Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In defense of risk

Summits and valleys

Express Staff Writer

"Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."

—Katherine Mansfield

"If you don't risk anything you risk even more."

—Erica Jong

It is an old argument, one that flares up in the public discourse every time a climber dies or gets in trouble and needs the help of fellow citizens. The argument is always exacerbated and more emotionally charged when the dead/injured/missing climber has a family.

It is an old argument that can never be won or even put to rest. There will always be people who want to climb in places of difficult access. Some of them, for some minor or major lapse in judgment or for being in the wrong place (a climb) at the wrong time (when destiny blinks), will die in the process, and others, for the same reasons, will need help and rescue. Some of them will have families, spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters. All of them will have friends, people who love them.

The argument has several faces: Should people climb? Does climbing matter? Why? What benefit to the world is there in climbing some inanimate piece of rock, ice, snow or, in the desert, baked mud? Should people with families climb? Is a climber with a family being irresponsible? When should they climb? Who decides? (The decider?) Who pays for the rescue and body recovery? Who grieves for the bereaved?

These are all good questions, and every climber who has survived, say, the first three years of climbing has thought about them at some deep or shallow level, or, if not, is in more danger than most of making one of those minor or major lapses of judgment. But, as mentioned, the questions are part of a larger argument that is as old as man, and it can never be won (or lost) or even put to rest. The answers are as varied and individual as, say, the members of mankind.

My favorite most recent example of one side of the argument was given voice in the ignorant, pompous, strident blather of the "big outdoors guy" and oafish television conservative attack rooster Bill O'Reilly talking about the three climbers who died on Mount Hood last month. O'Reilly said, "I'm a big outdoors guy ... But when I played hockey out on Long Island and the ice was thin, there was a guy standing there saying, 'You can't go on the ice. It's too thin.' ... There should be a guy standing on Mount Hood, Mount McKinley and all these other places going, 'You can't go on the mountain now. It's too dangerous.'" (Actually, there should be a guy in front of the TV screen when O'Reilly in on going, "You can't watch this man. His thinking is too thin.") O'Reilly didn't say exactly where on McKinley the guy should stand when it's too dangerous.

My favorite most recent example of another side of the argument was given voice by Rolando Garibotti, among the world's finest, most articulate, intelligent and accomplished climbers. In the January 2007 "Rock and Ice" magazine, Garibotti writes, "'Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is,' says an old German proverb, but learning how to handle it is crucial. My opinion is that committing climbs and soloing can be great teachers, requiring knowing one's limits and learning to judge terrain intelligently. ... For a teenager, the internal rewards of commitment and responsibility were an unexpected blessing. They made me stronger and more able to shrug off the pressure that others, particularly in school, exerted. ... The question of what is appropriate in terms of safety remains elusive. Different individuals have different needs and expect different paybacks from their outdoor adventures. I personally wrestle with certain primal instincts that make me welcome risk for its soothing properties, an outlook in which I am certainly not alone."

Part of the argument revolves around the question of which has more value in the world: a policeman who decides for others when the ice is and is not too thin, or the self knowledge that comes from learning one's own limits and how to make one's judgments about things and thereby being strong enough to "... shrug off the pressure that others ... exerted."

I view this argument as having far more significance than in just the world of climbing. Risk brings unexpected rewards, including learning about commitment, responsibility, and one's own limits and becoming strong enough to shrug off the pressure of others. Relinquishing one's right to decide for one's self to the guy (the decider) has unexpected consequences, including blind obedience.

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