Dancing with Failure

Notes on Risk in the Mountains

The Daniels River Valley. Photo by Ari Schneider.

By Ari Schneider

There’s a sound I can’t get out of my head. The cracking, grinding sound of rocks peeling off a granite face—stone blocks pushed away from the walls by ice expanding in their cracks then releasing under the thaw of the afternoon sun.

I remember so clearly the rumbling and crashing of the rockfall as it echoed through the valley. I felt adrenaline. My vision changed. I could only focus on little points around me—my partner’s face, his eyes, ferns sprouting from the ledge we were on—surrounded by a blurry tunnel guiding my sight. My partner was out of the way on the far end of the ledge. He screamed out to me, “Rockfall!” I was right in the line of fire.

I looked up and saw refrigerator-sized blocks tumbling toward me. There was nothing I could do. Nowhere for me to hide. No time for me to run the 50 feet across the ledge to where my partner was. I knew it would all be over in a moment, one way or the other. I got lucky.

In late June 2019, I ventured into the remote Daniels River Valley in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia to explore its potential for new climbing routes. After my partner and I bailed off an attempt at a new line up the Superunknown, a 3000-foot granite landmark in the valley, we stopped on a big ledge at the top of the approach slabs—the first few pitches of low angle climbing before the Superunknown steepens to a proper wall. There we enjoyed a snack, packed up our gear, and took a moment to appreciate our remarkable vantage point as a little speck—a lone black bear—wandered the valley below us munching on an endless supply of ripe salmonberries. My partner stepped away to relieve himself, and I sat for a moment in silence, taking in the view of big walls, snowy peaks, and wilderness around me.

The rockfall broke the peace. I don’t know what divine intervention shielded me from every rock that came down. But had I been a few steps to either side, I would’ve been crushed.

I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag that night. I was fighting with my own thoughts, doubts, and trauma.

Why was I there? Why was I risking my life on the side of a mountain in the middle of the wilderness? And for what?

These are dark questions that many climbers have faced. And there are many answers—all individualized and personal—from the nihilistic to the idealistic. For me, there are no concrete answers, just lessons and notes collected and shared by climbers over the years to help us understand the risks and values of our journeys into the mountains.

Risk is not something inherent or tangible. Risk is an intentional action people take when faced with uncertainty. Hazards, on the other hand, are inherent to climbing. On the Superunknown, one hazard I faced was loose rock. An uncertainty was whether that rock would fall off. The risk was my choice to be up there despite hazards and uncertainties.

Humans aren’t good at rationally analyzing risk. And part of the problem is that fear is a bad predictor of risk. We choose to ignore the many risks we face in daily life—like driving or cooking or swimming or texting while walking—because we are desensitized to them. We are scared of what we are unfamiliar with, and those unfamiliar things do not always pose the greatest dangers. While fear is a natural fight or flight response, it’s not necessarily a good resource to keep us alive. I’m skeptical whenever I’m scared. I don’t trust my fears to guide my decisions.

I don’t like it when people tell me to “be safe” on my climbing trips. I never know how to respond. The truth is a letdown to anyone who doesn’t grasp how climbing works. Climbing is not safe. It’s impossible to make climbing safe. The same is true about waking up every morning. It’s impossible to live safely. Dangers exist in the mountains and on the streets and I can’t do anything about the existence of those dangers. All I can do is manage my interactions with them. I can reduce uncertainty by preparing well. But I can never completely eliminate uncertainty and I can’t affect objective hazards. The best I can do is manage risk. But I can’t be safe.

There’s no rigid dichotomy between safe and unsafe. Our relationship with safety can only be measured in a range between low risk and high risk. The job of climbers is to decide whether the risks we face are above or below a certain threshold or predefined acceptable level of risk.

Defining acceptable risk is tricky. It’s important to understand that risky decisions are not just about risks. They are about risks and benefits. This makes each and every risk incomparable to one another. I mentioned driving as a risky activity in order to point to the fact that we all make risky decisions on the daily. But decision-making for driving can’t be directly compared to climbing. I’ve heard many people say, “driving to the crag is the most dangerous part of climbing.” But the benefits of driving are different from the benefits of climbing, even though the potential risk outcomes for both are injury or death. Since the benefits differ, it can’t be assumed that the similar risks should lead to similar choices. One problem with saying “acceptable risk” is that a risk can only be deemed acceptable when it’s compared to its benefits. In reality, when we define a certain risk threshold, we are more accurately defining an acceptable level of benefit. This perspective allows us to fairly reject certain small risks and accept larger ones if the larger risks offer greater benefits.

Risk, in a general sense, is a good thing. Risk must be paid to stray from a world of mundane and melancholy. But the risks we choose to take on must be determined by how much risk we can manage.

There are two types of failure in the mountains—not making it to the top and not making it home. Not coming home is undoubtedly the greater of those two failures. But sometimes climbers choose to risk not making it home because the chance of making it to the top and back down seems greater than the chance of dying. “Seems” is the key word. It’s very difficult to measure risk in the mountains. There’s too much uncertainty, and there are too many unpredictable elements. Decisions in the mountains aren’t based on data, they are based on perception. I can’t know for sure when a serac above me will fall. The best I can do is use experience to guide reasonable estimations about the outcomes of my risky decisions.

Risk is definitely glorified in climbing media. Risk, fear, close calls, and death can make gripping narratives. And many climbers and writers of mountain literature have asked in these stories, are risky choices merited in the mountains?

Excessive risk can’t be justified. Choosing to ignore and push past obvious hazards is reckless. This kind of behavior affects most risks. At its heart is overconfidence—when people take risks while overlooking signs of trouble. But in the absence of overconfidence, risk in the mountains is merited up until the benefits no longer outweigh it. My trip to the Daniels River Valley, for example, was an incredible experience, one absolutely worth the risk of climbing, and I am comfortable with my decision-making out there.

Each risk decision occurs in the context of personal values. Everyone has not only risks to evade, but also goals to attain. In order to achieve goals of personal expression and meaningful existence in the mountains, we must gamble with danger.

Risk is something the world indiscriminately presents. So the question isn’t whether the risks involved are merited, but rather, whether the benefits are merited. And that’s a question that can only be answered per each individual climb, not for climbing as a whole. 

I shudder when I think back to that narrow brush with rockfall on the Superunknown. But I’m not ready to hang up my harness any time soon. I’m afraid, but fear won’t stop me. I’ll be back, ready to climb until it’s not worth it anymore.

Ari Schneider is a climber and freelance writer. He specializes in first ascents, solo climbing, and remote mountain adventures. When he’s not in the mountains or typing away at his computer, he enjoys coaching the young comp climbers on Team Movement in Boulder, Colorado.

Follow Ari’s adventures on Instagram: @ari_schneider

Find more of his work here:

Take Me Off Belay and Hold Me Accountable

Desert Treasures: Climbing New Routes in the San Rafael Swell

Climbing Alone: Self Reliance, Making Calls, and Bailing Solo