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.

Good Luck and Bad Luck

Good Luck / Bad Luck illustration

This weekend, I enjoyed reading Andrew Bisharat’s blog post called “The Games We Play.” Among other things, it talks about risk—in climbing, in more mundane activities like driving, and in life.

Andrew’s perspective on luck resonated with me. “It’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s working against you or actually on your side,” he writes, and then gives a series of examples to make his point. One in particular, about his alpinist friend’s knee injury potentially keeping him from a dangerous season in the mountains, read like a contemporary version of the old Chinese folk tale about a farmer and his horse

One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills, and the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought that was bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off…

Which of these events was lucky and which was unlucky? It’s impossible to tell at the time and a waste of psychic energy to worry about it much. We create our own burdens when we curse and celebrate every event through which we pass.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try hard. Work is critical—hard work doubly so—but there’s no need to see it as a burden. Instead it’s a privilege that we might try to perfect ourselves and work through the challenges life presents us.

Another example: In the late 90s, a dedicated climber named Josh was injured and had to sit out a season bouldering in the Gunks. It was an important moment for climbing in the area, relatively speaking, and Josh wouldn’t get to be a part of it. Bad luck, of course! But then Josh picked up a camera and made a video about his friends bouldering in the Gunks. The video was called Big UP, and it was the first step in what has become a very accomplished career behind the lens.

“One dream may hide another,” wrote the poet Kenneth Koch. When he was in full health, Josh’s dream of climbing might well have hidden the dream of telling climbing stories through video—a related but very different dream. His pain and injury uncovered this other dream, which perhaps was the more significant of the two.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time your project is chewing you up and spitting you off. Forego the wailing wobbler and instead consider falling as a sign that the climb still has something valuable to teach you. Therefore, the most appropriate response is to smile—because you have this chance to improve, because you’re climbing, because you’re alive at all, damnit!

Without fail, life will throw the kitchen sink at every one of us—how we see this and respond is what creates the “good” and the “bad” of it. On the one hand, this means we have much less control over our lives than we might think. On the other, we have much more control over ourselves than we care to admit.

Now is this good luck or bad luck?