Updated: Jul 19, 2020
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
If you are a rock climber, backcountry skier, or other mountain athlete, you’ve probably heard these questions more than a few times. I know I have. Here are my answers: Am I afraid? Sometimes. Is it dangerous? Potentially. But so is driving. It’s all about managing the risk.
Risk is an interesting concept. In simple terms, risk is the possibility of something bad* happening (Wikipedia). In the mountains (and business and life) there are all sorts of bad things that can happen. We can fall, get lost, get caught in a storm, get attacked by a bear, get hit by lightning, get caught in an avalanche, the list goes on. The key is understanding the likelihood of a given event happening on a given trip, as well as the consequences. Tripping and falling is something that can happen to me anywhere, but I’m generally more likely to trip and fall if I’m walking on uneven loose rocks than on a smooth trail. The consequences depend on how far I fall. If I trip walking along a flat trail, I might wind up with some minor scrapes. If I trip at the top of a cliff and fall over the edge, the consequences would be severe.
Let’s get nerdy (ok, nerdier) and quantify the risk. There’s even a formula!
Risk = likelihood x consequence
To calculate the risk we have to assign both the likelihood and consequence a number. We could go low-medium-high, but it’s more common to use a scale from 1-5, with 1 being low, and 5 being extreme. We then multiply the numbers together to find the risk. Here’s a handy chart to help you visualize:
Using my example above, the likelihood of tripping on a smooth, flat trail is 1, and the consequences of tripping are also 1. Multiply the likelihood and consequence together, and the risk is still 1
But if I move into rough, uneven alpine terrain, the likelihood of me tripping might go up to a 2 or a 3. And if I find myself at the top of a cliff, the consequences of tripping could shoot all the way up to 5. Multiple them together and the risk shoots up to between 10 and 15.
Now, back at the beginning I said it was all about managing risk. The wonderful things about life is that we can make choices. If I don’t like the risk in a particular situation I can avoid it by staying home (I might have FOMO, but at least I’ll be safe and can come back another day). Or I could take steps to manage the risk, by reducing the likelihood or consequences of something bad happening. Developing my climbing abilities reduces the chance that I will fall, while using a rope and protective gear correctly minimizes the consequences of a fall. Or I could simply accept the risk: at some point the benefits of getting out there and enjoying the mountains (and life!) outweigh the risks.
*In everyday life we think of risk as being bad things. The international standards organization and risk management professionals think of risk as uncertainty – in that world, risk management is about both minimizing bad things and maximizing good things.