How risk tolerance develops

Original Post
Serge Smirnov · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 150

A psychological insight into how dangerous habits form.

For a long time I climbed sport only and had no interest in trad. Then friends got me to try trad. 3 years later I'm injured.

I fell in a situation where:
(a) protection was obviously poor
(b) the move was not easy
(c) bailing looked easy

(c) is what gets me - why didn't I bail ? Earlier in my trad career, I'm pretty sure I would have.

I think my tendency to "go for it" built gradually, as a result of exposure to risk in situations where bailing was not easy. E.g. a section I don't see a way to protect happens several pitches into an all-gear-anchors route. That happened to me several times, usually on relatively obscure routes. So I got used to going for it to avoid an expensive bail. My brain learned that going for it is what you do in those situations.

Probably some people are immune to this kind of mental slippery slope. For those who are not, I share my insights:

1) Remember that past performance is no indication of future results

2) Keep the cost of bail gear in perspective relative to injuries

3) Avoid obscure routes because that's where most nasty surprises are

(I'm mostly recovered now, just feel stupid for getting injured the way I did)

Phil Sakievich · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 30

This is a good reminder. My trad mentor/ favorite climbing partner has always told me he backs off of a consistent percentage of the climbs he attempts that are unknown/uncertain to him. That's one way he keeps tabs on the ego and/or risk tolerance.

I try to keep that in mind, especially when I'm on gear. There is nothing wrong with bailing and/or trying again after you've worked out some additional beta. It always sucks to bail, but the level of suck is exponentially higher when injuries start happening. Same thing with blowing a red-point by pulling on gear if the fall could be nasty IMHO. I'd always rather come home safe.

Creed A · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 680

I totally relate. I got injured in November on an obscure route with bad rock and minimal pro. I should have bailed, but I went for it. One of my goals for 2017 is to bail more. I'd rather lose gear and climb tomorrow than lose gear anyways and be out for weeks.

John Barritt · · OKC · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 888

I'm probably going to get blasted (and this is not an "attack" on you sport climbers) but here goes.

I think sport climbing develops a "dependency" and/or "over reliance" on gear. You climb (in some cases) harder grades than your ability with far less perceived consequence of failure. The crag becomes as safe as the gym (maybe safer).

Sport bolting opens up routes that would otherwise go unclimbed. The difficulty versus the risk becomes skewed as a lot of falling and lowering occurs while working these routes, with little consequence.

With trad the gear is there "if" you fall. You can climb single pitch all day, walk off, repeat and never rely on your gear or hang from a rope. This is the original concept in "ground up" climbing, with abseiling as a way to get down if you can't walk down, or complete your ascent. If things go bad or forward progress is impossible you get down.

The whole "redpoint" thing always gets me, the "goal" is not to just get to the top, OR to do it in "great style" the "goal" is to climb and have fun and get back down without getting hurt or dying.

Here's my theory, your injury was a result of mental conditioning from sport climbing long enough to develop a less than healthy respect for the need "not to fall" and/or climbing at the edge of your ability with the impression that placements are as "trustworthy" as bolts.

I think your "risk assessment" will be different now. JB

Redyns · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2011 · Points: 0

i built mine up by working with Cobras in Egyptian markets.

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 615

I have bailed off of many leads, especially ice climbs. It's always a bruise to the ego - I feel like a failure when I call it quits. I try to remind myself that I am succeeding in a different way by avoiding injury... breaking a bone or worse is a season (and possible career) ender. Live to climb another day.

john strand · · southern colo · Joined May 2008 · Points: 1,575

I some what disagree with the past results bit...I think past results especially trad climbing can be a huge thing. A variety of situations gets stored away (hopefully) and then gets used.

Bad rock the exception, doing obscure routes can be a great learning experience I think, just because a route isn't popular doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Yes, run outs can be addicting..

Brian L. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0

I disagree with #3. Just because it's not a trade route doesn't mean it's dangerous. The reverse is also true. Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's safe. There's plenty of popular routes that have sections of sketchy gear.

I also think there's an insight you're potentially missing. I don't know the situation, route, or what gear you placed, but after assessing (a) and (b), the first step before bailing would be to add more gear if possible. Utilize a sliding X on multiple pieces. Place additional gear close to you original piece, as a back up. Etc.

If none of that is a option, then consider bailing.

Brad G · · 1994 Honda Civic · Joined Sep 2007 · Points: 2,580
Old lady H · · Boise, Idaho · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 120

Part of it, I think, is your brain not really believing anything bad will happen to you, until it is convinced otherwise by being very close to a photo like Brad G's. And, learning to paying attention to fear when it counts, and still thinking, even when there's no fear.

Glad you're still here; great photo! I can very easily imagine what your belayers going through, with useless rope in both hands. Don't wanna be them, either.

