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I Am Dangerous

I AM Dangerous

A couple of summers ago, Steve Markusen was found high on the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton.  Bloody, staggering, disoriented and solo, he asked the party of three who found him where he was.  Hours later, Jenny Lake ranger Nick Armitage flew in beneath the rescue helicopter and plucked Markusen from his ledge above the Friction Pitch of the Exum, at roughly 13,400’ above sea-level.  It is still unknown whether he fell from an unknown height, was hit by rockfall or simply blacked out. 

When people ask me about climbers who were injured or killed in the mountains, I think they want to hear that the injured or deceased was “in over their heads”, or “took too many risks”.  They want to create a false sense of Other – to distance themselves from the decisions that have been made and believe, “I would never have made that mistake.”  It’s a powerful defense mechanism but only an illusion.  Most likely we all have made the same mistakes, but we’ve been luckier or gotten away with it.  Usually I attribute the accident to something small – a momentary lapse of attention, a minor slip on wet lichen, rockfall.

When he returned home, Markusen began planning his next trip to Wyoming and wasn’t worried about the judgement of others.  It wasn’t his first scrape.  He told me, “I don’t really care what people think about me anymore. I am dangerous.”  I was floored.

In 2012, Krister Kristensen, Manuel Genswein, and Werner Munter, all very accomplished mountaineers, presented a paper at the 2012 International Snow Science Workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, titled The Perception of Risk in Avalanche Terrain.  They looked at something called Lifetime of Exposure.  The data sets and numbers spoke for themselves.  Over a “lifetime of exposure”, a generally conservative mountain guide has a one-in-forty chance of dying.   One who continually pushed the limits has a one-in-ten chance.  Odds for high end recreationists are lower, but still in the ballpark.  These are high odds, but Munter says, “this is the price that we must pay for the freedom of the mountains.” 

As with Markusen, all those who go into the mountains must recognize that they may never come back.  Risk and danger are inherent in these pursuits, and if the pursuits are inherently dangerous then so am I.  It is said that the Dalai Lama, the living embodiment of compassion, visualizes his death every day.  We might be well served to do the same. 

Danger, dangerous, stupid: Not all the same

Mountainside / By Molly Absolon

Jan 23, 2019 (Jackson Hole News and Guide)

Friday the snow was deep and creamy. It was also sensitive.

My husband dug a test pit on a slope we hoped to ski. A soft slab roughly 70 centimeters thick propagated across the wall of snow on the 17th tap of his extended column test. Not a good sign. We headed for the trees to get our powder fix.

After the first run I found myself drawn to a steep, open slope in the trees. It looked awesome. The snow glittered, white and smooth, inviting my tracks to paint its surface. I rationalized that it was a small slope, anchored by a few trees and protected from the effects of wind by its location. I rationalized that unlike the open bowl we’d originally hoped to ski, this slope didn’t have enough of a load on it to slide, or if it did slide it would be too small to affect me. I rationalized this because I wanted to ski the line.

My husband did not agree. He told me our results indicated a weak, loaded snowpack and he thought it was reckless to consider leaving the trees for any open ground. Sure, it probably wouldn’t slide. But there was no guarantee, and if it did slide, I’d be taken into trees below. He told me I was dangerous.

Drew Hardesty, who is a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center in the winter and a Grand Teton National Park climbing ranger in the summer, recently sent me an essay he’d written about danger.

In the essay he related a story about a man who’d been rescued from the Upper Exum Route on the Grand. Not long after the man returned home he began planning his next climbing trip to Wyoming. According to Drew the rescue wasn’t the first time the man had run into trouble in the mountains, but it didn’t bother him if people judged him or condemned his desire to climb again.

He told Drew, “I don’t really care what people think about me anymore. I am dangerous.”

The essay went on to explore the notion of danger, and, in the end, Drew embraced the idea that we are dangerous if we spend our lives in the mountains engaging in potentially risky behavior. He cited evidence from a paper presented at the 2012 International Snow Science Workshop titled “The Perception of Risk in Avalanche Terrain,” which showed that over a lifetime of exposure, mountain guides who pushed the limits had a 1 in 10 chance of dying. The odds were improved if you were a more conservative guide to 1 in 40, but they were still high. As one of the authors said, “This is the price that we must pay for the freedom of the mountains.”

I struggled with the implications of Drew’s essay because to me the idea that we are knowingly “dangerous” felt wrong. The word has negative connotations. It conjures up ideas of stupidity and recklessness. It seems to imply a willful disregard for safety and life. But Drew had a good point.

The fact of the matter is, the odds are against us if we spend our lives in the mountains skiing avalanche slopes or climbing exposed rock. Even the most conservative of us can slip on lichen and fall from the mountain. Even the most conservative of us can rationalize that the little slope tucked in between the trees is OK.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word dangerous means 1: involving possible injury, pain, harm or loss; characterized by danger, and 2: able or likely to inflict injury or harm. Both these definitions are true for all mountain pursuits when you think about it, so why do I find it so hard to apply the term to myself and my friends?

