On scroll tolerance, and risk tolerance

For some of us, the childhood bedroom is long gone.

Perhaps in a house sold, a sewing room created, or a remodel completed, the curvatures of ceiling and the tack holes where posters once hung are remolded or smoothed away with spackle. Yet if that place where your tender years unfurled still remains, the trip back when you step inside is visceral—so many things tugging at the corners of your attention.

Blogging has been feeling that way for me: a place filled with a lot of things that I used to do, a mode I occupied but haven’t visited in a while. It’s natural to grow, or move on. However, over two weeks ago, I decided to take a break from Instagram. It felt like too much of my time and energy was disappearing into the scrolling screen. My brain knew where the icon was, and even with it gone, I’d absentmindedly realize that I was scrolling around the pages of app icons on my phone, looking for something I’d decided to remove.

My dad talked about the balance between consumption and creation years ago—this stuck with me. There’s not a hard and fast line here—there’s absolutely a time and place for letting your brain melt into Netflix after a hard day. We don’t all need to participate all the time in the online space for it to be real—creativity just doesn’t come out of some of us in that realm.

However, I was a writer long before I ever started taking pictures to post on the internet.

It feels paradoxical to find myself mentally tethered to the foreshortened, tight sphere of Instagram captions when my inclination and habit of so many years was to ramble at length, to let the words and ideas flow in a longer form. Enough people have reminded me; I find myself missing the practice of writing longer because, and especially because, it involves thinking longer.  

So here we are, and I can’t emphasize this enough: if you feel pulled away from your creative enterprises, whatever they may be, by the barbed draw of the scroll or the screen, then take a minute. Consider what you’ve settled into. Such a small step back has proven wonderful for me; it feels like my time has returned. I’m excited to be more intentional with how I’m using it, and to right the balance of consumption to creation.

To everyone who told me I should write more, that I should take this back up, thank you. To anyone patient enough to wait for it to return, thank you. To anyone taking the time to read, thank you. 

Something I listened to while writing this: 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/303wBZ12RXtPoSu9NBHLyT


While the conditions have varied from place to place, it was promised to be a rough winter for avalanche deaths in the US. This was supposed to stem from a wave of newer folks pushing into already crowded zones, but it seems that the combo of persistent weak layers and persistently excited backcountry users are contributing more to the death toll. Twenty five travelers have already lost their lives, which in the second week of February, means we’ve already outstripped the total number from the 19/20 season.

My heartfelt condolences go out to anyone associated with these tragedies. I’ve known the heartsick hole that is punched into your chest when good people don’t come home from the mountains. It’s lead me to making better decisions, and has pushed me to help with avalanche education in my community. This is an effort that I hope has real results for the folks in our courses; I wish I had more time and guidance to give them.

One thing I keep running into in conversations that bears more discussion and emphasis: risk tolerance, as it applies to our avalanche decision making.

It used to be that the only people who talked about risk tolerance were investors, insurance folks, and scruffy, outdoor nerds. But since COVID-19, we’ve all been, well, exposed to the concept of how our tolerance of risk determines our behavior in everyday life. Ultimately, this makes talking about it with your family easier.

Theoretically, there is no such thing as a “bad” risk tolerance: people are free to free solo, try to float the Grand on inner tubes, BASE jump, or ski gnarly lines in sketchy conditions. And those on the other side of the risk tolerance coin can refuse to cross a ski area boundary for legitimate fears about what is lurking in the uncontrolled snow, or they just stay home to begin with.

A great quote I saw on my friend Jenny Cloutier’s wonderful daily barrage of Instagram story memes said something about how “freedom with no responsibility to anything is just adolescence.” That rings true for me, and leads me to argue that if you make poor decisions because of a high risk tolerance and it affects others (you choose to ski a line, it slides, and takes out cars or people below you who had no say in your choices), then you’ve veered into wrong. 

