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Risk vs Reward

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

It has most certainly been a while! For those interested in becoming a Mountain leader I have begun a podcast on spotify and Anchor on the topics - which reminds me... I need to catch up!

Todays Blog is all about risk vs reward. Within climbing and mountaineering how do we develop this, push this, and rectify our thought processes that decide whether or not we do something.

As a Mountain leader, a rock climbing instructor, adventourer and teacher I face decisions every day based on safety; based on a prior knowledge regarding a students, clients background, experiences and my own ability to keep them safe; but also about the environment and as much information as I can gather.

I wish it were as easy as looking at the Met Office and saying "Awesome, let's go."

What is the risk?

The risk associated with many adventourous activities is usualy quiite high. What happens if you take a big fall whilst on lead on poor gear? it rips, you bottom out and need the rescue services. What happens on a mountainside on easy terrain but you put your foot down a hole that you couldn't see? You sprain your ankle, rescue serices called out. What we do, what we love, has an associated risk involved which will never go away, no matter how much you plan for it. The risk is there, prevalent and pending on your judgements. It is learning to navigate risk, that will make the best adventures, and make the best leaders.

Inherently, and something I am minutely aware of, is that risk follows us in life no matter what we are doing or where we are going. Watching or reading the news and you will see a story of road accidents, fires, water based accidents. I can think of a number of incidents nation wide where risk hasn't been managed effectively, and the reward for that ill thought has been a severe consequence. Lyme Bay disaster, Cairngorm disaster 1970's and more recently the paddle boarding disaster in Wales October 2021... the same day I finished my ML training.

We cannot live without risk, if we did life would be mundane and personally - I'd be pulling my hair out trying to do something risky!

So we have established that we cannot take risk out of adventourous activities - if we did it wouldn't be adventourous. So the answer must be how to manage that risk, how to avoid the problems whilst still having an amazing fulfilling day.

Plan, plan again, replan

Plan A) there's a saying that the first causality in a battle is the plan. Plan A is the plan if everything falls into place, the weather stays how it's forecasted. It's your idyllic scenario where you don't need to change and adapt to conditions and changing environments.

Plan A doesn't often come about. Unless you plan for it. I recently attended a talk on instruction and we talked about max winds we'd take people out. If it's hitting 60mph winds and gusting higher on summits and acceleration zones in the saddles and cols then likely it'll be sub 40 in the corries on the Leeward side of the mountain. You can achieve goals set through a shared vision created with the group or client in the most testing of conditions. If the winds are South Westerly (prevalent wind in the UK from Atlantic) then taking groups on East flanks of mountains should be relatively sheltered in comparison with just the other side.

Emergency kit-

"No one else has kit like we do" said my now fiancée (after the mountains I've taken her up it's a miracle she said yes).

The weather report was for a fine, stable window, low winds. The surface pressure charts showed a different story and being generally cautious with weather I'd ensured we'd packed clothing for effectively all conditions. Including my first aid kit, emergency shelter and jet boil. Needless to say the day started out lovely .... followed by a quick decrease in conditions (hmm) and many, many, many (!!!!) people in clothing sub par and dangerous. We got to the top, her first summit (Snowdon, a classic and a tick box for her) and layered up before having a hot chocolate in relative comfort before coming back down. The wind had picked up, rain so hard you couldn't see and temperature dropped to around 0degrees centigrade. We were comfortable, I'd managed that risk and spent the way down assisting those that hadn't prepared.


Before my mountain leader assessment I spent 6 weeks in the Alps, taking in the mountains and trails which sadly didn't contribute to my QMD's. When my cousin came out we did a number of activities (separate blog) and when my climbing partner and one of my best friends arrived we headed to The Albert Premier hut. Previously, we'd take the lift from Le Tour. Sadly this was out of action so we ended up doing around 10-12km hiking up hill to ge there. I'd planned the route to aguille du tour, researched multiple times, taken bearings, read dangers and planned for this. We'd end up at cabane D'Orny. The following day we would take Petite Fourche, Grand Fourche and head down. Two big days.

I'd checked the forecast multiple times a day leading up to that stay. In the evening a French guide came up- dissuading a couple of brits from their attempt due to an incoming storm. I hadn't seen any, and looking again I still couldn't see what the guide was talking about. It drove me nuts. I was the leader, yet for whatever reason could not fathom where the new information had come from. The wind maxed out at 30mph at 4000m, at 3000m it was around 15-20mph. We were climbing up to 3600m.

The issue is, although I'd planned to the nth degree, I did not know the lay of the land. I'd seen photos from a week previous, spoken to guides and the general consensus was that the alps were falling down and any route was marginal.

In the end, I changed our plan at 00:00 after messaging my dad "I wish my dad were here to decide," we're my thoughts. It realised I was more than qualified, experienced and quite able to make the decision. When I told my cousin and partner I felt a nagging anxiety that I'd let them down. Jack later confided in me that he was relieved about my decision. As we bridged the glacier and route found our way up (first out helping the climbers below with our lights) I was happy in my decision. There was no way we could get to Aguille du Tour without having an epic and looking at the clouds above I could tell that there was a front coming in.

We scrambled up petite Fourche, alternating leads until we got all the way. What an achievement! My cousins first peak! Mine and Dans first alpine summit! The scramble down was the hardest of my life, I hadn't eaten properly, hadn't drink properly and I was feeling mega effects of altitude. Down climbing is always more risky. I concentrated hard and at the bottom I remember sitting down. Drinking and just being exhausted. Dan and I have climbed a lot together, I trust him with my life and in this groggy state I asked him to lead us down, I was a dog on a leash. 500m down, navigating crevasses my senses returned. The clouds came in with a mix of freezing rain and snow. Winds picked up. But I would've been right in my judgement about how safe we would've been. Yet my decision was the right one.

The risk for us was 1) getting in a white out on crevasse laden terrain 2) stuck in freezing rain 3) avalanched off 3) falling into a crevasse 4) having abseil and ice climb across big gaps.

We could have quite easily carried on with our original plan, but was the reward worth it? We had a great couple of days and accomplished many goals, achievements and most importantly we had fun. We had a shared vision, and we navigated the risks well.

If we are blinded by the reward, we will overlook the risks that we must take to get there. We will make mistakes. At least if we plan for these, we have strategies in place to beat it. There are times when I forego the cautious approach, when real risk is worthwhile and necessary to complete something for myself. But when I lead - I lead ahead, with vision, transparency and informed.

If we are blinded by the risk, we will never step forwards in a life that is open for adventure. Manage the risk, manage the people, build your leadership. Build yourself.

Risk vs Reward

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