is it too risky?

Have you experienced sweaty palms watching someone climbing? Felt anxiety or even incomprehension while seeing another doing something? I do. And that’s a good thing, it means we probably are not capable of doing what that person does. Fear is our first mechanism of security, if we feel afraid about something is because our conscience is telling us that we have not the capacities to doing it, and so it prevents ourself from injury or death. That’s what happen to me when watching Alex Honold free soloing El Capitan. My palms are sweaty and my pulse raises. And that’s because I’m unable to do what Alex does. We feel fear because we put ourselves on the place of the person we’re seing instead of putting ourselves on the mind and body of that person. In a interview for National Geographic Alex said that what he does “is very high consequence, but I don’t think it’s particularly risky. The odds of me actually falling are very low.” We often put ourselves on the skin of the athlete we see but not in its mind. We can feel fear because we will be scared in there but we can’t feel what the athlete feels; because its capacities, training, preparation, knowledge of the route…aren’t the same.

Risk, Consequence, Exposure and Compromise.

We often talk about risk for many different concepts, like consequence, exposure, compromise or risk itself, but they’re not the same.

Difficulty:  the difficulty is an objective measurement of the technical and physical capacities required to do an activity, it is measurable, it can be the distance, the elevation, the altitude, the climbing grade, the ski scale

Consequence: is what will happen if you don’t succeed, if you do a mistake, the gear fails or if you fall. It can be from have some scratches to certainly die.

Exposure: those are the external dangers. The quality of the rock, how remote is the mountain from facilities, and the possibility, difficulty or impossibility of rescue. If it is avalanche risk or some seracs to fall above, etc. It is a bit harder to identify than the difficulty but it is also an objective measurement.

Conditions: this is the temporary factors that affects the route. Precipitation, snow or ice cover, snow or ice quality, wind, temperature, coming weather changes, light, land movements… that alters the difficulty and exposure and demands more capacities.

Capacities: it is a description of ourselves. Our technical capacities (our level on climbing grade working, flash, onsight, solo, with boots, running shoes, gloves, mix grade, ice climbing grade, alpine grade… ) Is also our physical capacities, endurance capacity (how many hours and distance I can run) and speed, in elevation, in difficulties, etc. also our experience/knowledge : reading the route, the conditions, being in a storm, rope maneuvers, first aid and rescue techniques…

Risk: this is a perception, a subjective measure of oneself facing a concrete situation. It is the combination of difficulty – consequence – exposure in face of our capacities (technical, physical and experience) and preparation. Preparation has a huge influence in the risk. More we prepare and study, less is the risk. An onsight solo is much more risky than a solo that has been prepared before. A route of adherence or with dynamos is much more risky than a “physical” route, as it’s movements are more random.

For example, Alain Robert free soloed some very random routes, La nuit du Lézard at Boux, a 8a/b with some dynamos or Pol Pot at Verdon, a 7c+ route of 250m with random movements.

Commitment: “Onsight, barefoot, chalkless, soloing. That’s climbing. Everything else is a compromise” said compulsive free soloist Michael Reardon. Commitment is the degree of compromise we accept to do an activity.

Hansjörg Auer soloing the Fish route, Marmolada. Photo by Heiko Wilhelm

As some examples, steep skiing can have bigger exposure (avalanche, seracs) but consequence lower than freesolo climbing. Alpinism in a remote area can have big exposure with low difficulty and low consequence. Free soloing in solid rock in a prepared route it is difficult to fall but the consequence is letal. At the end is to know ourselves, the objective in front of us and the commitment we accept to take.

Engaging for an activity we need to take all this factors into account to see of we’re ready and accept the compromise and consequences.

Risk assesement

One of the most common risk assesment “check lists” is the Munter 3×3, where you look for 3 different criteria (weather and conditions, the terrain and the people-youself and teamates) in 3 different moments (planning, before the activity and in every situation during the activity) to decide if it’s a Go or a Don’t go.

