“That’s super risky!” is what you will probably think watching Alex Honold free soloing El Capitan. But Alex disagrees. In this interview for National Geographic Alex says 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.
We often merge concepts like risk, consequence or exposure, 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 is 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.
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.