Just How Risky Is Climbing? It Depends…

The Fuzzy Calculus of Climbing Risk - The Stone Mind
The author atop a highball V1 warm-up. How much risk was there in the ascent? It depends… . Photo: Kristin Marine.

Fighting flared on the border between Turkey and Syria just days before I was to fly to the region for Petzl RocTrip. Over the phone, my parents sounded nervous. My co-workers joked I should wear a Canadian flag and call them if I got kidnapped by ISIS. A friend already in Turkey told me his wife cancelled her visit after watching the news. It almost got to me. Then I sat back and considered the risk from a more sober perspective.

Since August, only five “westerners,” have been killed abroad by the terrorist organization known as ISIS, and none of them was abducted or killed in Turkey. The only record of an American being recently murdered in Turkey I could even dig up was of Sarai Sierra, who was apparently bludgeoned to death a by a homeless man after she refused to kiss him (this was in early 2013). Clearly, Turkey was not a high-danger zone for tourists. So why all the anxiety?

The simple answer is that we humans are terrible judges of risk. Take for example the recent thigh-high wave of terror that swept the United States after Ebola made it to our shores. Despite all of the doctors and scientists offering cool-headed analyses of the actual threat level, your average American seemed convinced that every person who sneezed in line behind her at Starbucks was in the grip of the virus. To date, there have been two fatalities in the U.S. due to Ebola.

The thousands of TV hours and millions of written words dedicated to ebola’s tiny presence in the US belie the fact that, in the three-months since ebola’s squiggly appearance on American soil, upwards of 8,000 people will likely have died motor-vehicle related deaths. For more perspective, James Ball of The Guardian kindly reminds that, in the coming year, as many as 500,000 people will die worldwide of influenza.

As cryptographer and computer security expert Bruce Schneier sums it up, “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’”

Risk is a particularly hot topic in the climbing world, for obvious reasons. Being high off the ground carries with it a potential for injury and death that standing on terra firma, all else being equal, does not. Still, the average climber’s reality comes nowhere near the danger level most non-climbers equate with the sport.

At climbing’s bleeding edge, you have alpinists like Ueli Steck, “skyrunners” like Kilian Jornet, free soloists like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter (both recently dropped by sponsor Clif Bar due to the perceived risk of their activities), along with a handful of edgy others. The very reason these people are newsworthy is that they don’t represent the norm. If a camera crew followed a group of friends to the local crag or gym with a camera, they’d be sorely disappointed. Not much death defiance here, folks.

One big problem with evaluating risk in climbing, as with most things, is that all climbing isn’t equally risky. Bouldering, due to its lower heights, is very unlikely to end in a fatality, but relatively likely to end in a lower-extremity injury (read: rolled ankle). In trad climbing, death is a bit more likely, but probably you’ll just twist your leg in a cockeyed fall or get tagged by a falling rock (wear your helmet!). In the mountains, a route can be relatively safe or totally hairball depending on the time of year, or even time of day, you choose to climb it. These are all things people tend to gloss over when they talk generally about the “dangers of climbing.”

But the factor that really scuttles our ability to codify the risks of our vertical game is us. As in all human pursuits, we are the cause of most of our problems. Climbing gear hardly ever fails, and when it does, it’s often because it was poorly maintained or inspected, or improperly used. (Ten thousand times more likely than the tearing harness buckle of Cliffhanger fame is the buckle that the climber forgot to double back.) The most urgent threat to a climber’s safety is the actions of other climbers: bad belays, misunderstanding of equipment function, bad communication, foolhardy decisions, and the like.

In the absence of extensive statistics about the danger of climbing and climbing’s many subgenres, we can only bring our empathy to bear. I would probably die if you put me up there, thinks a normal human when watching Ueli Steck hurtle summitward, alone and unroped on a steep slope overlooking the void. Of course, a normal human can’t quite make sense of Steck’s ability or the risk equations that dictate his decision-making process. There is undeniable risk in the things he does, yes, but to apply a layperson’s understanding of that risk to him makes as much sense as municipal traffic safety laws do in a Formula 1 race.

The nebulous nature of human behavior, combined with the sliding scale of climbing risk, makes it hard to pin down exactly how dangerous something like climbing without a rope really is. I once free soloed with Alex Honnold on a slab in the Flatirons. For me, the crushing pressure of ultimate consequences made the 1,000-foot 5.5 feel like it was at my limit. For Alex, it offered no challenge and a vanishing level of risk. Even as he solos harder routes, one gets the sense that he’s no more likely to fall to his death than a drowsy child walking down a flight of stairs. Yet another climber’s odds would almost certainly prove less favorable.