Best, OLH

Nielsonru Nielson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 0

Sat through an avalanche awareness seminar a few months ago. A Teton Park rescue person was there talking statistics for backcountry rescues. Someone asked if it was the beginners causing all the rescues, and they said no, that it's usually older males who are very experienced in the backcountry. The key is because they have more experience, they are doing harder, higher risk activities in the park. That's not saying it's good or bad, but the simplr fact that they are just putting themselves in situations where the odds lessen in their favor.

Jason Todd · · Cody, WY · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 643
John Barritt wrote:I think sport climbing develops a "dependency" and/or "over reliance" on gear.
The arc of my climbing did just the opposite of that.

When I started climbing I aspired to be some sort of "trad hardman" (you know, sport climbing is neither type of mentality). When I got scared or started to get pumped, plugging a piece was the immediate salvation. Reflecting on that time in my life, the ability to add pro when necessary severely limited the difficulty of the climbing I did.
With sport climbing the option to place gear when desired isn't there and it forces you to move to the next stance/protection.
It wasn't until I traded in the painters pants for the lycra that my climbing improved. Sport climbing has actually taught me to place less trad gear.
Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 81

I think my risk tolerance has actually narrowed. My skill and fitness has increased therefore I can do more seemingly dangerous things than I could when I was newer. I feel that I take less risks and jumps into he unknown now though.

Lou Cerutti · · Carlsbad, California · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 129

Good thread topic! I only climb four star routes but I also have to disagree with #3. Adventure is in the spirit of climbing!

Mike Mellenthin · · San Francisco, CA · Joined Nov 2014 · Points: 0

What, of course go do obscure routes. Obscure routes are the best.

I think there is dangerous phase in one's development as a climber (and I'm not pointing fingers at the OP here -- just speaking generally) where they have been doing it long enough to feel in control, but not long enough to realize that there are a lot variables that just can't be controlled.

A lot of becoming a "better" climber has less to do with controlling risk than it does with just accepting it and being ok with the fact that the mountains might fuck you up. Like, climbing gets harder as the rock gets worse, and the weather gets more variable, and you get farther from the road, but you can't actually control these things. You can only get more comfortable with them.

I will say, more than anything including injury -- which I think really is part of the game, my friends being dead in their twenties has done a lot to curb my risk tolerance.

T Roper · · DC,VA,NM,UT,CT,MA · Joined Mar 2006 · Points: 730

I have not read or even looked through the warrior book by that Arno guy but it seems the gist of it is falling is cool or at least that is how many interpret it.
It seems to me close to 30 to 40% of the time on trad routes falling is a bad idea, maybe I just tend to climb on choss and ledgy crap?

I started out trad climbing before I ever saw a sport climb or a gym and was just taught that falling happens but try to avoid it on suspect gear or in shitty places to fall. Later on down the road it took years of climbing steep sport before I was comfortable going for it and risking the fall. I guess my point, if I even have one, is that learning trad first probably helped me avoid any real injuries in 25 years of climbing. I could see going from sport/gym to trad being tricky as far as risk goes.

and #3 is wrong. sure there may be more loose rock on obscure routes but thats better than slipping off of grease IMO

RandyR · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2009 · Points: 25
T Roper wrote:I have not read or even looked through the warrior book by that Arno guy but it seems the gist of it is falling is cool or at least that is how many interpret it.
This is completely wrong. Arno discusses in depth the concept of no-fall, yes-fall terrain. Before you decide to "go for it", you have to evaluate whether a fall is an acceptable outcome. Why would you even comment about Arno's book if you know nothing about it?
T Roper · · DC,VA,NM,UT,CT,MA · Joined Mar 2006 · Points: 730
RandyR wrote: This is completely wrong. Arno discusses in depth the concept of no-fall, yes-fall terrain. Before you decide to "go for it", you have to evaluate whether a fall is an acceptable outcome. Why would you even comment about Arno's book if you know nothing about it?
because as I said, "that is how many interpret it".

I probably just hang out with cliff note/book skimmer types...
Seth Jones · · New Lenox, IL · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 5
T Roper wrote: I probably just hang out with cliff note/book skimmer types...
We'd get along well...
BigB · · Red Rock, NV · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 5
Brad G wrote:
Daaamn dooood....glad your better! BTW just re-listened to your episode on the enormo...good stuff
AndrewArroz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 0

On this note I'm always surprised by people who don't bail because they think it's "expensive" to bail and leave gear. Now, sure, nobody likes leaving gear behind. But I can walk into a climbing store and pay full price for replacement gear for FAR less than the cost of getting even a sprained ankle or broken arm treated in a emergency room. Which doesn't even account for pain and suffering, evacuation costs, and potential for DEATH.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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