Title: What Stories Taught me about Risk
Intro: Lezlie Silko said, “I will tell you something about stories…they aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have.” We all have stories. We all tell stories. If I told you how I fell 100 feet off a rock climb, you’d start thinking of your own stories, one you’d like to tell in response. Maybe a bigger/better, or someone you know did X. It’s part of our conversation…how we relate to each other. But stories are so much more – tune in today for the unexpected discovery I made while studying the stories of hikers, bikers, skiers and rock climbers. An insight into how we all manage risk!
I conducted 16 interviews of people who participate regularly in outdoor recreation – human-powered sports in wild places such as mountains, rivers, and deserts. The interviewees consisted of eight men and eight women between the ages of 22-75 years old. Their sports of choice included: mountaineering, road biking, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, SUP (stand up paddle boarding), white water kayaking, desert backpacking, and river rafting. Each shared personal stories of exploits, that I then structurally analyzed for risk using Labov and Walestsy’s structural analysis model. What that means, in a nutshell, is that these cool guys – Labov and Walestsy, broke down the personal narrative and found a pattern in the way stories were told. By breaking the stories into the parts L&W defined, you can evaluate different structural aspects of a story. So let me share an example so this will make sense–
Example Story from Alex, one of the outdoor recreationalists that was a part of this study
He said, and I’m quoting word for word, “ I was on a climb for charity, a mountain climb, I’m not a mountain climber, but we were climbing a mountain in Chile called Aconcagua. And, a, it was really, really, really, really, really really cold, like 40 below. Now this is the opening section of the story that L&W call the ( ORIENTATION). The story goes on: And, on the day before the summit day I was feeling extraordinarily strong and then all of the sudden lost feeling in my feet and literally couldn’t walk. I mean I absolutely couldn’t do it. This is the second section of the story that L&W call (COMPLICATING ACTION). The story goes on: It was a small group and so it was a choice, let’s leave Alex and we’re going to go push for the summit. And they got me all set up. My friend Eric decided he was going to stay with me, long time friend, and the short part of the story is, that in 40 below temps, he… we said, let’s give it a shot and see if I can warm your feet up. We didn’t think there was necessarily something wrong, they had just gotten so frozen they had lost circulation. This section is the section L&W call the (EVALUATION): And so, he put my feet under his jacket and into his armpits… … and 10 minutes later after him screaming in pain about how cold it was, I got feeling back and we went for the summit. This is what L&W call the (RESOLUTION).
I said: Not only did you summit, but you saved your feet!
Alex: I’m not sure. I think it would have… like circulation would have ….. ya, he did a lot of wonderful things for me with that armpit moment… That last final statement is what L&W call a (CODA)
So, why does this breakdown matter? The reason it matters, in this case, was that after I had collected all their stories, broken them into L&W’s structural parts, the result of my analysis brought 2 things to the forefront: 1. Risk was the roving master and was allowed in any and all parts of the stories – in everything from the orientation to the coda – risk could show up anywhere in this group’s stories. And 2. Risk received little fanfare in the narratives and was often quickly passed over.
Now, The scattered, but certain nature of risk within the narratives show that risk plays an integral role in the stories of the outdoor recreation folk group, and WE can clearly identify that the activities these recreationalist participate in involve danger and potential injury or death, and yet, these participants all claimed they were NOT risk takers, despite the fact that they climbed mountains over 22,000 feet in elevation, backpacked multi-day trips across arid deserts relying only on water within the landscape, skied backcountry icy mountain tops on skis without edges, white water kayaked, and rock climbed 1200 foot pinnacles– to stand on a pizza-box size rock in utter darkness, etc. Despite this they made such claims as: “I’m not a huge risk taker.” or “I’m a snowboarder and a mountain biker, but I’m very careful about what I do out on those things.” or “It didn’t feel risky. It felt really safe.” “I don’t think I would do things that are risky or dangerous, I’m pretty reserved.”—Brittany. “I don’t think climbing is any more risky than walking to the grocery store.” –Roland “I’m not a real physical risk taker.” –Tim.
The question then begs: what defines risk for these individuals, and what steps are taken to alleviate risk to the point that these clearly dangerous undertakings are no longer considered dangerous by those who choose to participate in them?
