Editorial: Chance, Risk and Accidents

Recently at UKC we have requested accident reports. This is a new step for climbing in the UK and it is still in initial stages. A recent accident report that was posted by a forum user has caused a great deal of debate and we are looking carefully at our policy and how we can deal with this important information in an ethical and responsible manner.

Two of our regular users, Simon Lee and Mark Stevenson have been kind enough to provide us with editorials outlining their experience and beliefs in this field. They have generally opposing views and both bring up important and relevant points.

We at UKC are currently working with the BMC, discussing if, how, and when accidents should be recorded and reported. We hope these editorials add something to those discussions and we are committed to helping promote safety in climbing where it is relevant and useful. When the BMC finalise their policy we will publish the details.

Read Mark Stevenson's Editorial: HERE

ukb & bmc shark
ukb & bmc shark
© Guy Maddox
Editorial: Chance, Risk and Accidents by Simon Lee

I was moved to write this article in response to what I consider is an unhealthy development on the forums. UKC made a request for accident reporting here: THREAD which led to a thread that followed an accident at Millstone: MILLSTONE THREAD. Whilst this thread was running it was heavily censored by UKC staff who removed a lot of crass posts and so I felt that on balance accident reporting as news with this type of subsequent forum commentary was a bad thing (for reasons stated on this thread: SIMON'S THREAD) to avoid UKC coming to stand for Unlimited Kangaroo Courts. However, it also got me thinking that the lessons that can be drawn from accidents, especially those where all the circumstances are not fully established, are more limited than they are generally held to be. The heavy-handed judgements that are often made, aside from being upsetting for the circle of family and friends of the injured person, are also typically ill founded.

I am going to take two imaginary climbers for illustrative purposes. Johnny Highballs has a fast, free and bold approach to climbing. He takes falls which he can laugh off as a bit of a joke as he get impressive ticks as well and is acquiring a bit of a name for himself in Cragtown – his cavalier approach to climbing and life is an inspiration to his friends and makes him feel invincible and encourages him to take greater risks. Eddie Steady takes a more cautious approach to his climbing but eyes Johnny with some envy who by now is boasting down the pub of his onsighted E6. The next day Eddie has a fall when a flake comes off and his wires strip and he ends up in hospital with a few broken bones. Lying in his bed he ruefully contemplates that his chosen approach to climbing, despite being cautious, has not made the most of the opportunities available or avoid injury. He has in short been nutted by the reality of chance events.

However, from a risk perspective he is wrong to feel rueful. We are not programmed to view unrealised outcomes as real as realised ones. But in a sense they are real. If both participants relived their lives over and over a 100 times, Eddie's worst outcome might be the one where he ended up as he did in hospital but the other 99 times was unharmed. Johnny's alternate lives saw him die twice, made paraplegic once and hospitalised five times. As a guide to living your life and climbing choices into an unknown future if we look to the past for meaning we have to consider the unrealised outcomes as valid as the real realised ones to really appreciate any risk and draw any lessons. In weighing up risk you don't know, for example, that a specific in-situ peg is weaker than a specific bolt so progressing into the future you have to work on likelihoods and appreciate that they are not the same as certainties, recognising biases of information processing that exist in your brain. One day a rope will snap on a lead climber taking a fall (actually I don't know but let's pretend). Just because it has never ever happened so far does not necessarily mean it won't in the future. Karl Popper a thinker on the subject of causality coined this a 'black swan event' on the basis that just because you have only ever seen white swans doesn't mean a black swan doesn't exist. Improbable, unlikely events seem to happen more often than they should but that is only because you don't know the multitude of improbable, unlikely events that never occurred. In terms of unrealised negative outcomes there is a good chance that the incident that appeared to you to be the one where you were closest to death wasn't at all; it just felt like it was. In fact your decision on an easy route not to use a solid-looking hold (that would have snapped) above the two 'bomber' runners (that would have failed) left you blissfully unaware that you were a gnat's chuff away from a fatal groundfall.

The seductiveness of accident reporting is that it suggests that the sum total of knowledge will allow us to quantify and statistically measure risk. More knowledge of accidents = more avoided accidents is a very persuasive equation. But when a climbing accident is publicised it is too late as it is a realised outcome in isolation, without the context of unknown unrealised outcomes or even known near misses and can skew our perception of what we consider reality or recommended future courses of action. Whilst knowingly decrying the limited usefulness of stories I am reminded of Mark Miller who as I recall was guiding a team in some snowy place and chose to set up camp on a ridge despite the fact that the guidebook recommended bivvy spot was in a basin already occupied by tents. During the night there was a catastrophic avalanche that covered those sleeping in the basin. Statistics reporting is also a minefield in terms of the conclusions that can be wrongly inferred not just from the general public - the conclusions that experts draw should be regarded with some scepticism. I am not saying this out of some belligerent individualist notion but because the history of expert predictions (and reliance on those predictions because they are expert) has led to many, many disastrous consequences. Without wishing to go off at too much of a tangent, studies have shown that experts are typically overconfident in their estimations and predictions.

It is part of the human condition to make a narrative – patterns where there are none – in order to make sense of the world around us. The uneasy truth is that there is no grand pattern and design – it is mainly randomness and most of it is disconnected events and incidents where there are no lessons – not that it stops us trying to invent ones. Both success and catastrophe is more often down to luck and chance than we give it credit for. This is not the same thing as saying everything is random. Certainly fortune favours well prepared and safe practising climbers but it doesn't protect them absolutely from misfortune. Naturally we study successes and catastrophes for underlying causes after the event so we can replicate them for the future to achieve similar success or avoid similar failure. But the circumstances are always unique and non-replicable and the actual outcome is always out of context because you don't know the unrealised outcomes. So the conclusions that can be drawn are rarely as certain as the hindsight merchants would have you believe.

Any story can be told in a multitude of ways depending on the biases of the author and that goes for the stories of accidents as well. No two persons will draw the same lessons from the same incident and the way a story of an incident is told will influence what might be learnt and some of those lessons will be incorrect or place undue emphasis on something that is peripheral. Whilst accidents happen in an instant the conclusions that are drawn do not have to be instantly made – nor should they. As with professional enquiries a period of information gathering and then study will better lead to the things that you can conclude and the things that you can't, as well as sparing further upset for the injured person and their circle when they are most emotionally vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of the event.

From a more personal perspective, the level of risk you choose is a matter of adult individual choice and will vary greatly between climbers but the key point is that you can't manage risk without attempting to understand it first. Understanding and managing risk isn't the same as knowing a pastiche of accidents, golden rules and regularly being reminded that for example old pegs can snap. The starting point should be to try to think your way round the nature of risk in the first place (the clues are all around you) otherwise your specific climbing risk choices will be wrongly founded. Seeking to understand risk begs further questions about how we perceive danger in the world around us, how we respond to it, and how appropriate that response is and there is a certain paradox in trying to minimise or attempt to get rid of the very thing that contributes to the thrill of climbing in the first place. These are issues for another article.

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