Basically is to get a picture as close of the reality of the conditions, the possible dangers and our capacities before and during each activity to be able to take the decision to continue or to go back:

  • Plan well the activity we’re going to do and anticipate all the problems that might occur and find solutions or alternatives in case they arrive.
  • Revise during the process if the avobe are still in place until the start of the activity.
  • Re-analize all the factors at any new situation during the activity.

And we need to be very aware that even if we do all the work analyzing, the risk 0 doesn’t exist anywere. That a technical mistake, a terrain hazard or a unanticipated problem might occur. Mistakes are made many times, and unfortunately is on that way that we often change to plan or prepare ouselves better. And that we do mistakes, we overestimate or decide to continue pushing because it’s so close… I’ve been rescued once before due to bad planning and overestimation of our team capacities, and learned from that to allways anticipate possible problems and to never let the emotions leading our decisions when we’re in the mountains.

Also important is to analyze those close calls to see if we could had acted differently and to see what lead to them to avoid those situations in the future. Here the table I use for that:

Why to climb anyway?

To climb a mountain is a useless activity – as the vaste majority of the human activities – We climb mountains, we run fast, we draw or we listen to music because we find pleasure doing those activities. Is in the very top of the needs pyramid, we can be alive without doing it. Basically anything else than the first physiological and safety needs could be considered a useless activity for what the human – as a animal specie – is suposed to do. Then why to climb a mountain instead of drawing a picture, writting a book or having social encounters in a pub you might ask? Because is not there where I find pleasure and happiness but in the mountains.

As individuals and as a society we accept some degree of risk in all the activities, on transport accidents, on food, on medications, on exposure to pollution, on drugs, etc. Some are so integrated to our lifestyle that even if they have a big risk to our health or life expectancy we don’t notice it or we found them reasonable, like having a sedentary lifestyle, eating certain food, drinking alcohol, driving fast or distracted, living in a high polluted air place, smoking, etc. Those are risks that seems accepted by most of us but that with simple individual choices we can reduce it’s probability of dicease or accident. Probably because those are actitudes that a big part of society does it seems not as risky as some activities like alpinism, but the probability of dying from them are possibly higher. When I become a parent I didn’t knew how that would change my relation to decision taking while doing mountain activities. It didn’t, that’s probably because I try to make those decisions in a rational process and assessing at every moment all the variables, therefore in about the half of my activities I turn around. But it did change my risk acceptance on other factors mentioned above and I started caring more about those life factors that I don’t find reasonable for me anymore. As Mallory said “because it’s there”.

Obviously, for someone like me that can count the days spent in a city every year with one hand, the probability of having an accident or to die in the mountains, where I spend around 340 days every year, is much bigger than on a car accident, by lungs dicease or a domestic accident than someone living in a city.

Why to share it?

It’s a good or bad example to share images of those activities? It’s not set to be an example, for that they’re numerous technical books, mountain guides and alpine clubs to learn the basics and progress. We can be inspired by the elite of any profession but we cannot pretend that without the preparation that an expert have we will be able to do the same.

The PGHM (mountain rescue in Chamonix valley) statistics for the last 10 years show that the accidentology haven’t changed much in this period. It’s a minority the cases of accidents on free solo or fast alpinism, but they’re highlighted by the press every time, deforming the perception of the population. Many people says that is irresponsible for elite athletes to show those images and activities. And there we can see 2 different angles. In one edge, to show images of those activities might be seen as a sort of way to give ideas to others to try to emulate and lead to a possible accident. On the other edge to only show the main activities (like climbing in Himalaya alone in alpine style) without showing the reality of the training might lead to the belief that you don’t need to grow your capacities to do a main activity. I think that transparency is always the correct way, and therefore without giving much information of those trainings (strava routes, live or recent conditions, etc) I feel it’s important for people to see what it looks my training to be able to do then the main activities. And also because I’m inspired by seing what others do, mostly things that I’m fully aware by common sense that I will never be able to do, and therefore I can be inspired without the need of emulation and just enjoy the beauty of a well executed activity.

To get a bit more into the subject I would recommend the lecture of “Risque et Alpinisme” by Alain Ghersen.