Within the last few posts on this blog I’ve begun to develop this odd idiosyncrasy requiring me to get the title image up before my brain will get into writing mode, even when the image has little or nothing to do with the post itself. Getting the first few lines down is always the crux of any written piece (at least for most people) and this has become just another barrier standing in the way. Luckily, being the problem solver that I am, I outsmarted it this time and used it as the opening lines.
This weekend we backpacked in to Crystal Lake and did the Father Dyer and Crystal Peak (both 13ers) loop on Saturday. The RunCam managed to survive the sub-freezing night and I was able to get some helmet video of the scrambly part of the Dyer ridge for anyone with the patience to watch it that might want to see what a typical summer route on a non-walkup 13er/14er looks like. I was merciful enough to insert some music to help pass time through the boring sections of video. I did this route last weekend in totally dry conditions and the addition of slippery snow/ice in exactly the places it needed to not be definitely took the difficulty and danger factors up a notch or two, but it was still perfectly doable and safe with extra care taken.
We’ve been out-loud reading Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales very, very slowly for at least a month now, so we figured if it came with us on our backpacking trip this weekend we might actually be able to make some progress on it during our downtime. Of course, downtime during our trips tends to be more wishful fantasy than reality. But thanks to the not-so-comfortable evening temps of alpine camping and some hurricane force wind, we were able to find a little reading time this weekend. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from the climb, the cold, the lack of useful content in the book, the repetition of ideas, or Gonzales’s confused, annoying writing style, but I called it quits that night.
We bought the book for obvious reasons. Many in the outdoors community consider it a must-read. Gonzales basically has a single idea in the book that he repeats ad nauseam: people die in survival situations because emotion takes precedent over logic and they make poor choices they had no control over. This is every chapter. Over and over and over. Interlaced with some flowery, metaphoric, and overly descriptive story writing that belongs in a poetry book. I have no idea how this book has the rave reviews and “must read” status that it does. The book’s tag line is “who lives, who dies, and why” but, bafflingly, Gonzales never actually answers the question. He describes (in the most, almost comically, over-descriptive manner possible) story after story of people NOT in survival situations getting killed by what he determines to be this emotional “short cut” system leading them to choices that are evolutionarily logical, but not appropriate in the given situation. The issues here are twofold. First, nearly every situation given as an example is NOT a survival situation. The examples are of people engaging in high-risk activities rather than fighting for survival. Second, in all his flowery narratives of these events he wasn’t even present for, he seems to have forgotten Occam’s Razor. He never actually presents any evidence that ties all his cited psychological research stew to the death of even a single person in his examples. The ties repeatedly made are only his opinion – and he seems ok with that, reinforcing his opinion by adding completely fictional inner thought narration to the soon-to-be dead person.
Maybe in example after example of people making stupid decisions during high-risk activities, the explanation isn’t some uncontrollable, complex feedback loop of subconscious emotion buried since our caveman days, but rather, people making perfectly conscious, controllable, rational (but piss poor) decisions in situations which are not kind to poor decisions. After all, that is what makes high-risk activities high-risk: there is little to no room for mistakes in actions or decisions. Maybe in his often repeated example of snowmobilers killed by an avalanche they created, the decision to charge up an avalanche-prone slope they were warned not to go up was made consciously. Maybe egos and male group dynamics (don’t want to be the “pussy” in the group) won out over the assessment of potential risk. Avalanche fatality statistics have shown the benefit of additional eyes and experience offered by extra group members peaks at a very small number of people, with each additional group member actually increasing the likelihood of poor decision making in avalanche terrain. Gonzales not only never touches on this, he doesn’t even brush by it. Maybe what got those guys killed was the all too common and deadly “it’ll never happen to me” mentality.
I’ve been in the type of situations Gonzales repeatedly cites. It’s not a “survival situation”. It’s a high-risk situation in which you’re faced with a choice. Every time I’ve made a choice in those situations, I’ve made it consciously after weighing my options and running them through logic and reasoning (even when things are happening quickly), just like all the people in his examples did (though he isn’t interested in examining that angle). Every time I leave the house to climb, I remind myself that getting home again is more important than summiting. It’s why I turned around within a very literal stone’s throw of Atlantic’s summit earlier this spring (though I’m still annoyed by that situation to this day) and why I’ve abandoned or rerouted several climbs over the winter due to avalanche potential. Even this weekend, I knew small amounts of snow on the route was not only possible, but likely. I knew that even a tiny bit of residual snow or ice on the wrong hand or foot hold could turn a fun and easy scramble into a bad situation. After an hour and a half drive on a Friday night, backpacking in two miles in the dark, and hiking up to the ridge on a freezing cold morning, I still would have pulled the plug and gone back home if I was uncomfortable with the situation. Every other person that’s playing in the mountains and surviving keeps that same mentality near and dear to themselves: err on the safe side and live to try again. Even my dog was capable of looking over multiple route options before moving and avoiding ones where the difficulty to exposure ratio was out of wack.
That’s not to say that all incidents in the mountains come down to decision making. Some people draw life’s short straw and have a bad day. No one is immune from bad luck and that’s why sometimes even the best decision makers don’t come home. This is when all the internet mountaineers come in to Monday morning QB the situation with after-the-fact woulda/coulda/shouldas that no non-psychic person could have possibly acted on during the incident. But bad luck aside, if you’re the type of person that snowmobile charges up avalanche terrain on a “red” day, then your days in the mountains are numbered (it’s a small number too) and to blame it on some deep, subconscious human thought loop that was uncontrollable means you’re either horribly naive or trying to sell a shitty book.