Playing With Risk

by Reid Wiegleb on June 6, 2018

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Hellen Keller, The Open Door 1957

Every time we run off on an adventure, we accept a degree of danger. It is, arguably, one of the best ways to have fun. Twenty and thirty-somethings comprise two of the highest risk outdoor recreation groups. As a member of that demographic, I really wonder sometimes what has stopped me from becoming a statistic. Undoubtedly, some of it is plain luck. I would like to think, however, there are plenty of other instances where I exercised intelligent risk taking.

While there are many situations that are inconsequential and can be examined on the fly, more often than we allow, they deserve deliberate thought. After all, being stuck in the backcountry for days with a broken leg may not be worth a ten-minute shortcut. However, circumstance may dictate the necessity for that shortcut. Let me give you an example where a pal and I let circumstance push us into poor decision making.

It was early May, and we were atop a fourteen-thousand-foot peak in the Eastern Sierras. Weather was due shortly and we were miles from the trailhead. For the sake of time, we decided to take a shortcut down a snow-filled ravine. As I reached a point of being fully committed, I watched as ice and snow skittered down the slope—crashing onto jagged rocks below. My ice axe dug in well, but that did not stop it from periodically jumping an inch or two down the steep slope. Between the altitude and the situation I had put myself in, my heart was ready to jump straight from my chest. I used my heels to kick a set of steps into the snow so I could relax my grip on the axe and take a moment to develop a plan. Realizing we had taken a wrong turn, and the snow conditions were not conducive for glacading, my partner and I discussed other options. There, unfortunately, were not many aside from going down where we were. We had to deal with this set of circumstances.

Finding ourselves at extremis was the result of a couple things:

1.     Trying to outrun impending weather, and choosing a route different than we planned.

2.     Not discussing the risks we were comfortable taking.

3.     Doing little to control the risk to which we were exposed.

Photo by Reid Wiegleb

My friend slid around me and went for the glacade; stopping just short of the rocks and laughed one of those “I’m happy I survived that intact” laughs. Luckily, we both made it down unscathed. At the bottom of the two-hundred-foot snow slide, we gave each other a hug and agreed that was far riskier than we predicted.

Of course, risk, and the challenge it presents is what draws many of us to adventure in the first place. So the question is: how do we balance security and risk when we are seeking the growth that risk often facilitates? Risk-oriented groups like the military and elite search and rescue teams teach Operational Risk Management (ORM) as a process to analyze and mitigate risk. Most on the fly decisions do not require the entire process, but those heavy, deliberate decisions are best made with some version of the ORM model:

  1. Identify Hazards– weather, group fitness, group fatigue, skill, mindset, etc.
  2. Assess Risks– What can go wrong, how wrong can it go, and who will be affected?
  3. Analyze Controls– What skills, tools, or alternatives exist to mitigate or eliminate risk?
  4. Make Decisions– A decision has to be made, and everyone needs to be onboard.
  5. Implement Risk Controls– Make a plan to implement controls discussed in step three.
  6. Monitor the Situation– Is the situation developing according to plan? Stopping to reevaluate can be a necessary reality.
Photo by Reid Wiegleb

Keep in mind that the risk you as an individual or a group identify is largely reliant on the experience, fitness, and equipment your group possesses. Risk mitigation begins long before you ever leave home on an adventure. Having the proper equipment is a great place to start. With no less significance are physical fitness and technical skills. Addressing these three factors alone can significantly lessen the amount of risk you have to consider when on an adventure.

In the anecdote I provided earlier, we should have taken a moment to plan out what we were doing. Is there a chance that we would have still taken the same course of action? Absolutely. To our credit, we were not far outside of our capabilities. We had taken many pre-adventure steps in fitness, equipment, and skill to lower the amount of risk we would have been exposed to otherwise.

I find the most difficult part of the ORM process for groups, and myself to follow is step six. It is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of “we are following the plan that we planned so the plan has to work.” Wrong. Risk variables change continually with time. Having the ability to take a moment to reevaluate your situation as it develops demonstrates risk management maturity.

Taking chance and accepting risk in adventuring is perfectly okay as long as you are taking adequate steps to mitigate that risk. Being a good risk manager takes practice. With time, you develop a better understanding of what you like, what scares you, and how to keep yourself within those boundaries. Doing so ensures an adventure, that everyone can happily reminisce about later.

Photo by Reid Wiegleb

FAA. “Chapter 15 Operational Risk Management (ORM).” FAA Safety System Handbook. 2000. URL:‍

Related Adventures