Now this insight isn’t about stories, it’s about how humans deal with risk – but the wonderful, powerful thing is that this information was derived from a starting point of stories. Another situation where we can come to understand the human condition in direct and indirect ways – all through story. So let’s talk about the results:
Though these type of sports often seem extremely risky to the uninvolved on-looker, the participants engage in 2 steps to essentially manage the risk, the first is a quick and often instinctual calculation regarding a number of criteria in order to determine risk potential. Each person chooses their own variety of issues to analyze. Let me tell you about the 6 that I identified with this study: So when someone asks one of these skiers, hikers, mountain climbers if they want to do a certain climb, kayak a certain river, etc. the first thing they do is quickly go through a mental process of checking off the following 6 items:
Play through Scenarios: One tool for risk assessment was to play through a mental movie of possible scenarios and outcomes to determine whether the reward was worth the potential harm. They also gauged, in their scenarios, how the event had to play out for safety, which brings me to…
How Far Removed is the Risk: If a number of mistakes can be made on a given move and the participant still has a chance for success without harm or death, then the risk is more likely to be considered acceptable. If harm is only one move away, most, who used this evaluation tool, indicated they would not engage. For example, if riding a narrow section of trail on a mountain bike, next to a 100-foot drop off, one mistake can mean death. If, on the other hand, the trail is wide enough that if a mistake is made, falling off is not certain, then the risk is more than one move away and may be acceptable.
Experience of Others: Risk is gauged by the experiences and success or failure of others. For example, when Alex was discussing how he made his decision to move ahead with the climb of Aconcagua, one of the tallest mountains in the world, part of his process of evaluation was to see how many deaths had occurred on the mountain in the past year. Alli said, “It’s like you can break your hand or your clavicle, but you don’t really hear about people dying (on a mountain bike).” Talking with other people was often mentioned as a way to gauge risk as well. What experience had others had doing this offered route?
Scouting Conditions and Assessing Technicality: Scouting conditions is an attempt to evaluate risk potential established by the terrain and whether or not they have the skill required for success. For a river rafter or kayaker it is walking the river and assessing the flow and pull of the water, the location of rocks, length of drop off and speed of the water. For climbing a wall it may include looking for anchors, ledges, hand holds, loose rock. For backcountry skiing it may include checking avalanche conditions, looking for terrain traps and checking snow conditions. Incremental Progression: How far is this beyond my skill level? Multiple interviewees discussed the idea of incremental learning. In order to progress in the sport, one must gain skills they don’t currently have, but making big jumps from one skill level to the next possesses too much risk. Risks are acceptable if taken incrementally. For example, one interviewee said, “… how I approach that is taking on class 2 (rapids), then class 3, 4, then 5….”
Control: For those to whom control is an issue, they judged risk according to how much control they would retain in the situation, and how much was left to some other entity, even if that entity was gravity. Are they in control or is something else?
After they had gauged their situation in regard to these 6 items, they then naturally went through a process called Risk Alleviation.
Basically, after risk has been identified and assessed, the interviewees each had certain steps they plugged in, to further reduce risk. This final step determines whether or not the participant will engage in the sport or route. This cognitive equation takes place, sometimes in a matter of minutes, but sometimes much longer if the danger or risk is higher. There are 8 of these
The first is:
Experience: Had they attempted this activity at this level before? Did they have the experience to feel confident that they could succeed without injury? As discussed in Lee Davidson’s study “The Calculable and the Incalculable: Narratives of Safety and Danger in the Mountains,” the mountaineers in his study indicated that one of the ways for survival was to survive the initial phase of participation in the sport. In other words, if you can stay alive through your introduction to the sport, when you have the least amount of experience, then you can gain the experience needed, “learn from one’s mistakes,” and move past it. Once one has enough of their own experience, they can compare future situations with past situations. This was occasionally referred to as “judgment”.
Confidence: One interviewee put it this way, “I think risk is a very personal thing, and I think a lot of risks come from the mental state that you’re in. So, being confident and comfortable in what you are doing eliminates a huge amount of risk.” In other words: Is your head in the game?
Skill: Skill is defined as competent excellence in performance. Each of the sports mentioned require a specific set of skills to navigate the sport successfully. Possessing those skills lowers the risk of injury or death. Beth said, “I ski things that maybe someone else would never ski because that would be scary and you could break a leg, but I feel I’m not going to break a leg because I know what I’m doing.”
