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A Process for Balancing Risk in the Mountains

Risk is inevitable when hiking or climbing in the mountains. Indeed, many people come to the mountains seeking risk, and the jolt of energy and excitement that a brush with death can bring. For the rest of us though, risk is something to be balanced and mitigated so we stay safe during our mountain adventures. When thinking about risk, it’s easy to fall victim to psychological traps and heuristics that trick us – we’re pretty bad overall when it comes to gauging risk. Here’s a system for balancing and mitigating risk in the mountains that you can adopt!

Identify and Keep a List of Major Hazards

On a good summer day, with the right gear and preparation, the risk of injury or catastrophe is actually pretty low. The problems start to occur, and most deaths occur, when people don’t respond to unexpected, increase risk. It can come in many different forms. I start my risk preparation one or two days before I leave by creating a list of the major sources of hazard I expect. Here are some categories of risk to consider before your climb – write down anything that comes to mind in each category..

Weather Hazards

Changing weather conditions and forecasted rain, wind or snow are all a major source or risk for climbs. Look at the weather forecast for your peak in detail, both leading up the date, and for the next several days, to be aware of what you’ll face if caught out for longer than expected. If storms are expected in the next 48 hours, consider this a major red flag to mitigate

In winter, you should also check snowfall before your trip. Significant snowfall increases avalanche risk, and likely means you’ll be post-holing or snowshoeing for a significant time.. If roads are snowed in, consider the extra time required to hike in – all these factors increase your risk of getting lost, injured or exhausted.

Navigation Hazards

Getting lost isn’t fun, but the odds of it happening are directly related to the conditions you’ll be facing. Even if you feel prepared for the elements, you may not be ready for the whiteout conditions that come with a spring or fall blizzard. Before and during your climb, be wary of factors like weather, geography, route-finding difficulty and nightfall that could make it easy to get lost or off-route.

Miscellaneous Hazards

There are many other hazards involved with mountaineering. Traveling alone in the mountains, while popular, increases your risk level. Similarly, going without a sat phone or GPS rescue device also heightens risk. Many peaks, especially those in the Elk Range, have notoriously rotten rock that breaks away easily. This is a major risk to consider. Lastly, consider how accessible the peak is to Search and Rescue. Longer, more difficult approaches will slow any emergency response if things go wrong.

Balance Risk by Mitigating Each As Possible

Once you’ve got a full list as possible of known risks, you can go back down the list to try to mitigate them. Mitigation is just a fancy word that means “to make less serious” – these are strategies for reducing, or balancing risk. With a little preparation and planning, you can mitigate most, but not all, risks that come up in the mountains.

For example, let’s say a major storm is forecast to move in the evening following your climb. You still want to make it out because you took paid time off. To mitigate this risk, you could choose to bring a Partner with you, or decide to leave 2 hours earlier than normal to give yourself extra time. You might even decide to drive up the night before and camp out at the trailhead to help acclimated better. This would balance your risk to a normal, relatively low level.

One of the best mitigation techniques involves bringing additional or extra gear to plan for the worst. If snow or freezing is forecast, bringing microspikes or traction will leave you prepared. When avalanche conditions are at all an issue, make sure you have a partner and avy gear (probe, shovel & beacon) so you’re ready.


Question What you Cannot Mitigate: Is it worth it?

Some things can’t be mitigated. For example, rotten rock on the Maroon Bells or Capitol Peak is what it is. When you’ve reached the end of your mitigation toolbook, you need to take the time to question the remaining risk. Ask yourself: Is this peak worth the risk?

Humans are notoriously bad at calculating risk, thanks to all kinds of biases that exist in our minds. One particularly problematic bias that keeps us from making good decision is called confirmation bias – it causes us to ignore new information and facts which do not support conclusions we’ve already come to support. Thus, while hiking into deteriorating conditions, it can be difficult to truly absorb the information and realize the risk is unacceptably high. Taking the time to stop, observe, and consider changing risk conditions is essential for steering your mind back onto a rational course, and avoiding catastrophe.

Identify Risks, Mitigate Risks, Questions Risks

That’s my three-step process for balancing risk on the mountains! Just take time to plan ahead and identify risks, decide how you will mitigate them, and question any un-mitigated risks to decide if it’s worth it. If it isn’t, turn back – the mountains will be there tomorrow!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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