Think of it like driving: We might say, “Driving is dangerous,” but the danger varies wildly depending on factors such as: the driver’s experience level, blood alcohol level, and predilection towards high-speed texting; the make and model of car, presence of safety systems like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock breaks; and also the weather, time of day, and so forth. So how dangerous is driving really? And how risky is climbing? The answer in both cases is, “It depends,” which isn’t the kind of answer that makes for simple conclusions… or good headlines.

As climbers we seek to keep the odds in our favor to the extent possible. This entails learning from more experienced climbers and reliable information sources, practicing key techniques, training physically and mentally, learning the uses and limitations of our equipment, learning how to plan well and also what to do when things don’t go as planned. It also means that we must understand our own hearts and our own weaknesses as much as the weather and physics. And everyone of us has to tally his or her own risk-reward equation given the information at hand. In the end, the choice to pull on to that climb, to make that next move, is always our own responsibility. That’s one of the greatest things about climbing, and what can make it such a resounding metaphor for life.

However you do the math, just remember that if it’s on the news, you can probably stop worrying about it. (Unless it’s climate change, then you should be worried.)

Good luck.

Karl Says: Don’t Text and Drive

driving_the_wadi
Still safer than texting while driving? Karl pilots the Humvee through the wadi and manages not to spill his coffee.

Karl has the Hummer’s accelerator pinned. The engine growls and hammers, propelling the seven-foot wide metal beast through the channels of the wadi, Arabic for dry river bed. The fat rubber tires munch up a steep sand hillside, sending us into a moment of zero G as we hit the crest. In the rear of the vehicle, two of my colleagues struggle to stand like drunk water skiers, their hands clutching the roll bar, feet straddling the open bed for stability, while Karl wrenches the wheel sideways and sends us skidding into a tight turn.

Relatively at ease, Karl holds the steering wheel with one hand; in the other, he has an unnecessarily large cup of coffee from the mess hall. There’s no lid on the half-full container, so he is holding it aloft, tilting it this way and that to keep it level as the Hummer rises and falls around us like a boat on a wild sea.

Far from the region where the term originated, this wadi is in rural Arkansas, on the grounds of a 777-acre military and law-enforcement training center called T1G (a “one-stop solution for multi-echelon training in weapons & tactics, operational medicine, breaching, and on/off-road driving,” according to the website). Karl, a retired Green Beret and T1G instructor who’s helping me and a film crew produce a video here, steps out with his coffee cup still half-full, minus the couple of sips he snuck along the way.

“And that, gentleman, concludes our tour of the wadi,” he says.

Karl is tall, broad-shouldered, and barrel chested. He has a wide, white-toothed smile, and a neat coif of dark brown hair atop a high forehead. He reminds me of Buzz Lightyear, minus the space suit and plus a sadistic sense of humor. He throws around phrases like “Mixing metal with meat” and “Opening the bad guys’ minds to new worlds of opportunity,” the latter accompanied by a hand gesture mimicking an exploding head.

“Come to think of it, I’ve never killed anyone with a spear, either,” he says at one point, àpropos of I’m not sure what. It is impossible to determine his level of seriousness.

That evening, as we tear down an empty stretch of dirt road on the way out of the training grounds, Karl does something kind of funny: he pulls his Jeep over and starts plugging away at his BlackBerry’s doll-sized keyboard.

“I never text while driving,” he explains. “It’s a pet peeve of mine.”

As he says this, I notice Karl is wearing two hearing aids. Over dinner I learn these are the result of a rocket attack that blew out his eardrums. This guy who’s been in scores of firefights, who chooses his seat in public places with a strategic view of the ingress and egress points, who teaches special forces guys how to shoot, drive, and think like warriors… the thing this guy doesn’t mess around with is the same thing your mom hounds you about.

I understand that pet peeves aren’t usually rational. They’re just little things that get under your skin for some idiosyncratic reason. Still, Karl’s passing statement forced me to reassess my cavalier use of a smartphone while piloting a motor vehicle. And once you start thinking about it, it’s hard not to feel like a douchebag for putting lives in jeopardy simply to tell someone “sup 2nite lol.” I mean, whiskey tango foxtrot?

I recently read an interesting article by Jared Diamond about something he calls “constructive paranoia,” or the idea that we should pay heed to “hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.” Driving is precisely such a hazard. On any given day, your likelihood of getting into an accident is relatively low, but since most of us drive every day, and multiple times a day, the odds… well, things start to add up.

I try remind myself of this every time I start to reach, zombie-like, for my phone buzzing on the dashboard. It’s not as if someone just sent me a message: “Reply in 30 secs to abort nuclear launch.” Or even, “Reply in 30 secs to claim your free latte.” It doesn’t happen. Hands at 10 and 2, people. For Chrissakes, just let it wait.