Preparation: Limiting risk can be done by prior preparation. Tim explains, “Part of the draw is that they (the deserts) can be very unforgiving…where if you don’t have your t’s crossed and your i’s dotted in terms of preparation, you could find yourself in real big trouble real quick.” In other words, In the world of outdoor recreation preparation can mean the difference between life and death.
Go With Others: Safety in numbers. Those who mentioned this felt that recreating with partners meant that if there were trouble, multiple participants would mean help for the injured or someone to go for help, or that going with others who had been there/done that provided insight, experience, and safety.
Gear/Safety Equipment: In the words of Kara, “If something can save your life, why wouldn’t you wear it?” Specifically, items like harnesses, avalanche beacons, avalanche backpacks, safe ropes, etc. were mentioned. The need to double check safety gear for tight knots and correct usage was also noted.
Knowledge: Two of the most experienced of those interviewed, one male, one female, both mentioned knowledge as a key to risk reduction. Roland explained it like this, “…another piece of eliminating risk is making sure that you are doing everything correctly, that all your knots are done correctly…If you’re going to be trad climbing, you know how to place gear correctly, you know how to build anchors….”
Ego: Roland also noted the importance of not letting ego push you to make unwise choices that increase risk. He said, “There have been a lot of climbs and pitches that I haven’t felt good about, or you know, a storm is coming in, or the sun is setting and you’re not prepared for it, and we’ve said, “OK, we are backing off.” We’ve put our ego aside and said, “We’re not getting on top of this today, and we’ll be alive to do it tomorrow.”
Risk vs. Reward
For each recreationalist the rewards they receive from participation in their chosen activities vary. The recreationalists I interviewed unequivocally assured me that their purpose in pursuing these activities did not center around risk. Rather, risk was a necessary part of the process to be navigated, but not the attraction. The things they sought were: the challenge of the sport, the opportunity to connect with the landscape, the release from urban life, healing and rejuvenation, fun, the social connection it gives them with others, a feeling of accomplishment, to conquer their own fears, to learn to deal with challenges, build character, as a tool for keeping them present, to get to know their body, exercise, to learn new things, spiritual connection, and to keep life in perspective. Another research study done of the narratives of 22 New Zealand mountaineers found the same thing. “…While they may have to deal with danger and stress in pursuing their passion, they are not reckless, foolhardy, or adrenaline junkies. Rather, they describe themselves as typically calm, sensible, and analytical in their approach to the potential dangers of climbing.” Zucherman, in his article, Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior, notes, “the riskiness of sports is not the sole or even the main feature attracting sensation seekers” (p 91). And, Roberti concludes that “Instead, sensation seekers are believed to be willing to take risks in order to have rewarding experiences; rather than risk being the source of arousal, sensation seekers most actively try to reduce it.” My interviewees made this point very clear. These sports, to the participants, are life affirming rather than death defying.
Personal narratives open the windows to the soul of any group. In this case they have led to insights that have allowed me to logically define an individualized process that participants in this group go through in order to remove or reduce risk perception to a space of manageability. So here is the exciting and more widely applicable part – This process, I suspect, is similar, for other groups who encounter risk of other types: relationship risks, economic risks, social risks, political risks, etc. And with this understanding we have gained an insight into ourselves and others as we need to predetermine where humans dare to go and under what conditions they will engage for their highest chance of happily ever after in their own stories. If we are contemplating a risky move of any time, we can probably watch ourselves go through this process, and with more awareness and understanding of it, maybe even control it, finding additional risk reduction tools? I loved this particular research project because I had no idea what I would find. And what I found was so fascinating. The next time you see someone doing something risky, you can rest assured they have identified the risks, alleviated what they could, and managed them before they began (except for the few folks out there who are disconnected from their self-preservation instinct.) When you see a skateboarder try to slide the rail, he has probably instinctually considered his skill set, put on safety gear, evaluated other’s experiences with the attempt, taken stock of his own experience, and considered the likelihood of his own injury or death. If he feels like he can manage the risk involved, he then proceeds to give it a try. This doesn’t always work out well, as the doctors and nurses in the ER room know, but it’s a process that we use to manage our risky and dangerous choices. Are you fascinated? I am!
Next time you think about whether you should ask out the great looking girl in the coffee line at Starbucks, watch your mind go through the risk identification and alleviation processes. See where you get stuck, and decide if the story you’re telling yourself is fact or fiction and if you should push past it! Can you alleviate one more game stopper so you can move forward?
Have fun out there telling your stories this week. See you next week on Love Your Story podcast.