If you break it down, risk is a product of probability of the event taking place multiplied by the consequence of that event. This is the fundamental equation used by everyone from insurance policy writers to car manufacturers, to skiers at the top of a backcountry couloir. If you are confident in your own abilities, and know that you won’t fall, you may consider the risk acceptable. But if you do fall, the consequences in that terrain could mean your life. Is that an acceptable level of risk?
For experienced skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry, the level risk they are taking is mostly understood. The line is blurred when the reward of taking the risk is not adequately weighed against the risk itself.
Last spring, I joined a team of guides and ski mountaineers on a month-long traverse of the Fedchenko Glacier in Tajikistan. The goal was to travel the length of the 77-km ice sheet and pursue some first ski descent objectives along the way. The prospect of being the first people to ski on these remote peaks in the Pamir Mountains – known as the “Roof of the World” - was an enticing one, but in a country with no official search and rescue resources and our communication with the outside world consisting solely of a satellite texting device, it was no place to be pushing the limits. An accident and the resulting scenario would not only risk one or more party members, it could potentially stop the expedition in its tracks and force us all to turn around. With so much at stake, putting it all on the line for an act of self-gratification (like skiing a questionable slope) simply seemed reckless.
Yet, we still made the collective decision to climb one particular unnamed peak and ski it. We were travelling on an unfamiliar snowpack in an unfamiliar environment, but after two years of planning this expedition and weeks of arduous glacier travel, everyone wanted to see a tangible reward for their efforts. Our assessment of risk versus reward – clouded by a vehement desire to ski that day – resulted in a close-call avalanche that buried one of our team. As luck would have it, the slide led to no injuries or lost equipment, so we were able to continue the expedition albeit with a renewed sense of self preservation.
Risk is intrinsic to adventure and everyone has their threshold. But as humans we inevitably make poor judgement calls from time to time because we over-value the reward that we hope to gain. Turning around from the goal can be a difficult decision to make when you have invested so much to get there, but it’s never the wrong decision.