Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Risk, Mindfulness and the Law of Uncertainty

Juan, a highly experienced climber, was climbing a route called Pervertical (M9), at the el Dorado cave, Grotto Mountain, Canadian Rockies. His wife, Virginie, was belaying. That is, Juan was climbing an overhanging rock face with ice gear (called dry tooling) and Virginie was belaying, that is standing below managing the safety rope that would arrest him if he fell.

He fell.

Unanticipated Change in Conditions

This was a climb Juan had made many times before. In fact he was so comfortable and familiar with it that he often chose not to wear his helmet. This belief that “I’ll be okay – it can’t happen to me,” is the source of so many dangerous decisions. Luckily for him, on this occasion he wore his helmet and it saved his life. All of the climbing Juan had done here was during the winter, when there was ice in the fissures of the rock, which made it very stable. On this day, the temperature was above freezing and water was seeping through the fissures in the rock of the roof he was crossing, and he failed to grasp the significance of that fact.
Juan pulling the roof

He set a tool in a fissure over his head, and when he put his weight on it, a sizable chunk of rock, about two feet by two feet, weighing something like 500 pounds, broke off and carried him down – he said it felt like an elephant stepping on his forehead. In a split second the weight of the rock had flipped him over, his safety rope caught him and he slammed into the rock face, the back of head hitting first – the back of his helmet took the impact.

The big chunk landed right where Virginie been standing.

Getting Real about Concussion

Between them they got him down – he was dazed and at first thought he could resume climbing, but Virginie said, “No, I’m taking you to the hospital.”

On the way to the car he felt as if he were walking on clouds - he realized he was more seriously hurt than he thought. A closer look at his helmet, which seemed unharmed, revealed that the shock-absorbing foam inside was completely crushed. He had sustained a massive blow to the head.

The doctors told him he had a concussion, and he needed to be extra careful to avoid further head injury for at least a year. Concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can go undiagnosed. We are all fairly familiar with concussions and we tend to assume that the effects will not be long lasting. Recently more media attention has uncovered the reality of TBIs; headaches, cognitive problems such as difficulty thinking, memory problems, attention deficits, frustration, and mood swings. It is estimated that 15% of people with a mild TBI can have symptoms like these for up to one year. These symptoms can obviously have a lasting effect on the injured party and their family. Repeated and severe TBIs can have lifelong and even life-shortening consequences.

Understanding Risk – Embracing Uncertainty

So what happened here? This was an incident that could very easily have resulted in two fatalities. There are a number of issues arising here, such as complacency – Juan had climbed this route many times before and he was confident, even overconfident, that he knew the dangers and was prepared for them. But for me this story is a great reminder that we live, climb and work in a world of uncertainty – no matter how confident we are that we know the risks and are prepared for them, there is no such thing as 100% certainty in the real world.

In terms of understanding risk, the probability of a harmful event taking place is an important dimension to grasp. Repeatedly performing an action or task that exposes you to a hazard, and getting away with it, can delude you about how risky that action is. When the potential reward is great – getting an important job done, attracting the admiration of our peers and achieving a long-held dream – most of us grossly underestimate the probability of something going wrong.

Obviously, this is especially important if the consequence of exposing yourself and others to that hazard is serious injury or death. And the answer is being more mindful – mindful of the hazards, mindful of the probabilities, mindful of the temptation to minimize these when the inspiring goal is within reach, mindful of the impossibility of certainty in the real world. And therefore being absolutely conscientious about all the measures you can take, like always using your PPE, to minimize the probability of an incident, the consequences of an incident, and exposure and vulnerability to the hazards.

In this case Juan and his wife had done a lot right – he was wearing his personal protective equipment (PPE) – helmet, harness and safety line, which saved his life; she had repositioned herself so as not to be directly under him, which saved her life. The big mistake was underestimating the effect of the thaw on the stability of the rock.
Juan and Virginie
When Juan reflects about this experience today, he says, “I could have been killed, my wife could have been killed – now I am a lot more mindful about the risks I take when I am planning a climb. I have developed a healthy fear which gives me more respect for the hazards out there.”

For more on understanding risk, see my video: Safety Culture – Embrace It at

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