Sunday 23 August 2009

Safer, safe and ‘less dangerous’

Claire after her skydive yesterday. Not looking too scared

I was just listening to Amartya Sen explaining on radio about his ideas about justice in the world, and his way of looking at this aspect of humanity struck me as just as relevant in another.

His thesis in the world of justice is that we should think in a more pragmatic, and less idealist way in order to achieve the best possible outcome for people. Specifically he has the idea that we pour a huge amount of energy trying to solve completely particular injustices, with the intended outcome being to make them 100% ‘just’. But, he says, the ideal of a perfectly just scenario often remains out of reach. Instead, if we first seek out the biggest and deepest injustices, and measure success against their starting points, rather than against the ideal finishing point of perfect justice, we will end up increasing overall justice by a larger amount. So the focus on scrubbing out the last remains of stubborn injustice becomes not just a black hole for our resources, but a distraction from deeper injustice elsewhere.

It struck me that this parallels closely recent arguments about risk in life and society. Economics right now is teaching popular society a lot about the importance of risk. Namely that pursuing the ideal of eliminating risk is actually harmful to economies, just as very risky and unstable situations are. Similarly, a statistical perspective minus the blinkers of a ratings driven media such as this book on the risks we face highlights some of the ridiculous situations we find ourselves in when we attempt to eliminate tiny risks (such as terrorism) and allow these to completely distract us from huge risks elsewhere.

Amartya’s idea projected onto risk makes a lot of sense to me and to me reflects closely the decision making process I’ve aspired to in the risky climbing I do. Other climbing bloggers thoughts recently (such as Dougald and Will’s) have reminded us well that believing in complete safety in climbing will always prove a fallacy. So it’s important to try not to be distracted by making tiny risks tinier, if larger ones lie ignored in the background (and they often do in my opinion).

A common example that often worries me when listening to other climbers discourse on safety is a fascination with the fine details of climbing equipment systems. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever, so long as it’s seen in context of the whole picture of climbing safety, which is often isn’t. The trouble is that our safety systems relating to climbing equipment are only one link in a chain of factors that determine how much risk we face when climbing.

The ‘soft’ skills (I hate the term but can’t immediately think of a replacement) of our tactics, decision making and movement skill on rock, ice or mountains are the other, larger part, and they often suffer relative ignorance.

A more specific example; Out of the climbers I know who onsight E6 or harder, I can't think of any who aren’t expert at downclimbing (out of trouble). Why? Quite simply, having this skill allows you to go with far less danger where it would be hideously dangerous to rely solely on ‘up’ climbing ability and safety equipment. In contrast, the trad climber’s I know who’ve suffered a series of confidence destroying serious falls are more often than not poor at climbing down out of scary situations. I’ve had a million climbers ask me all sorts of weird and wonderful questions about the fine points of equipment, and strategies for it’s use, and it often shocks them when I don’t always know an answer. But I can’t recall ever being asked about downclimbing.

Important things are often at the mercy of things less important. Looking for dangerous things to make less dangerous will often be more successful than looking for anything to make perfectly safe.


  1. Good point.Reminds me of the phrase

    "Climbing is dangerous, trad climbing is dangerous, climbing hard trad routes with marginal protection is ridiculously dangerous. These are all acceptable levels of risk." (or something alike)

    from OnSight! So true...

    Yesterday I had my first fall onto a #0.5 cam with ground fall potential when trying to trad climb a bolted route. (Since we have no trad routes here I am currently trying to improve my style in terms of climbing many of the routes on self-placed gear.) The runner was fine, so I tried again and the move went next go. It was a good experience since I was for a long time overprotecting things (doubling up bomber gear etc.).

    The objective risk we are subjected to is often much less than what our mind makes us think of (e.g. that the above mentioned runner would fail, the draw would unclip in a fall...). My conclusion is that judging risk from an objective point of view will improve your perception (and in climbing abilities) significantly. The problem is that there is a fine line between playing down and objective risk assessment - with potential horrible outcome. So a key skill is being objective without playing things down.

    BTW: How is the Longhope project going?

  2. Whilst I agree with the fundamentals of what you are saying, I think it is too easy to fall into the trap of believing that analysing and building an intelectual framework about risk control is a sufficient barrier to the risks involved in climbing. For sure we can all do our best to think through and eliminate dangers, but the relentless death of climbing friends over a span of decades etches into my mind the fact that nearly all these deaths were caused by 'bad luck' - the factors which genuinly are out of our control. Unfortunatly these factors can not be eliminated (however much we analyse them) and it is a fact that during a lifetime of climbing, there is a reasonable chance one of these 'uncontrolables' will come and get you in the end. Thats climbing.

