As a ski guide, each day into the mountains is an exercise in risk management.  Learning to think this way is part of our formal training.  Each day I look at a tremendous amount of data – avalanche forecasts, remote weather stations, and weather forecasts, combine this with recent conversations with other local guides as well as personal experience, then apply all of this to my group's abilities and motivations to come up with the terrain I feel will be the most rewarding.  By the time I am skinning, I have a very good idea of how the day will go.  It's very rational process.

I recently went on a trip with a group of folks whom all live and work in the mountains.  Instead of being the clear leader, which is usual for me, I was only one member expressing an opinion, which had equal weight to everyone else's.  My normal modus operandi was certainly challenged. While it was frustrating, it was also insightful and has given me plenty to think about.  It's amazing to me how I can never anticipate exactly what I will learn on a trip into the mountains.

In short: I have never seen fear and desire influence decisions so strongly.  I don't think this is healthy; but I realize it's likely common.  Here are some thoughts:


Noun:  an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that something is dangerous, likely to a threat.

Let's consider a common fear: a fear of sharks.  Sharks are powerful, agile animals.  Some types of sharks have a reputation for snacking on hapless beings poorly designed for traveling through water.  Certainly, if they want to kill you, they can, so a fear of sharks isn't unreasonable.  This of course assumes some things.  One, you are in a body of water where sharks exist.  Two, the sharks are actually present at the same time.  There are some people who can probably predict shark behavior and be even more calculated, but even if you know nothing at all about sharks eating habits, you should know that in order to be eaten by a shark, there need to be sharks in the water, and you, too, need to be in the same water.  Personally, I know zilch about sharks; but I don't lose a moment of sleep wondering whether I will be attacked while playing in the mountains of Colorado.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how afraid of sharks are you?  Let's say '1' is not afraid – as in you think "Jaws" was an inspiring action film; and '10' means you don't go out when it rains because, well, sharks like water, right?  If you head into the ocean trying to recreate scenes from a movie, with little regard for the fact that it is fictional, you will likely end up on the Internet.  Conversely, if you let this incredible fear guide your life, you will never be eaten by a shark.  It's simple, if you are always dry, you will never be ripped to shreds by one of the world's greatest hunters.

The problem of course is that going to the ocean is fun.  (So I've been told anyway.)  And if you have a habit of committing to trips to the beach; but then, once you realize there is water at the beach, say "Guys, I think we should turn back," your friends will stop inviting you to the beach.  

Having a fear of sharks isn't necessarily crazy.  Given the wrong circumstances, you are pretty hopeless against them.  I am not saying that we shouldn't be afraid of sharks.  Somewhere between '1' and '10' is understanding and respect, which seems like a better guide to sound decisions about how and when to swim in the ocean.

I hear a lot of people say they turned around because they got "spooked."  I have heard well-known, respected, experienced ski mountaineers advocating for "trusting your instincts."  I don't agree – not exactly anyway.  What if your instincts tell you everything is going to be fine?  What if you have poor instincts?  Sure, anytime you turn around you are playing the "safer" card; but if the decision isn't based on data this isn't a rational decision.

Our emotions are a part of the decision making process.  First of all, they are a filter.  Just as it's scary to ski with someone who doesn't have this filter, it's frustrating to ski with people who consider their "gut feeling" to be the final word.  Fear is a part of playing in the mountains.  To challenge ourselves for a lifetime, we cannot ignore it.  We need to learn to embrace it and let it guide further investigation.  What are you afraid of?  Is there a hazard present?  Investigate from a safe place.  You don't have the skill?  Practice it in a comfortable environment.  Maybe you don't have the ability to assess the hazard or make the moves needed, that's okay, play the safe card, and come back another day.  Fear alerts you to a potential hazard and a rational thought process allows you to make the right decision.

We have all succumb to fear at some point.  Sometimes we just don't have the courage we need.  Own this.  "I don't have the courage," is an honest, honorable statement.  "I don't like this; I don't think it's safe," is also fair; but it shouldn't be the end of the discussion.  Finding rewards in the mountains requires that we evaluate the real, present situation and make the appropriate, rational decisions.  "Overcoming" fear doesn't mean ignoring it; it means understanding it.

Donny Roth