To me the word dangerous conjures images of actions I consider to be stupid. Say driving 100 mph over Teton Pass or putting a skin track up the east face of Mount Taylor (which I actually saw this fall!).

There’s something about such behavior that seems to disregard common sense and that willingly puts others at risk. I associate the word with ignorance. But Drew pushed back against my arguments, saying he wonders if we are just kidding ourselves when we talk about people who are “strategic and thoughtful” about their endeavors in the mountains. He questioned whether that was a rationalization that allowed us to go back out there after something bad happens.

I remember years ago when a friend of mine was killed climbing in Sinks Canyon near Lander. He’d been alone, so no one really knew exactly what happened, but it appeared he had rappelled off the end of his rope in a moment of inattention.

Our response to his death was not to stop climbing, but to begin tying knots in the end of our rope so we couldn’t accidentally rap off the ends. His wasn’t the only accident I found myself perusing for lessons learned. In fact, at NOLS there’s an entire department dedicated to analyzing accidents and near misses to figure out how to avoid those situations. I think there is real validity to these lessons, and yet, I guess when I think about what Drew is saying I begin to understand that ultimately, regardless of our training, planning, strategizing and education, we are in danger when we step into an environment we cannot control.

Drew ended his email to me with a quote from Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff,” which tells the story of the early space program. Wolfe wrote, “They presumed a knowledge and an intimacy they did not have and had no right to.”

As I looked at that beckoning slope last Friday, I definitely was presuming a knowledge and an intimacy that I did not have a right to. I did that because I wanted to give myself permission to ski the slope. I did that because I did not want to appear dangerous, but rather to have thought through the pros and cons and come up with what I — and others — would consider to be a rational, strategic decision as to whether it was safe to ski. But the fact was, I had talked myself into this decision because of my desire. The fact was, I was being dangerous.

Because the word dangerous feels so loaded to me, embracing it requires a subtle shift in mindset. I criticize people I deem dangerous, while I rationalize the actions of people who are truly dangerous. For example, think of Alex Honnold. I haven’t heard anyone call him dangerous.

Instead we use terms like bold, courageous and fearless when describing him. We applaud his feats, especially his solo climb of El Capitan. He wasn’t being dangerous, we argue, because of his preparation, skill and careful strategizing. But we are deluding ourselves. He was dangerous, as are all of us when we expose ourselves to danger.

Of course there are lots of things in life that are dangerous, and there are lots of ways to we can minimize our exposure in the mountains, but, as the statistics cited at the ISSW in 2012 demonstrate, we can’t deny that mountain pursuits are more dangerous than many other recreational pastimes.

So, I am trying to accept the word dangerous and use it to help me evaluate my decisions. Maybe knowing that I am dangerous, or at least potentially in danger, maybe that will be one more thing that will help me stay out of trouble.

Drew ended his essay saying, “…those of us who go into the mountains must recognize that we may never come back. Risk and danger are inherent in these pursuits, and if the pursuits are inherently dangerous, then so am I.”

I fought against agreeing with that statement when I first read it, but the more I pondered its implications, the more I’ve come to realize that I think what he says is true. We are dangerous, but that doesn’t have to mean we are stupid.

(Molly Absolon is a good friend. She’s a writer living in Teton Valley, Idaho.)

(magnolia photo Nick Sisk)

2 Comments

  1. Scott Frank Wood - Ashleigh Bassett's dad

    Drew
    I made copies of this essay for my Risk Management students on Monday – the first day of the semester and asked them to read it so we could discuss it today – Wednesday. It generated a thoughtful discussion causing students to think deeply about the mistakes they have made not only in the mountains but in their lives. The sentence, “It wasn’t his first scrape.”, reminded me of a good friend whose son in law was killed three years ago in an avalanche while riding a snowmachine, leaving behind a wife and four young children. My friend was angry about how his daughter, now a young widow, was forced into a very difficult situation. My friend said, “It wasn’t his first rodeo. He had been buried three times before.” He paid that “price” for his freedom of the mountains, but at the same time his wife and children lost part of their freedom. We all need to think deeper than just ourselves.

  2. Russ Costa

    Rightfully or wrongfully, “could that have been me?” has become the first question I ask myself upon hearing about an avalanche accident, especially when it occurs in a range or community I know well. In my younger days I quickly created that false other and found the reasons I wouldn’t have been there then to reassure myself to keep doing what I was doing. More recently I’ve tried to focus on reasons I could or would have been there. It’s a more helpful learning reflection. Perhaps realizing the vulnerability we all face in the mountains helps tone down the positive feedback loops we spiral in. Thanks for sharing, Drew.

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