There are a number of factors which will have a direct influence on levels of risk a person is exposed to…
How competent is the operator who is exposing themselves to the risk? How long is the exposure time? How serious are the potential consequences? Is the operator aware of the risks involved with the activity? What mitigating actions are in place to reduce the risk?
The first day of vertical-connect was dedicated to discussing various facets of risk. To me the emerging mosaic of aspects was truly fascinating, as it showed clearly to me how complex this topic is. Yes, it is true that we are often not very good at recognising risk and objectively assessing the actual risk we are exposing ourselves to and are prone to falling prey to biases which can cloud our vision in regards to real risks, yet at the same time it is possible to diligently manage risks in a efficient fashion, allowing people to survive in extreme environments
Jeanette Büchel from SUVA, the Swiss health and safety organisation explained how perception of risk can differ significantly from person to person and also how there can be a mismatch between the probability we identify of an incident occurring and the likelihood of it actually affecting us.
The chart above illustrates research conducted by Lennart Sjöberg and shows how we are able to identify risks, in the graph above with spikes when it comes to death due to alcohol and smoking, yet at the same time cannot correlate this likelihood with a probability of it also affecting our family – or even less so us personally. This is a classic case of It won’t happen to me. In turn this can have an adverse influence on our overall risk perception and ability to assess potential negative outcomes.
One person whom one cannot be accused of not considering risk down to the n-th degree is Hans Meier, another speaker at vertical-connect.
Hans is a cave diver and specialises in very, very deep dives. I was blown away by the degree of risk management that this intensely inimical and hostile environment requires. The water is a couple of degrees above freezing, space is often very confined, accesses are very difficult and long and decompression time can be up to eight hours for deep dives.
In the dark.
When diving in caves, Meier use a rebreather, which stores the exhaled gas in canisters (see images above), also he is constantly manually adjusting the mix of gas he is breathing. Due to the cold he heats the air he is breathing, wears a wet suit with heating coils and any number of layers – as well as a Therm-a-Rest mat wrapped around his torso, further he monitors his core temperature to avoid becoming hypothermic. On top of that he needs to constantly monitor his environment, his breathing and mental state as well as having a very clear idea of his orientation in space, which can be a challenge due to darkness and lack of reference points.
The truth is though, despite this very elaborate and dilligent process of risk management the environments that Hans is diving into, the smallest error of judgement or unforeseen incident would have immediate, serious or even fatal consequences.
Needless to say, by the end of Hans’ talk I felt more than just a bit claustrophobic and out of breath!
What did I take away from this?
Umm… what we perceive as being intensely risky is not necessarily what is going to harm or kill us, viewed from a statistical point of view.
Yes, of course, what Hans Meier does involve a very high risk, yet he is aware of this, is highly competent and goes to extraordinary lengths to mitigate these risks. Yet viewed from a greater distance, the guy sitting on his couch stuffing his face with crisps and downing one beer after another whilst watching a program on TV program about base jumpers (These guy are nuts! I won’t feel sorry for them if one of these silly sods kills themselves, they are asking for it!), is probably unknowingly exposing himself to greater risk of dying of a coronary condition associated with a sedentary life stile as well as a unhealthy diet and consumption of alcoholic beverages than the very base jumpers in the program his is watching. Statistically, more people die of heart attacks than B.A.S.E. jumping.
So I suppose what I took away from a day discussing risk is the need to be aware of what I am doing, of being attentive, methodical and diligent in monitoring my surroundings for unforeseen or changing parameters – no earth shattering insights, admittedly. One point I was struck by though was the opening question which Tom put to the participants of a panel discussing whether there is a different risk acceptance in professional and recreational contexts, when he asked them what they think of the motto No risk, no fun.
Personally, I believe that the aim cannot be to eliminate all risks from our lives. Apart from this not being possible, risk is an important evolutionary motor forcing us to become better at what we do, work out solutions and apply our creativity. So in my perception when I am confronted with a challenging climb, it is not the frisson of risk I am chasing, it is that sense of flow which lends the situation a sense of almost crystalline clarity, where one action flows into the next, where all else becomes a bit less significant and I am totally immersed in the moment.
So I would argue that it should actually be No flow, no fun.