Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
T. S. Eliot
This week the outdoors community has had to come to terms with one of the darkest days in recent history with events in Nepal. Thirty nine individuals are now known to have died during the spate of bad weather on the Annapurna circuit with one hundred and fifty injured and more as yet accounted for. At the moment there still seems to be a lack of clarity as to the preparedness of trekking teams and the equipment they carried, I am not going to examine that here, there will be many thousands of words exploring this but what I would like to look at is risk and how it impacts on those of us who love the outdoors and spent a much higher than average proportion of our lives in more challenging environments both in the UK and overseas.
One of the reason so many people feel drawn to the outdoors is the frission of risk that partaking in outdoor activities can give you, a feeling it’s hard to replicate in a comfortable, technology cocooned environment. I still remember the “heart in mouth” feeling I got on my first scramble along Bristly Ridge, the thrill of hauling myself onto Half Dome via the cables or the buzz of descending off a snow blasted Kinder in near zero visibility. It was the “buzz” that has made these experiences stick in my mind, the risk may actually have been relatively low, but my perception was that that it was very real, and indeed people have died on Half Dome and a fall of Bristly Ridge wouldn’t do anyone a lot of good. Snowdon may seem like an innocuous peak, it has a railway and a cafe on the top and is one of the world’s most climbed mountains, and yet almost every year there are tragic deaths. In 2009 more people died on Snowdon than Everest and I can guarantee that not one of those casualties perceived their risk to be greater. A massive underestimation of the potential risk is likely to have been the underlying factor in the majority of those cases, something which would (probably) be less likely when considering an experienced mountaineer attempting Everest. So risk is not a constant and an individual’s perception of risk can massively vary dependent on confidence, competence, age, gender, available information etc
In a previous life I was a very committed and enthusiastic rugby player and over twenty years of playing I ended up sustaining some pretty serious damage including torn ligaments, broken bones and dislocated ankles. As I aged my perception of risk changed, I realised my recovery time from injuries was longer and that cumulative damage to my knees could have longer term repercussions and yet on a game by game business I was willing to take the risk, the pleasure I got from playing outweighing the consequence in my mind. It was only when I qualified as an ML and began running Come walk with me that the perception changed and the risk became not just physical but financial, I willing to take?” but they should not prevent us from taking those risks and reaping the very real rewards. if i can’t walk, I can’t work! If I wasn’t an ML would I still be playing? The answer is a resounding, Yes!
As an experienced rugby player I had an accurate idea of the risks I was taking when I stepped on the pitch each week, as an outdoor professional I risk assess outdoor activities and communicate risks to my clients and so feel that both myself and the people I take out can make informed choices on how much risk we expose ourselves to. I wonder if this was the case with some of the trekkers on the Annapurna treks. There is an understandable tendency to abdicate responsibility to someone else when you sign up for a guided or led activity and in an ever-shrinking world where every gap year or mid-life crisis seems to have to outdo all others I wonder if people genuinely consider the potential risk of activities touted so enticingly on numerous websites around the world? Any activity that takes place at 4800 metres and in the Himalayas is by it’s very definition risky and it seems likely that mistakes were made but I also wonder how many of the trekkers on the circuit were ever really aware they had signed up for an activity where the potential risk included that of death. Adventurous activities whether in the Peak District or the Himalayas carry a risk of severe harm, we should not brush that under the carpet in order to promote out services to people who may be unaware of just how risky the activity is.
Every time I get in the car, cross the road or take a shot of tequila I am running a risk. Every time I head out into the hills, get on a plane, go for a cycle ride or take a short cut home through an unlit park, I am taking a risk. Life cannot be lived risk free and the benefits of living an active life and exploring to the very edge of what I deem to be acceptable risk has been of massive benefit to my physical and mental health and as I gain confidence and competence and learn new skills and seek new challenges I can see my assessments of risk changing as I push my personal boundaries. Tragedies like the one in Nepal should make us examine our strategies for coping with risk and make us question “What risk am I willing to take”, but they should not stop us taking them.