Friday, August 24, 2012

On risk

A week in the mountains

Few get to experience the kind of trust where their life literally depends on another person. There are certainly occupations where this occurs, such as firefighting or the armed services, and there are fields of medicine where the Hippocratic Oath defines life saving as a professional requirement and expectation, but there are few examples beyond this that truly exemplify trust in a non-contractual sense. And I am not talking about the kind of trust, so beloved by professional team building facilitators, in which blindfolded executives are encouraged to "fall" into the waiting arms of their colleagues in order to exemplify the "trust" that is so evidently missing at all other occasions...otherwise why the need for the activity in the first place? I'm talking about the kind of trust where a mistake made by one person could result in the death of another.  OK, that was a little melodramatic but I want to illustrate.

I hear, all too often, trust being defined by the absence of certain behaviors antithetical to the construct. Declarative statements to the effect of not lying, stealing or cheating are taken as apparent illustrations of trust. They are not. While lying, stealing and cheating destroy trust, the absence of them doesn't necessarily build trust. Trust is built by the presence of something rather than just the absence of destructive components. It's essence is relational and evidence for it is accumulated over time. Seeing a person behave in varied situations over a long period enables confidence to be built. The more predictable and consistent their behavior is, the more likely it is that trust will result.

Partnerships in rock climbing are a good example. As I reflect on a climbing career of nearly 40 years I have only really had three climbing partners and these partnerships are not trivial, nor based on convenience. Thinking back to how each partnership evolved reveals a consistent pattern which sees passage between three stages. First, is there mental compatibility around the objective and the kind of climbing to be pursued, and is each person as concerned for the safety of the other partner beyond interests that purely serve themselves? Second, are the behaviors (and attitudes that drive them) around safety consistent and predictable over time - is each partner as attentive to each other as they go about achieving shared objectives? Third, is there mutual interdependence and a confidence in each other that influences behavior and decision making? It took time in each partnership for these elements to establish, but I know I couldn't climb with a person if they were absent.

I've climbed for long enough to see people I know well die. While it is far from the case that these deaths were the result of poor partner selection, it seems that a disproportionate number of accidents occurred in more transient relationships - particularly where an individual's drive to achieve led to them compromise standards on partner selection, and where availability was the dominant selection criteria. Maybe this says more about me, but my views over personal safety consistently override my ambition. Even in the day when I was pushing the hardest grades, soloing 2000 foot routes in the Verdon Gorges in France, my line on personal safety was always clearly drawn, despite what others might have thought or feared.

Harold Drasdo, in his excellent essay, Margins of Safety UK Alpine Journal, 1969, argued that the best climbers operated close to their personal safety margin and that equipment advances didn't widen the margin as much as increase standards of climbing. While agreeing with him, he omitted reference to climbing partner selection and the impact of this on climbing standards and ultimate safety. Just as much as equipment advances produce rises in climbing standards, so too does the level of trust between climbing partners contribute to the same. The more secure, in psychological terms, the relationship...the stronger the trust between partners, the more likely that calculations on risk will lead to more difficult climbs being undertaken but with greater safety. As I reflect on the rare occasions where I have climbed with a "temporary" partner I have always exercised caution regarding the difficulty of route attempted and this has always led to dissatisfaction. Not knowing the limits of trust, not being able to assume certain standards and protocols, generates uncertainty and the margin of safety is only maintained by reducing route difficulty.

As I currently climb well below the standard of my younger days the relative nature of risk is clearly apparent. At the easier grades I look for more poorly protected lines - it's not that the margin of safety has narrowed but I seek risk in uncertainty and there is more uncertainty in lines that are more difficult to protect. This can only happen with the high level of trust and dependence on a climbing partner who understands these motivations and I have been lucky to climb with similarly minded individuals who know risk and how it is calculated.

There will come a time when risk means nothing to me in absolute terms...when my capacity to even experience danger is so limited due to physical and possibly mental limitations. Until then I'll continue to enjoy weeks like this last one...spending the best of times in the mountains climbing routes closer to the current limits of my abilities, and doing so in the company of a trusted and trusting friend. 

Photos from Jurassic Park, RMNP, Longs Peak, RMNP, and Eldorado Canyon, Boulder, CO.

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