Similarly, if your risk tolerance is higher than someone else in your group, and you bulldoze over their objections in your commitment towards your personal goals, then you’re blowing it in the communication department. Even more so if you’re the more experienced person in the situation, and I’ve been guilty of this more than once. 

Here’s a cool questionnaire I found on the site of guide Jediah Porter. Reading through it, I’d encourage you to use the situational questions to gauge your own leanings. Try comparing them with your significant other, or your touring partners.

Yet the black/white nature of the extremes of risk doesn’t do much to inform a steady course between them. What are we to do when simple safety is measured against the risks we must take to find joy? It’s not acceptable to die skiing something, especially for the loved ones and life you leave behind. It’s also not acceptable to live the shallowest version of life where risk is muted and dull similarity is the only flavor to bland days.

I’d argue, first and foremost, that as we find our way between the poles of too much and too little risk, we must do it with folks who are likeminded. Our partners deserve our care, our listening, and partners with similar risk tolerance. It is unacceptable to expose them to more than they want, or to put them in the role of caring for us when we go too far and get smacked. Sometimes the risks aren’t obvious until you’re in them. Sometimes you must come up with a hundred excuses to avoid hurting somebody’s feelings when your risk tolerance doesn’t align. All of this is born of honest, earnest communication. Yet this is the task set to us as we battle the war human factors wage on us:

We must seek partners with similar risk tolerance.

Additionally, we need to respect the risk tolerance of others, especially if it’s less than ours. Learning to love skiing in all its forms, in all its aspects, and at flat slope angles—this is a task we can pick up if we want to. I’ve put in years unlearning radness and destoking my desire for the gnar with the goal of mellowing out my risk exposure. Where I used to yearn for more air or steeper pitch, I’ve found the same joy in skinning more laps or just more intensely enjoying 23 degree pow.

This transition, of moving the frame of contentment so that we can see ourselves safe for longer, seems a natural consequence of a middle-of-the-road risk tolerance. Marketing and the general, masculine-derived conception of “steeper and harder and more dangerous is better” directly contradict finding satisfaction in mellow turns.

The discussion about dialing down our terrain choices and slope angles is everywhere; finding acceptance for this concept in our personal sphere and then bringing it to practice is personal work.

I don’t see enough emphasis on this personal change in the broader cultural space of backcountry travel.

Given that we’re in the grey in terms of risk, and the notoriously poor feedback we often receive from our decisions in avalanche terrain, it’s easy to think that we have less risk tolerance than we actually accept. Continual education must be weaponized to push us out of our complacency, and this is the responsibility of every backcountry user to bring to themselves and to their group. Formal is great, but it has to go beyond that too.

An example: recently, my girlfriend’s sister Amanda found herself reacting to the Wilson Glade accident in Utah alongside a number of her touring partners, some of whom are relatively new to the backcountry. Just the weekend before, they’d been in contact while skiing with some of those who passed away in the slide. Amanda used her skills to put together an evening of study and conversation with her touring group surrounding known group avalanche incidents like Tunnel Creek or Cherry Bowl. I thought this was a really smart and intuitive way to help her group process the collective trauma of avalanche fatality while simultaneously creating a space to forge new ideas about how this tragedy would change their group’s operating dynamics and practices. 

Another example: Danielle, my girlfriend, has been doing an online refresher of her avalanche skills via the website of mountain guide Mark Smiley. It’s cool to have her chip in her knowledge from that course, she can move at her own pace, it helps to diffuse the knowledge discrepancy between us, and it helps to keep us sharp when we’re getting out together. 

Finally, we need independent judges who can help us keep our actual risk acceptance in line with our risk tolerance. I find that there’s creep in far more than snowpack: mellow angles at the start of the day or the trip yield to steeper later, confidence builds over time, sometimes without warrant. We need partners who can hold us to our risk acceptance. Clearly delineating open, standby, and closed terrain at the start of the day can help to keep the inner powder pig from taking all the controls.

Hopefully this was helpful to you, and your thought process about risk tolerance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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