The mountains are dangerous. There is no debate. As a professional guide my job is to 1) make an accurate assessment of that risk, 2) form a precise understanding of the amount of risk my group is willing to expose itself to, and 3) make informed decisions within that framework. In general, the difference between guides and most recreational, and even many professional, climbers and skiers is the behind the scenes processing that goes into planning and debriefing any outing into the mountains. Both proper planning and debriefing are critical elements to the guide's toolbox. Without them, all three aspects of the job are compromised. That said, I am a firm believer in the idea that guides are no better at a given element of safe decision making than the average climber and skier. Where the guides have the advantage is in the repeatable quantity of experiences and the opportunity to discuss close calls and murky decisions with other professionals familiar with the terrain, often in an operational setting. That's a fancy way of saying that as a guide, we talk abut what happened out there. Granted, this does not happen as frequently or as openly as it should. Personally, I make the extra effort to do it every time. Someone is always there to listen and offer feedback, as long as I seek it out. Not everyone does. Yet, when your day to day work revolves around high stakes decisions there is an added impetus to debrief situations with colleagues and peers.
As recreational, or even professional, climbers and skiers, I see this step often being overlooked. There are social factors at play. There is also that fact that most of us have busy professional lives which leave barely enough time for the weekend escape to the mountains for the ambitious projects. Whether we are just afraid, ashamed, or too tired to talk about it doesn't matter. All that matters is whether we do or don't. And the big reason is this... it all has to do with learning environments and the idea of feedback. Too often, when we have a close call, we may recognize it, but fail to really assimilate it into our toolbox of experience. Experience is arguably the most valuable box of tools we can carry into the mountains. It is also passed down between partners and friends and mentors, so it affects not only ourselves but those we choose to share time in the mountains with. Going out and climbing and skiing our faces off is critical to forming a worthwhile log of experiences. But that experience can be exponentially more valuable, and potentially life-saving, if we take the time to debrief and analyze our decisions. Nothing but good decisions all day? Great, noted. A few questionable decisions? How did we feel about them at the end of the day? What would we change or do differently next time? Noted. Close call? Hopefully no one was injured. Really dwell on that one a but though. What was going on leading up to the event? What was our mindset? Was it in line with the mindset we planned on for the day? Did we plan on a mindset for the day? Did we plan for the outing in general? What would we have wanted to know at the beginning of the day, that we had learned by the end of the day? Noted, noted, noted, and noted. The key is in the noting. By running through the day after it has ended, and analyzing how our decision making could have been improved, we need to write down and keep track of what we learned. So that next time, when we start planning our adventure, we know the pitfalls or unknowns and maybe have a little more insight about what to look for in order to have as fun and safe of a day out as possible. Debriefing feeds into successive planning. Theoretically, guides do this before and after every single day of work. We also have the collective knowledge of peers, colleagues, and the organization that we work for. This is a huge advantage. We also tend to maintain a significantly higher margin of safety than we might otherwise when not working. There are liability issues, unknowns around client abilities and ambitions, group dynamics, financial implications, and many other issues that complicate the role we hold as professionals.
As a recreational mountain traveller, serious or occasional, you can use these concepts to greatly increase the accuracy of your risk assessment, the precision of your risk tolerance understanding, and the effectiveness of your decision making. You are probably doing a lot of this already. The missing link just might be your debriefing process. Do it with partners when you get back to the trailhead, or better yet, at the brewery. Do it with yourself as well. Keep a journal. Write down the critical elements of your plan for the day. Compare that with your assessment at the end of the day. Were your actual decisions in line with your plan, in all aspects from route selection to mindset? Where they diverged, note why. And then keep those things in mind for your next planning session. Refer back to them, they should be just a few pages back in your notebook.
A plan is only as good as the information it is based on. A decade of climbing mountains will no doubt leave you with valuable experiences. However, if you have never taken the time to really debrief your outings, to learn from close calls or unclear decisions, the worth of those experiences will be greatly diminished. Still valuable, but no where near as informative as they could be. Climbing and skiing offer up an incredible, feedback rich learning environment. We often receive instant feedback on our performance in the sport itself. The trouble is that all of the other factors that go into mountain safety are on the opposite side of the feedback spectrum. Weather, conditions, avalanche hazard, physical fitness, etc, often do not provide opportunity for learning until it's too late. This can result in a cycle of false-negative feedback, and it is a downward spiraling funnel toward that one, last, big mistake.
I like to think that many of the high-stakes professionals in the outdoor world maintain a highly tuned sense of the risk that they both expose themselves to and are actually willing to expose themselves to. For the rest of us, there is often a significant disconnect between these factors. Some of it related to a lack of education, ie in the avalanche realm. Much of it related to what I just discussed. Without having a personal relationship with someone, it is impossible to gauge their mindset and decision making. For the most part, I respect the lives and decisions of those who choose to push the boundaries of risk and performance. Many people die from too much sitting. At the same time, if you could somehow ask someone like Deane Potter, or Ueli Steck, to analyze the decisions leading up to their tragic deaths, I doubt that they would present a case of perfect decision making. My love and thoughts go out to all of the family, friends, and loved ones of everyone who has ever perished pursuing some sort of dream. The mountains are dangerous, and they can be as tragic as they can be exhilarating. I once read a quote somewhere there about the idea of dying doing what you love. The general idea was that it is bullshit. No one goes out to do what they love would be OK dying in the process. We may be able to feign some sort of acceptance over it, but it's simply never OK. The skier buried in an avalanche, with a broken femur and rapidly diminishing air supply isn't thinking "oh, how lucky am I to go out this way, having been doing what I love?" That skier is likely fighting off panic, in serious pain, and dealing with the situation with adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system kicked in to full gear and running the show. If there is an opportunity to think and reflect during those last moments, that skier is likely wishing that this hadn't just happened. Perhaps there is a deep stinging felt by that nagging sense that a better decision could have been made. While harsh, and what I would wish upon not a single soul, this is the reality. We all know hindsight offers us perfectly clear, 20/20 vision, right? Let's use that vision to better inform our future.
Outdoor Research shared a piece on the importance of debriefing a while back that is worth a quick read. Unlike my preaching on the philosophical aspects of it, they present some more of the nuts and bolts, easy to follow processes. See link below.