Calculated risk is something that the general public doesn’t seem to understand. When your day consists of dog walks, conference calls, and grande lattes, the biggest risk of the day may be the decision to take the freeway or the back roads. This is not to say that this is a bad choice of life, or that a way that anyone chooses to live their life is wrong. Yet, it is interesting that whenever there is an avalanche accident, or even when a well known athlete from our world is injured, that these everyday people who know nothing of our lives and the media that they support instantly jump to critique our choices.
The perfect example would be to sit and watch the hoards cruise through a terrain park on a holiday weekend. Wave after wave of tourists will be seen throwing themselves at features, hurtling off the sides of jumps, and more often than not, wrecking themselves beyond abandon. Meanwhile, there will probably be a group of core riders and skiers going off hits twice the size, doing tricks with double the consequence, and ending up ok. Why do you think this is? Are they just getting lucky that they landed, or are they just rolling the dice and somehow surviving every time their rotation doesn’t put them rightside up? NO. This is a perfect example of calculated risk, a progression of learned movements and skills. We all started somewhere, but it definitely wasn’t at the top of the progression.
What bothers people in our position and passion, is how the media and those in the outer circle react to the few times something goes wrong. The news had a frenzy about helmets and safety when Kevin Pearce had his fall. Of course it was a tragic event, but he was doing what he loved, and had done it hundreds of times. But when an NFL player gets a concussion, or a NASCAR driver wrecks, people don’t instantly discredit their ability or their passion, saying that they are being too risky or trying too hard. In fact, the NFL averaged 8.4 concussions PER WEEK in 2011, yet aside from a couple of rules like enforcing fair tackles, people accept that as the name of the game.
Along the same lines, it seems that every time there is an avalanche accident, the hubbub around town has people doubting the decisions of those involved. Once again, if someone gets in a fender bender on Vail Pass, the public accepts this as the consequences of driving during inclement weather, and moves on. People generally don’t ask where they were going, or why they decided to drive, they just accept that the person needed to be driving. Yet, in an article put together by the Utah Avalanche Center, driving a car longer distances is about 4 times as dangerous as riding in the backcountry within reasonable judgement. Taking this into consideration, this means that the victims in the Loveland avalanche of last year were technically safer than those who were driving up the pass at the time. But remember, we don’t question why people drive cars.
There are very obvious risks in the backcountry, i.e. avalanches, down trees, cold weather. Most users know of these risks, and hope to avoid them. That is not to say that all users know HOW to avoid these risks, or understand how to adjust their risk tolerance to the conditions of the day. However, most backcountry enthusiasts who spend multiple days a week out in the mix not only know how to mitigate these risks, they also understand when these risks are worth taking because of their intimate knowledge of the conditions. For example, someone who loves snow but lives in Denver and only gets up on Berthoud Pass on Sundays may know plenty about snow science, but the guy or gal who spends 5 days a week on snow will actually see how the changing weather is always affecting the snowpack. Not only does this help the frequent user identify weak layers, trigger zones, and weather effects, but frequent use also takes away the “Now or Never” sort of game day attitude of a weekend warrior. When you have multiple chances to enter a zone, you are probably more willing to back off on certain days, rather than feeling like you only have one shot.
So is there risk in our passion? Of course. Am I willing to take them? Of course. But let’s be clear, I am not using the phrase, “I will take my chances,” for a reason. That is because the people that love the backcountry try their hardest not to leave their lives to chance. Yet, I am not going to lie that knowing the fact that my chances of getting injured while driving to the San Juans are greater than my chances of getting hurt while riding in them leave a bit of a bittersweet pit in my stomach. If you have ever driven to a trailhead with me, or just around town, you know that I drive like a grandpa on a Sunday afternoon because of this. And this is where risk tolerance and mitigation comes into play again. I am a mess when driving around the city these days. Going to Denver takes me completely out of my comfort zone and pushes the limits of my patience every time. I am way more comfortable on the scarp of a 40 degree slope or hanging from a cam 60 feet in the air than I am driving in traffic. It just goes to show you that maybe we shouldn’t always be judging what risks others take, as we have no idea what brought them to be comfortable with that level of risk and how they applied it. And if we must critique accidents, then let’s focus not on why it happened to that individual, but what we can learn to prevent it from happening to us.