So you think you have everything under control?

Yes, I would consider myself to be a reasonably rational, coordinated individual – most of the time that is. On top of that, in a professional context, anticipating how things might go wrong and defining appropriate responses and/ or remedial actions are very much part of what I do and try to communicate during workshops or training courses.

So yes, as far as possible, I attempt to be in control of things that are controllable as much as possible. Goodness knows there are enough things you cannot influence, residual risk and unknowns, so this attitude makes sense to me. Rather than making me a control freak, to me this has more to do with awareness of your surroundings

How thin this veneer of rationality truly is though was brought home to me by a very menial incident a while back…

I was up in our attic making up a poster for Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg back in May, which involved writing on big sheets of white paper with a fat Edding marker. The marker had dried out, so I refilled it… as I do not believe doing such things in half measures I filled it to the brim, just to make quite sure. When I attempted to continue writing, the whole thing sort of… blew up in my face, in a wet, squelchy fashion. One moment everything under control, the next… everything covered in black, indelible ink!


What did I do?

Of course, I rushed down to the loo on the second floor with the marker in my hand, dripping black ink, turned on the water in the wash basin and stuck my hands and the marker under the water. The net result? Everything turned black, walls splattered, tiles, me… reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ seminal kid’s book  Cat in the Hat Comes Back, where through a chain of events the Cat in the Hat, while attempting to clean away a small pink spot manages to turn a whole landscape pink! That is exactly what I felt like!

A frantic cleaning session later, I had managed to remove most of the damage.

Sheepishly I told my wife about what had happened. She just gave me that long-suffering look and asked me why I had not simply left the marker in the attic.


Good point, that.

I don’t know.

I guess… I just got a bit stressed out and panicked. Well, I say panic, it was pretty low-level stress, just a bit of ink. But still, it brought home to me how when we are stressed, the first thing that gets chucked over board is rational thought – and you are not even aware of it! In a sense this makes sense, bearing in mind the fact that the processor we have in our head (i.e. our brain) is not super-fast, so the mechanism of bypassing higher thought processes in high-stress situations enables fast-twitch, instinctive reactions with considerably faster response times.

From an evolutionary point of view this arrangement has rendered us good services. Having said that, what worked a charm in the African savannah in the Pliocene era against saber-toothed tigers may not work so well in our modern world.

Australopithecus obviously did not have much dealings with leaking Eddings!

In hindsight of course it would have made more sense not to go running around the house juggling a marker haemorrhaging ink, but that thought never even occurred to me! Now imagine a real emergency situation and replace indelible ink with blood. Up a tree. With your colleague hanging upside down, injured.

This really brings home the need for training for this kind of situation – both mentally and technically – , continuous critical self-reflection and understanding that no one is safe from irrational actions in high-stress situations.

I now have a couple of spots of black ink on the door of the upstairs loo to remind me of my own fallibility, should I ever be tempted to forget.