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Air: Perceptions of Risk

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Air: Perceptions of Risk

Once we decide that we are physically at risk the ancient reptilian part of our brain has an increased likely hood of taking over, causing our palms to sweat, muscles to lock up, our breathing to stop and our pulse to start racing.  Surprisingly, this auto response does not happen when we are most at risk but rather when our perception of risk is highest, i.e. when we are scared.

I see people go through this process in mountain environments over and over again.  One of the best examples of the “fight or flight response” is in teaching kids how to climb.  Numerous times when a child is first tied in to a rope I witness them becoming debilitated with fear trying to climb the first ten feet of a rock. Twenty minutes later I catch them attempting to climb the exact same thing fearlessly without a rope.

Each person has an individual approach to how they deal with risk.  Some avoid certain activities altogether and others seek those very activities out. Managing real and diverse risks on a day to day basis is actually like a muscle or a skill that becomes stronger as it is exercised and weaker as it is avoided.  When learning to become proficient in an activity such as back country skiing for example you become adept  at identifying the difference between fear, danger and actual risk. Interestingly, this leads to becoming more skilled at identifying real risks in everyday life.  This is not to say that mountain sports are without risk.  It’s the activities that have the opportunity of risk that creates this rich learning environment.

Fear floods the system when we are engaging in novel activities or find ourselves in moments that are perceived as completely unfamiliar and beyond our control.   Consider our reaction to actual accidents as we compare car accidents to mountain sports accidents.  I have seen a majority of clients who encounter accidents in the mountains become spooked and start second guessing whether the activity is safe enough for them to do.  On the contrary, when encountering a car accident would these same people ask, “Maybe driving or even riding in a vehicle is just not for me”.  No.  But, take a look at the statistics on Deaths in Mt Rainier National Park.  Statistically driving and flying in Mt Rainier National Park is more dangerous than being on a summit climb of the peak itself.

This June’s addition of National Geographic Magazine had a fantastic article on the over-crowding of Mt Everest.  This article provided a very clear table outlining the 7 major causes of fatalities and comparing Sherpas or “Local Staff” to visiting climbers or “Expeditions Members”.  On almost all causes for fatalities the Sherpas are naturally much less likely to die, and when they do, they are statistically more at risk for only the two most objective dangers: Icefall collapse and Avalanche.  If you are a visiting climber you are much more at risk of dying from Exhaustion, Altitude sickness, Exposure, Falling and a category called “Other”.  Just as the Sherpas are much more aware of these risks, the visiting climbers are increasingly more oblivious and unfamiliar with the hazards.  Rising numbers of Everest customers are going from an environment where all of their risks are managed for them and heading to Mt Everest where there is almost constant risk to manage. These climbers are not picking up on the physical ques due to their untrained discernment. They haven’t developed the necessary awareness required to climb safely leading to the increase of actual risk.

For the sake of concluding this subject which could easily turn into a very thick text, I’ll end with this.  Although real risk and ones perceptions of risk may never completely match up, a more accurate understanding of ongoing risks comes from the feedback and awareness gained from engaging in activities which require you to negotiate risk.  It’s from these activities that you strengthen your perceptions of risk.