  3. Insightful post Dave. This is the way risk management should be done. The most effective control measures should be implemented to reduce the overall risk.

    @Anonymous. There is a lot of risk in climbing, and there's a multitude of ways of controlling it. Some of these approaches of controlling it are good, and some bad. Dave has illustrated some of these. Your friends are either highly accepting of a lot of risks, or they made mistakes and you take on a very Hindu attitude that luck controls our fate, and we have no effect over it.

  4. Harald Swen24 August, 2009

    Well said Dave. Its important to identify the factors in which the biggest gain in safety is made.

    Unfortunately, for beginners it's very difficult to aquire the necessary 'soft' skills. You needs peers, experienced climbers who take you out to the crag and share their skills. Most climbing courses tend to focus on technique, not decision making.

    In reply to Anonymous: maybe your friends have had a lot of misfortune. But you are wrong in suggesting most climbing deaths are caused by misfortune. Statistics show the opposite. Most accidents are caused by misjudgement (weather, conditions, fitness, personal skills, etc) which eventually leads to an accident (after a whole chain of wrong decisions). Some accidents are caused by simple mistakes. But only a very limited number (<10%) of accidents are caused by misfortune.

    Read more on this subject on (risk management in climbing): The article is in German.

    gr, Harald Swen

  5. Do you bring the skill of downclimbing into your coaching Dave? I'm sure it's quite possible to do so, though surely there's a huge difference between being happy downclimbing something that's just hard and doing so above limited/poor gear. To be comfortable in the latter situation requires great mental control, which surely only comes through experience?

    As for the misfortune / poor judgement question, I've long held the view that there is very little truly objective danger in rock or even winter climbing. It's only when one moves into the alps/greater ranges and avalanche and serac danger comes into play that your safety really relies on luck as opossed to judgement.


  6. To the last anon. comment - Yes naturally I would encourage climbers I meet or coach to get good at down climbing (the mention above also counts as coaching for anyone who wants to see it as that!). Of course it's a skill that takes time to master especially above poor gear like any other in climbing. So the time to start learning and gaining that experience is always right now.

    incidentally I don't think it requires any special level of mental control above other climbing techniques. It just requires rigorous and systematic application of mental and practical climbing tactics and decision making skills. Anyone can learn to do it.

  7. Your post is very interesting. I think training down climbing skills is great and I do it every time I'm out practising; I believe the value is not in simply being able to down climb a higher grade but instead it’s in knowing the difference between what you can climb up and what you can climb down.

    I see risk in climbing as being composed of two factors:
    1. The actual danger for a given situation.
    2. The climber’s perception of the danger level.

    I would argue that risk is low (and enjoyment high) when the climbers perception of the danger is equal to the actual danger. In other words the climber knows exactly where the line is and can push close to it (gaining excitement) but not step beyond it. Obviously for someone like yourself trying to climb very hard routes you will push very close to the line, but this risk is countered by the fact that you know exactly where the line is, and can then work to lower the danger levels until it meets your personal risk acceptability level. You have identified that the danger level can be lowered by gaining down climbing skills, and for many of us it’s also being able to accurately appreciate the quality of the protection and understanding what we are and are not capable of climbing on a given day.

    I would suggest that climbers who expose themselves to greater risk are the ones who underestimate the actual danger and they therefore don’t see the need to work on their weaknesses to claim back some safety margins. e.g. climbers undertaking multi-pitch routes face a lower risk if they know rescue techniques but I’ve known novice climbers who have no idea how important these techniques could prove and therefore embark on multi-itch routes without them.

    Perhaps climbers with low confidence don’t know what the actual danger levels are (anymore) and therefore can’t calculate the risks involved in them attempting the route. This understandably would lead to some anxiety as to whether the climb they are undertaking is within their personal acceptability level.

  8. Alan Russell31 August, 2009

    Hey Dave, interesting post, and one which I found pretty relevent.

    Would have liked to have met you guys at Strathallan, but I injured my knee nearly 3 months ago in a bad landing which has stopped me jumping, climbing or running. The injury wasn't caused through any equipment fault but a combination of fatigue, frustration and, possibly most significantly, complacency.

    Am running again now though and hoping to try a bit of top-roping this week and maybe some jumping. Going to have to be stricter with myself in not allowing bad habits to grow and triggering myself to slow down and take a step back when I'm pushing too hard and things are slipping by.

  9. Vote #1 Dave for First Minister. That sort of pragmatism might just sort out the neds as well.
    Idealism is seductive and blinding because it is a direction rather than a position.
    I have known people who will climb past a single nut preventing a deck-out, yet avoid rapping like the plague because it has no redundancy. (other than bomber bolts and a mega strong rope.)