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A Million And One Ways Not to Die

A Million And One Ways Not to Die

Climbing is dangerous. It says so on the ‘biners. The question is: how can we make it a little less dangerous?

Throughout life, we mostly learn from our mistakes. When I was a young punk growing up in Brooklyn, I teased a younger kid about being effeminate. He clocked me square in the jaw (hey, Brooklyn was rough back then!) Shit, son, I never made that mistake again.

In checkers, if you play a bad move, you lose the game – and you learn not to make the same blunder twice.

In most sports, too, we learn from our mistakes. If you fail to rotate your body properly when you swing a golf club, you might smack the ball right into the water – or, in my case, miss the little white fucker entirely. This embarrassing mistake teaches you to adjust your swing. (And yes, golf is actually a sport.)

But what about climbing? Do we learn from our mistakes on the rock?

Sure. But only if we survive them.

My good buddy Todd Jenkins, a twenty year climbing veteran and no slouch, rapped off the end of his rope in Red Rocks last winter. I’m willing to bet he would have learned from his blunder, and never made that same mistake again. But, alas, to learn you need to survive.

Our brains learn to interact with the world by processing positive feedback from our environment. Positive feedback does not mean ‘good’ feedback; it simply implies that an action produces definite feedback as to whether that action was harmful or not. For example, when you touch a hot stove, you recoil in shock from the burn; that was some positive feedback. You learn quickly not to touch hot stoves.

In rock climbing, you tend to receive positive feedback only when things go wrong. For example, if you place a shallow cam and it pops out as you whip, you learn not to place shallow cams. If you slip with the rope behind your leg, positive feedback comes in the form of a painful rope burn, which helps you remember not to make that mistake again.

But when nothing goes amiss on a route, you receive no clear positive feedback; Did you survive the climb because you didn’t fall? Did you survive because of good technique? Because of an attentive belayer? Because you placed good gear? Maybe all of the above. Maybe none of the above. The point is that when you get mangled on a climb, there is almost always one single reason that can be identified for your misfortune – some kind of hideous blunder that you can avoid in the future (unless you’re dead). When you do NOT get hurt, there are numerous, interconnected reasons why nothing went wrong. It is easy to identify a mistake, but hard to precisely nail down what you did right.

My buddy Todd Jenkins died because he did not learn from all the things he did right over twenty years of climbing – and he did not have the opportunity to learn from the one thing he finally did wrong.

Welcome, fellow climber, to the Cemetary of Silent Evidence.

In the Cemetary of Silent Evidence, consequential information is buried, out of reach, almost inaccessible.

Take a stroll with me through the Cemetery of Silent Climbing Evidence …

Think of all the things you’ve done properly on climbs; not backclipping, not falling, not letting the rope wrap behind your leg, communicating well with your belayer, rappelling safely, using a prusik, tying knots in your rope ends, etc. When the climb goes well, these ‘good safety procedures’ are seldom reinforced with positive feedback; after a successful multipitch ascent, do you reflect on all the proper safety procedures you followed? You might be ecstatic about your clean send, but do you really bask in the glory of how you set up the ATC Guide correctly on each belay? How you safely belayed your partner? How you tied a proper EDK knot for the rappel? Probably not. Reflecting on your performance, can you say that one precise action helped keep you alive? Doubtful. Good practices get buried in the Cemetery of Silent Evidence precisely because they are good; we seldom dwell on what went right, as our minds tends to fixate on the negative. An accident will cause us to probe for our mistakes – and correct them. A successful, drama-free climb will rarely prompt us to review all the good things we did to make it drama-free.

I’ve been reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering because I find many of the accidents absurdly amusing (such as ‘The lead climber fell due to drunkenness’ or ‘The party called for a rescue when they realized that 5.4 in the alpine was much harder than 5.4 in the gym.’ No shit.)

But I am still looking for the book called ‘Not Accidents in North American Mountaineering.’

Hmmm. Perhaps this is all too abstract.

You want concrete? Here is concrete: Smart leaders often carry a draw with a locking biner. Sometimes the rope can pop out of a biner on a big fall, especially if the biner becomes twisted or cross-loaded; using a locker is safer if the fall is big, weird, or consequential (ie, one draw is keeping you from getting hideously mangled on the fall). When the climber whips on the locking biner, he does not get hurt, but – and here is the critical punchline, folks – he cannot say for certain that the locker saved him. A regular draw might have worked fine. Had he taken the same fall with a nonlocking biner, and gotten injured when the rope popped out of the biner, he could say with absolute certainty that a locking biner would have prevented the accident. When shit goes bad, we learn from our mistakes, and we fix them. Unfortunately, when things go smoothly, the stuff you did right gets buried in the Cemetery of Silent Evidence.

The real creeping danger with climbing is that we seldom learn from what we do right; we only learn from what we do wrong. But only if we survive the mistake …

So take a stroll through your own Cemetery of Silent Climbing Evidence. Think about what you did correctly on each climb; do not wait passively for positive feedback from your mistakes. In the climbing world, positive feedback often means a trip to the morgue. Climbing is dangerous, they keep telling us; ignore the Cemetery of Silent Evidence and some schadenfreudistic asshole like me might have a chuckle at your misfortune in next year’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

Jesse James

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About Jesse James

Jesse James is a Canadian rock climber, venture capitalist, futurist, philosopher, technologist, physicist, vegan, social activist, nutrition researcher, adventurer, writer and (sometimes) poet.

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