Out of step

A man leaps into the void off a cliff top and spreads the wings of his wing suit. As he glides towards the valley he is filming himself and his two mates, also in wing suits, with his helmet cam. They skim treetops and go flashing past tourists taking panoramic pics from lookout points on a serpentine road on the mountainside. Once they have cleared the flank of the mountain they deploy their parachutes and glide to the ground. After they have packed up their parachutes they head back home in their car. On the way they decide to stop off for a break at a motorway service station. After getting a bite to eat they grab a coffee for the road and take off again. As they accelerate to rejoin the flow of traffic on the motorway, one of the guys reverses his styrofoam coffee beaker and spills the hot coffee over his legs, scalding himself badly. As there was not warning that the content of the beaker was so hot, he decides to sue the company running the coffee bar at the motorway service station.

True? No, I made it up.

But the point is that it could be true . The ambivalence in the story above clearly illustrates to my mind the fact that our society has a deeply unbalanced and skewed view of risk, the taking of risks and protection therefrom.

Organisations such as the UN recognise that people legally have a right to risk, the fact that you have the right to make choices regarding risk is a basic tenet of freedom. One does however need to differentiate between “good” and “bad” risk, this is according to Werner Munter. Munter is an internationally renown expert for Alpine safety, he is an Alpine guide and in 2007 was recognized by the Swiss Alpine Association as “the founder of modern Avalanche awareness in service of Alpinists”. The 3×3 rule (3×3 Lawinen. Risikomanagement im Wintersport) that he defined helps backcountry skiers and people pursuing other winter sport activities assess risks with guidelines that are easy to comprehend and apply – and has reduced the number of casualties due to avalanches in Switzerland by half!

Interestingly though, when skiing himself, Munter does not wear a helmet, use an avalanche “balloon” that will keep you on the surface of the snow mass of an avalanche or an avalanche transceiver. “People”, says Munter, “want 100 percent safety and think they can buy it”, but this is deceptive and and is the wrong path to follow: “Life is dangerous, from birth onwards, the only thing that is dead-certain is death itself”.

All the devices and security measures we surround ourselves with create a false sense of security and can lead to risk compensation: a consequence of the  false sense of security we lull ourselves into is that we are prepared to take higher risks. The reality, however, is that 25% percent of the avalanche fatalities are not due to people being asphyxiated by the snow masses, but rather because they collide with obstacles such as trees or rocks. In such an instance the protection offered by an avalanche balloon would prove to be useless.

According to Munter, rather than to rely solely on equipment and technical aids, it is preferable to learn to handle risks. From an evolutionary point of view, risks have allowed and forced humans to develop their skills and abilities.

The question whether a risk is “good” or “bad” is ultimately decided upon by a society’s acceptance: How many fatalities are acceptable and where we draw the line decide whether a certain activity can be performed. Nowadays, what would be considered a “good” risk would be one that causes one fatality per 100’000 person days. Person days, mind you, not per person. So for Alpine risk assessment this would mean the number of days that alpinists spend in the mountains overall.

Statistics indicate that over 200’000 people in Switzerland regularly ski off-piste. Assuming that 240’000 people go on five backcountry ski tours per year, this would equal 1.2 million person days per annum. Divide this by the risk factor of 100’000 you arrive at 12 fatalities. This would be viewed as an acceptable level of risk – and corresponds with the 22 avalanche fatalities for the years 2012 and 2013.

This to me rings true: relying not only on technical aids to reduce risk, but rather to learn to recognize it and to define what acceptable levels are and what remedial actions are possible to reduce it, should it prove to be too high.

Ach, you say, all this talk about risk, I will just stay in bed today, that way at least I am not exposing myself to any risks. Not so, suggests a growing body of research into the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle: inactivity represents a major health hazard, so doing nothing is no solution either – and short bursts of activity, e.g. an hour in the gym, do not seem to do anything to remedy this fact either.

Evidently, the line we are treading is finding a balance between a sanitized, germ-free, risk-averse society or blundering blindly into each and every risk that presents itself. We need to approach risky activities, and without a doubt work at height entails an inherent degree of risk, with open eyes and ears – and make reasonable, founded decisions. The process of actually coming to a decision is something that no degree of regulation can take away from the person working through a situation.

There comes a point in a process where you need to make a decision: you need to commit to the anchor point you have chosen, you need to make the jump or snatch the length of stem with the rigging system… you need to take a risk. But before doing so, let us just consider whether the risk we are taking is “good” or “bad”, failing to do so can after all have serious consequences.

The good news is that this is not rocket science: let us not over-complicate things, but rather create clear, generic guidelines that we can follow that help us operate in a safe and responsible fashion – and actually apply and abide by them whilst at the same time being aware and responsive to what is going on around us.

This is certainly the way I feel, as I love working in and around trees and intend to do so for as long a time as possible…