Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Staying Alive in the Mountains: A Glossary

Mountain, ski, and climbing pursuits are athletic exercises in risk management. Much of what we do in the mountains are efforts to keep us alive in this unforgiving environment. Staying alive is a thought process. A thought process is simply application of a vocabulary. The more sophisticated your vocabulary, the more sophisticated your thought process will be. Wanna stay "safe" in the mountains? Improve your risk management vocabulary.

Likelihood of something bad happening here? Consequences? 

A strong analytical thinker, free-soloing on bad rock,
in a storm. Ian has cultivated his balance. 
  • Bilateral thought process. Decision-making can be broken into two major types of thinking. We all think, at times, intuitively or analytically. We each certainly have our strong suit. Those that are strong intuitive decision makers owe it to themselves to cultivate, no matter how uncomfortable that cultivation may be, their analytical side. And, of course, vice versa. 
  • Intuitive Thought Process. Thoughts, preferences, and ideas that come to mind quickly. Your "instincts". You make intuitive choices when you ski powder in the trees and when you climb the moves of a boulder problem or between the cams of a trad route. In these cases, application of intuitive thought process is appropriate and the best choice. Intuitive choices are most effective either in low-consequence environments or when the practitioner has a very high level of expertise. Intuitively interpreting the weather ("I feel like the blue window will be long enough") in an unfamiliar range is a bad idea. Intuitively interpreting snow stability ("Feels good to me") in your first decade of backcountry skiing is a bad idea. Other good things to do intuitively include: 
    • walk 
    • adjust your clothing layers
    • assess your own and other's motivations
    • most rock climbing moves
    • trust your feet
    • swing your ice tools
    • most things you literally have a decade of experience analyzing

  • Analytical Thought Process. The breakdown of a complicated subject into its component parts for your own review. Analytical thought processes are inherently slow, but very thorough. Analyzing which brake lever to pull on your mountain bike is a bad idea. Analyzing whether to smear or edge while run-out trad climbing is a bad idea. Analyzing whether to ski left or right of that microwave sized rock is a bad idea. Good things to analyze include 
    • the weather (past, present, and future)
    • rock and ice quality
    • snowpack history
    • group dynamics
    • time plan
    • map, terrain, navigation
    • environment impact
    • financial costs and travel considerations 
    • likelihood of success and failure
    • patterns and statistics in mountain accidents
    • your packing list
I dug long and hard through a deep photo library to find a shot that illustrated someone applying analytical thought processes. Best I could come up with is this shot of a map and a guy picking his nose. It's just not sexy to develop or celebrate analytical thinking. I am a huge champion of analytical thinking, and I could find one picture in thousands that illustrated it. 

  • "Ignorance is Bliss". The crutch and mantra of strong intuitive decision-makers. Cultivate your analytical side. You are not invincible. 
  • "Statistics never lie". "I am a very safety conscious climber". "I read Accidents in North American Climbing, cover to cover every year, for my own safety".  The crutches and mantras of strong analytical decision makers. Cultivate your intuitive side. You deserve it. 


  • Hazard. A condition that presents a risk or threat. Avalanche hazard, for instance, exists whether we go there or not. 
  • Danger. The power to cause harm. A hazard can be dangerous, or not, depending on our exposure to it. That avalanche isn't dangerous unless someone is there to be hit. 
  • Risk. The chance that someone will be harmed by the hazard. With consideration given to the degree of harm. What are the chances you will be hit, and degree of harm sustained, by an avalanche under certain conditions? That is your risk. Risk is a function of likelihood, consequence, and exposure. 
  • Reward. That which you serve to gain. Some rewards (summits, powder turns, mental and physical challenge of a certain pitch or move, etc) are worth great risks. Others are not. Each person's assessment of the risk:reward ratio is theirs, is sacred, and is fluid. 
  • Fear. What is scary is not exactly the same as what is dangerous. Intuitive thought processes muddle the difference between that which is fear-inducing and that which is dangerous. Analytical thought processes help separate that which is dangerous from that which is scary. 
  • Failure. A myth. Coming home intact is success. Coming home dead isn't a failure. 'Cause you don't know the difference. 
  • Priorities. Write yours down. My mountain "mission statement" (yeah, I have a mountain mission statement. My analytical game is strong) contains "... to learn things and work hard." Way down the list is a summit or a send or a steep set of turns. Someone smart once said his goal, in this order, is "to come home intact, to come home friends, and to come home with a summit". 
Jon says "I'm trying to aspire to be the man I pretend to be on Instagram but Patagonia won't let me".

  • Objective Hazard. Conditions we have little to no control over. In most cases, our only recourses to manage objective hazards are avoidance or timing. Rockfall, avalanche, and lightning are all objective hazards. 
  • Subjective Hazard. Conditions we have at least a little more control over. We can mitigate subjective hazards with avoidance and timing, but also with movement skill, fitness, equipment, and planning. The hazard of falling is a subjective hazard. As is cold, wind, precipitation. 
  • Exposure. The time or distance over which one is exposed to a hazard. 
  • Likelihood. The probability of a dangerous event transpiring. 
  • Consequence. The degree of harm possible in a dangerous event. 
  • Safety. A myth. We are fragile bags of flesh and bone, choosing to recreate in a serious environment, often intentionally toying with kinetic and potential energy. We don't go to the mountains with the goal of being "safe". We go to the mountains with the goal of mitigating risk while maximizing reward. 



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