Risk: the Good, the Safe, and the Sober
Climbers will say some odd things about the risks associated with their activities. When the topic crops up while you’re stirring goop on the camp stove, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. We often do a bad job of assessing risk. Remember when someone in your high school got hurt in a car wreck and everyone started driving more carefully for about a week? Ever know someone who lives in an urban area with a high crime rate who refuses to go camping because it’s too dangerous? (too many Freddy and Jason movies). No matter how risky an activity is, when it becomes familiar and common place, we relax and our subjective assessment of how risky it is goes down.
2. Anecdotal evidence is notoriously unreliable at giving us an accurate picture of the real rate of occurrence. We only need to hear about a few violent crimes on the news before our estimation of the rate of violence overall begins to go up. This can even occur when the violent crime rate is going down overall.
Here are some details about rock climbing and risk from a recent British study:
- Rock climbing is safer than hang gliding. Hang gliders face a 1 in 116,000 flights risk of dying, climbers face 1 in 320,000 climbs.
- Rock climbing is safer than being pregnant. Maternal death occurs in 1 in 8,200 maternities. (How many people have had a baby but refuse to climb because it’s dangerous?)
- Rock climbing is safer than scuba diving (1/200,000 dives)
- Canoeing is safer than climbing (1/750,000 outings)
One of the common misconceptions about climbers is that they do it for the thrills. But sports psychology studies (and a few conversations with climbers) show that it is not the risk itself that climbers seek but the search for progressively harder challenges. And fortunately, with modern climbing equipment and good safety techniques, it’s a simple matter to increase the difficulty of your climbing challenges without significantly increasing the risks. If you follow a bombproof safety routine, the rope is there to catch you in a fall whether you’re on a 5.6 or a 5.12.
Still, there’s risk in every activity, including climbing. The only healthy way to pursue it is with good, safe technique and a sober assessment of the facts.