a couple accidents if lucky but definately not to the extent that the binomial prob method used in that calculator.  For example, the prob of an accident in ALL trials is added into the mix.  hardly realistic.    the real solution is quit difficult to figure out with my meager math skills.  but the calc does show a improvement of 1% vs .1%,  100% of failure over time vs 65% failure over time.

fun times talking about death.  :( 

 

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10 hours ago, TrogdortheBurninator said:

The basic idea is that for avalanche risk, you have a hazard rating (H = 1-5 = Low-Extreme)

My experience is that the avalanche reports aren't all that accurate.  I've been surprised several times when I shouldn't have been, if you had believed the report.  Therein lies the problem.  The data you're trying to use to come up with your risk calculation isn't at all precise, but you're treating it like a point value.  I'm not talking about either extreme of the scale, which is often pretty accurate, but the middle ground where several avalanche professionals die each year.  It's not a simple math equation you can stake your life on.

 

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19 hours ago, Rad said:

Look at Loren and Jens' TR on Jberg. It drew a lot of clicks, even if a fair number of people talked about how it was an unwise risk. Would Into Thin Air have become a best seller, or even been written, if everyone came back alive? No. Death and death defying feats sell.

FWIW, I don't have any metrics on my personal web site and I don't have any ads. Never have. Primarily for two reasons: To resist the temptation to make it about popularity and to keep my motivations more grounded (i.e. not about money). I've been asked to write for money and declined, for the same reasons.

I've seen Ed Viesturs talk. I walked out thinking, "That was boring". And compared to someone like Twight, what Ed has to say decidedly lacks drama. If shit looked or felt bad, he went home. And you're right: That crew tends to live longer in more obscurity. Is there a right or wrong option? Not in my opinion. Just choices with consequences.

Jberg and Willis Wall. I'd looked up at both for a long, long time. Started dreaming of Willis when I read about the "Traverse of Angels" in Beckey. It sounded like a place I wanted to be. The Jberg route...to spend that much time moving across terrain entirely untraveled by other humans. After just three of them, I can so easily see why Fred became obsessed with FAs; it's as different an experience for me as gym vs. alpine climbing. No guide book, no topo, no route description, no looking for tat or cairns or rap stations or anything. An entire category of distraction from just being in the place in the moment falls away. My ego did revel in the sharing of what we'd done, yes. And, I don't recall ever thinking "I can't wait to get back and tell people about this" when on-route. "Spraying" wasn't a motivation that I recall. Before JBerg I told exactly one other climber what we were trying, in case we went overdue. Same with WW. And, whether it's a Grade V alpine FA, or an off-trail Alpine Lakes traverse, or a day of off-trail scrambling/canyoneering in the Valley of Fire (all of which I've done with thorough enjoyment), there is just something, for me, more pure and magical about being in a much-less peopled place; finding my own way, and making it up as we go with a fantastic partner.

 

Edited by CascadeClimber
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5 minutes ago, CascadeClimber said:

there is just something, for me, more pure and magical about being in a much-less peopled place; finding my own way, and making it up as we go with a fantastic partner.

Amen.

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36 minutes ago, JasonG said:

My experience is that the avalanche reports aren't all that accurate.  I've been surprised several times when I shouldn't have been, if you had believed the report.

 

My experience with reports and pits are that they are far, far too generalized to helpfully predict conditions that are highly localized. You can dig a pit that is entirely solid, go 50 feet around a corner and get the chop from a wind slab. In some ways, people with a ton of education about avy risk assessment seem to get into more trouble because they become over-confident about the accuracy of what I see as severely flawed assessment procedures.

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Powder is addictive, way more so than climbing, at least in my experience. 

It is hard to pass up perfect conditions, and relatively easy to convince yourself that your route/aspect choice is safe under moderate or considerable hazard.  And you commonly get away with it, leading to positive reinforcement of perhaps? bad decision making.  A perfect storm.

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I love discussions like this. Maybe I'm missing it but It seems that everyone is assuming death as a result of high risk acceptance. 

Of course that isn't always the case, and in fact in the majority of accidents, injury due to high risk is the more likely result. The more important question is whether you can live with the results of your decisions if you don't die but instead have lifelong debilitating injury?

Quinn Brett

I don't know Quinn, but she seems like an amazing athlete and even more amazing person.  But she took big risks and it went wrong. 

In my own personal risk assessment when climbing and skiing I worry more about not dieing than dieing. 

Edited by telemarker
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30 minutes ago, telemarker said:

can live with the results of your decisions if you don't die but instead have lifelong debilitating injury?

a very, very good point @telemarker.  We have been glossing over this angle. 

 

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1 hour ago, JasonG said:

My experience is that the avalanche reports aren't all that accurate.  I've been surprised several times when I shouldn't have been, if you had believed the report.  Therein lies the problem.  The data you're trying to use to come up with your risk calculation isn't at all precise, but you're treating it like a point value.  I'm not talking about either extreme of the scale, which is often pretty accurate, but the middle ground where several avalanche professionals die each year.  It's not a simple math equation you can stake your life on.

 

Avalanche forecasting correlates quite well with the probability of triggering an avalanche - this is proven. If it were 100% accurate, backcountry travel would be trivial. It is really difficult to discuss or assess risk without accepting that it is a game of probabilities and uncertainties. If you start weighting anecdotal evidence (e.g. I saw an avalanche once where somebody said there shouldn’t be one), while ignoring all the times that you didn’t see an avalanche when there shouldn’t be one, you lose sight of the problem. That makes risk assessment impossible. The value of statistics, is that even in the presence of imprecise data, you can draw valid conclusions. 

I also hate to break it to you that every time you engage in a risky activity you are staking your life on an equation. It is up to you whether you want to go into it with some idea of what that the equation predicts, or even which variables affect it. 

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