What’s Manageable? Risk in the Outdoors

What's Manageable? Risk in the Outdoors

How often has this hap­pened to you? It’s Mon­day morn­ing and you’re at work. One of your co-work­ers comes over and strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion about the week­end. When you launch into a quick sto­ry about your week­end climbing/skiing/backpacking/paddling trip, your co-work­er rais­es a con­cerned eye­brow and declares, “That sounds dangerous.”

When talk­ing about out­door recre­ation, it does­n’t take long for the top­ic of risk to arise. In the pub­lic mind, sports like climb­ing and back­coun­try ski­ing are noto­ri­ous­ly “risky,” but I’ve even heard peo­ple argue that hik­ing on trails is a dan­ger­ous pur­suit. While it’s true that when things go wrong in the wilder­ness, prob­lems can com­pound quick­ly (and this some­times leads to death), risk exists every­where, even in the front­coun­try. Dri­ving is dan­ger­ous, eat­ing can be fatal, even walk­ing down stairs can end in tragedy. The dif­fer­ence is that we know how to man­age these risks. Peo­ple rarely wor­ry about falling down the stairs because it’s just not that like­ly to hap­pen. The same is true with chok­ing. These events have a low prob­a­bil­i­ty of hap­pen­ing. With dri­ving, you can lessen the con­se­quences of an acci­dent by wear­ing a seat­belt and dri­ving cars that are designed to take the brunt of an impact. Risk in the out­doors can be man­aged the same way. The first two ques­tions to address are: (1) how like­ly is that some­thing will go wrong and (2) what are the con­se­quences? Both ques­tions are equal­ly important.

If some­thing goes wrong, what will the out­comes be? If you fall on a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of trail, are you just going to to scrape your leg, or is it pos­si­ble that you’ll end up careen­ing off a cliff? When you know what the con­se­quences are, you can be pre­pare to lessen the risk. Think of climb­ing, where you tie into a sys­tem and use a belay­er to stop a fall because the con­se­quence of falling is severe injury. You would­n’t rope up to walk down the side­walk because the con­se­quence of falling is incred­i­bly low — so what if you skin your knee?


What is the chance that some­thing will go wrong? Is the trail dry and flat, or is it cov­ered in ice? Glac­i­er trav­el is a great exam­ple of the spec­trum this ques­tion address­es. If it’s a wet glac­i­er — one that’s cov­ered in snow — you may choose to rope up, but leave your cram­pons off. The like­li­hood of slip­ping is low, while the prob­a­bil­i­ty of falling into a crevasse you did­n’t see has increased.

The oppo­site is true on a dry glac­i­er (one with­out snow) where a rope team may not do you much good if you fall, but wear­ing cram­pons will give you bet­ter trac­tion. Know­ing what actions may cause prob­lems is an impor­tant step in assess­ing risk. Go out an read some acci­dent reports; there’s no safer way to learn how things can go wrong and what you can do to pre­vent a sim­i­lar accident.

Putting it Togeth­er
Man­ag­ing risk comes down to comb­ing the answers to these two ques­tions. If some­thing is low con­se­quence and low like­li­hood — it’s prob­a­bly a risk worth tak­ing. On the oth­er hand, real­iz­ing that a prob­lem is prob­a­bly going to hap­pen and that the  con­se­quence are high may lead you to turn around for the day. 

It’s in the mid­dle that things get more com­pli­cat­ed. This is where you’re real­ly work­ing to man­age risk. Tak­ing extra pre­cau­tions, like rop­ing up or check­ing the snow­pack or tak­ing a class that teach­es you how to rec­og­nize ways that things go wrong, are good ways to low­er the con­se­quences of an acci­dent or the prob­a­bil­i­ty that some­thing will hap­pen. In the end, it may come down to your instincts and there’s noth­ing wrong with call­ing it a day when you’re just not sure how things might shake out.