For the week of July 15 thru July 21, 1998  

When technology replaces judgment

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

Consider the old adage: Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Cute. Tidy. Laced with wisdom and truth.

In most of life’s learning curves the experiences of bad judgment are gradually transformed into a solid body of good judgment. There are exceptions, those whose steely stubbornness or fog-bound awareness leaves no opening for the fecund seed of education through experience.

Most humans learn from the mistakes of bad judgment. They are thus able to live life as a continuously expanding field of knowledge and good judgment.

When the apparent ease and false sureness of technology replace the rigors and uncertainties of acquiring good judgment, disaster will soon follow.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the backcountry where it is easier to get in more trouble, more deeply, in less time than ever before. The modern outdoor adventurer with sufficient money, a modicum of testosterone, enough bad judgment and absolutely no experience is able to quickly go places and do things that previously required the kind of investment in time and effort and experience that results in good judgment.

All he or she needs is the right modern gadget—four-wheel drive vehicle, powerful snowmobile, light weight snowshoes, new backcountry ski gear, global positioning device, the latest design in kayaks, a rope and a rack of climbing gear, avalanche beacons, Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), and the cellular telephone. With these tools the intrepid adventurer can and will and does get in over his or her head so fast that even if good judgment were to suddenly fall out of the sky like a meteorite it would arrive too late to be of use.

The illusion of security that such high-tech gadgets tend to give their owners is far more dangerous than the perils of acquiring good backcountry judgment through the incremental method of an actual experience that builds upon itself, including the mistakes of bad judgment.

The man who walks 10 miles into the backcountry with a backpack containing insufficient food and clothing will probably be able to walk back out if the weather turns foul, having acquired a bit of experience that will serve him well the next time he ventures into unknown terrain. The same man who drives his four-wheel drive vehicle 40 miles into the backcountry will have a harder time getting out if the vehicle runs out of gas, breaks down or gets stuck.

The same can be said of the snowmobiler. This past winter at least 14 snowmobilers died in avalanches in the United States. Most of these avalanches were triggered by the snowmobilers themselves as they roared into the wilderness armed with techno-judgment, internal combustion daring and virtual reality experience.

The cellular telephone has spawned an entire culture of backcountry recreationists who have abdicated self-reliance, self-responsibility and basic good judgment (not to mention basic good backcountry judgment) because they have the skills to turn the phone on and dial 911. They often neglect to consider that the phones don’t work unless there is a repeater in the line of sight.

The 911 society has spawned a wealth of humorous, tragic and head-shaking stories among emergency dispatchers, rescue teams, police and ambulance workers.

My own personal favorite involved two novice climbers who wandered up on the Grand Teton a couple of years ago. They called 911 when the weather turned bad and they realized they neither knew where they were going nor even approximately where they were at on a large, multi-faceted mountain. All they could tell the dispatcher was that they could see lots of rock and "a green sling." After a night in the rain and a $100,000 rescue effort paid for by the National Park Service, the two climbers were led off the mountain under their own power.

Had they not relied on the cellular phone, they could and would have figured out how to get themselves down on their own. They would have learned from their bad judgment. As it is, their greatest legacy to backcountry lore, at least in certain circles, are the many variations of "can you see the green sling?" in response to climbers bemoaning difficult climbing situations.

Because of technology, even remote sections of the backcountry are more accessible than ever before. For reasons beyond the scope of this column, the outdoors have never been more popular, particularly in western America.

The combination of accessibility, popularity, and the substitution of good judgment for expensive technology makes the rivers, deserts, mountains and forests of America traps for the unwary, the inexperienced, the acolytes of technology and dues paying members of the 911 Society.

Bad judgment gives experience which can lead to good judgment.

Bad judgment combined with good technology also gives experience that can lead to good judgment…to rescue workers, ambulance personnel, police, helicopter pilots, climbing rangers and all those who offer succor to technoid-adventurers.


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