That’s not to say that by not texting, you’ll be safe. Not at all.

Driving — along with smoking and the fast-food-and-TV lifestyle — is still one of the riskiest things we civilians do on a daily basis. All the more reason to practice “constructive paranoia.” And look at it this way: at least checking replies on your most recent Facebook status won’t be the thing that turns your innocent trip to the grocery store into a case of metal mixing, painfully and bloodily, with meat.

The Joy of Suffering

Like fun… only difference. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.
Like fun… only different. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.

My friend Rick and his climbing partner Adam had just finished some mixed ice and rock climbs in Alaska. While on the route Shaken Not Stirred, on the Moose’s Tooth, Rick’s arm had been buzz-sawed by a falling dinner plate of ice, leaving it bruised and numb, and Adam tore his lips open while trying to blow snow out of a frozen ice screw. They climbed another route, Ham and Eggs, and then settled in at basecamp, ready to head home. Unfortunately, some bad weather kept the air taxi from its scheduled pick-up and, after a few days socked in, the pair found themselves nearly out of food, swapping gel packets with another party stuck on the glacier in an effort to keep a modicum of variety in their calorie-poor diets.

During their unplanned stay, Rick and Adam were mostly confined to a small bivvy tent. The snow was falling so fast and heavy that they could hear it cascading over the waterproof shell. So they sat and sipped melted snow, read, listened to music, watched Chappelle’s Show on Rick’s tablet — whatever they could do to ward off terminal boredom and hunger pangs. Every so often, the sound of the wind and snowfall would stop.

“That’s when we played a little game,” explains Rick. “We called it ‘Stopped Snowing, or Buried?'” At some point the storm would pass and their ride would buzz in from Talkeetna — that would be the “stopped snowing” option. But mostly when it went quiet it was because the snow had accumulated enough to cover the tent, burying them. When this happened, it was time to get out and dig.

Eventually the skies cleared, the plane landed, and everyone got home safely. But on the way back, Rick, already a tall and skinny dude, had to walk around Anchorage with one hand dedicated to keeping his pants up, now several sizes too big thanks to the alpine weight loss program.

Of course, none of this stopped Rick from going back into the mountains. He just returned from a trip to the Bugaboos with his wife, and he’s probably already plotting something big for next year — a trip to Patagonia or the like — with his sufferbuddy, Chris.

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Your worst nightmare is my dream vacation.” Typically attributed to alpine pursuits, it could just as well apply for folks who run ultra marathons, wriggle through shoulder-width, lightless caves deep underground, or plummet down rock-strewn, high-angle chutes on skis. Writing a book or a PhD dissertation could be seen as similarly nightmarish scenarios for the average person.

The truth is, while undertaking any grand quest, you will find yourself at varying points exhausted, frustrated, scared, in physical pain, or just praying for it all to be over. But when it is over, there is almost always a magical moment when the suffering that seemed so present and oppressive in the moment evaporates and you find yourself suffused with a profound joy. Soon, you’ll seek out the same kind of challenge again. Why? Alpinist and writer Kelly Cordes offers the old adage that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. But maybe there’s something more to it…

Both Rick and Kelly admit that, on some level, suffering isn’t just something we put out of our minds to make room for a sense of fulfillment; it’s also an active part of that fulfillment.

“We place a higher value on things we have to work for,” Rick said. “And fear, pain, and exhaustion are very poignant, universally recognizable forms of work.”

Likewise, Kelly lists suffering as an ingredient in a powerful emotional stew: “Only the laziest slob would argue that putting forth effort in something is never rewarding, and so you magnify that effort, require something huge of yourself that includes some suffering, put yourself in the most beautiful places on the planet, rely completely on yourself and your partner and nobody else, no societal bullshit, no people drama, no petty daily toils, and no excuses, and it creates the most lasting memories of your life.”

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty.” I think this is exactly the strange contradiction that people like Kelly or Rick, or Rick’s wife who is a diehard cross fit practitioner, or my friend who runs 100 mile races through the mountains, understand intuitively, almost compulsively. Seeking to strain out the difficulties of life and leave only the pleasurable and agreeable will leave nothing but a meagre broth behind.

The challenges in life, like the successes, are just a part of an endlessly swirling tableaux of ends and beginnings, discovering and forgetting, creating and destroying. Along the way, hopefully, we use them to learn who we are and what we believe. Without failure and struggle, what joy could we take from any endeavor? What would inspire us? These experiences — the ones my friend Roody calls, “Like fun, only different” — offer a kind of freedom that’s hard to get at in any other way. As Kelly puts it, “Nothing makes me feel so alive as climbing in the mountains.”