raising little ones in the great outdoors

Risk: How Much is Too Much?

How much is too much?

On March 26, the skiing world lost visionary Shane McConkey in a base jumping accident. Even if you aren’t a skier, you’ve probably seen a clip of the sub-sport of ski basing.

After news of his death broke, a Facebook Group formed thousands strong. Message boards exploded with thoughts for his wife and young daughter. Warren Miller even proved that octogenarians know how to use Facebook. Tahoe came out in force to support its local legend. McConkey’s enthusiasm radiated through ski films and stood in stark contrast to many professionals’ aloof natures. He took an industry that had grown static, shook it on its head, poked fun at it and somehow managed to find a way to do what he loved on a daily basis. If you’re riding fat skis – you have McConkey to thank.

shanemcWhile most of the Internet chatter was sad yet supportive, there were others who questioned whether a parent had any place ski basing off a Dolomite Tower. How much risk is too much? It’s such a complicated issue with a hundred different points of entry. Certainly, the shock wave of his passing rippled through our community, but it crashed into his family. We lost a legend. McConkey’s family lost a father, a husband and a son.

A lot of us have taken risks in the mountains or in the oceans. We’ve gotten ourselves into and out of trouble. Most of us define our own clear lines when it comes to risk, so much so that when we look at someone like McConkey it’s tempting to say he was way past any normal threshold. It’s tempting to say that the risks were too great, the reward so little. Take a step back though. To someone with no roots in the outdoor world, a day of Sunday afternoon top-roping looks extreme. Is it just a matter of perspective?

We could post one of those corny little polls, but that’s not what the Outdoor Parent is about. This site aims to elevate the conversation. How much is too much? How do you define or assess an acceptable amount of risk? Did that line become clearer when you became a parent? It will be interesting to hear your thoughts.

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25 Responses to “Risk: How Much is Too Much?”

  1. Danny says:

    Risk is very subjective, I believe that “to much” risk is when the odds of serious injury or death out-weigh the personal benfits one gets from the activity.

    When you become a parent, risk does become more clear. I’m not in it for just myself any more. I have the benfit of participating in activites with a much lower mortality rate than base jumping though. (1 in every 2,317 jumps according to one study)

    When you’re not involved in an activity it looks much more dangerous than you think. My wife is still scared when I surf on days when the waves are big. She doesn’t surf so the risk/rewards mentaliy is waaay over to the risk side!

    Thats one reason I want my son to grow up with an adventurous mentality, experiencing things instead of watching others. I’m not going to take him up to the top of a triple black-diamond slope to teach him to snowboard, but I’m not going to tell him its “to dangerous” to aspire to as he grows and gets better.

    To many parents are over-protective and in many ways, I think we harm the quality of our childs future life by instilling unrealistic fear in them through our parental instincts to keep them from harm.

  2. Andy G says:

    I agree with Danny – risk is relative. I know people who won’t drive at night or on the highway. Statistically, driving on the highway is a fairly risky proposition!

    We can criticize McConkey because he was involved in an “extreme” sport. What the heck do we call being a soldier, a policeman, or a fireman? The reality is that when your number is up, it’s up.

    That being said, one can’t be stupid. In teaching children these outdoor skills, safety is a big part of that. One shouldn’t climbs a few minor peaks then declare themselves ready for Everest. It makes sense to wear a helmet (well doing everything nowadays). It makes sense to ski in control. It makes sense to be able to fix a flat on your mountain bike. It makes sense to be able to read a map and use a compass if your GPS fails.

    Many times, after all is said and done, we can’t help our children anymore. They only have what we’ve taught them and what they’ve been able to experience. This counts for negotiating that black diamond for the first time as much as it does them going off to college.

  3. Will T. says:

    This may sound odd, but contrary to Andy’s comment, I refuse to wear a helmet while skiing. All my friends wear helmets and tease me for not doing so. They say the helmet gave them that little extra boost of confidence, the will to try something a bit more extreme that they wouldn’t dare try without a helmet.

    I feel if I need to put a helmet on to boost my confidence and pull a bigger trick in the park, then I’m probably doing something I shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

    It is neat to see your risk tolerance mellow out as a wife and kid come into your life.

    But thank you Shane for helping make skiing what it is today. Risk assessment is a tough line to walk.

    p.s. I’m enjoying the new blog, as it hits home well with me.

    • The helmets are such a funny thing…what a perfect illustration of personal lines of risk that are completely arbitrary. I almost always wear a helmet riding. Most of my friends will wear a helmet in bounds, but in the back country no.?! While I’m consistent on that, climbing puts my haphazard compliance to the helmet rule. I’ve never worn a helmet sport climbing. If I’m in the desert, I tend to wear a helmet, but granite’s different (apparently gravity is more severe in the SW) and I rarely wear a helmet when I climb granite. If I’m doing a route that a 1,000 feet or less, I probably won’t wear a helemt, but if I’m going to climb El Cap helmets are mandatory…makes sense right? Not at all.

      It’s so interesting though because if you flip through the Accidents in North American Climbing, the one over arching pilot error you begin to notice — the person wasn’t wearing a helmet. It’s such a simple thing a climber could do to mitigate risk to possible injury and yet most of us create this completely arbitrary system for deciding when to actually wear a brain bucket. Bizarre….I’m guilty as charged.

  4. Joel W says:

    Interesting article and comments. While I don’t think neccesarily that base jumping is the most egotistical activity a parent could partake, I do question the subjectivity perspective. Yes risk is subjective, but it is possible to look at statstics and get an objective impression. I to am sceptical to ski with a helmet for the same reason as Will T says (See also a recent article on WildSnow). Risk obviously decreases with knowledge and experience, but at a certain point we no longer have control and have to make a conscience decision to cross a threshold.

    As far as parenting, I would dare say that the most egotistical aspect of parenting is not participating in potentially dangerous activites, but failing to spend time with our children because of other engagements. My experience is that most often in our outdoor pursuits we (as in those that read this blog) try to include our children and in doing so give them the experience and knowledge to make wise decisions. Yes, losing a mother or father is a tragedy, but perhaps never having time with a parent is an equal travesty. As others have said before me, perhaps we as parents have more to give our children when we are able to spend time in doing the things we enjoy. Won’t our own happiness inspire and infect our children.

    Personally, I think McConkey crossed the line as a parent, but at the same time I’m hesitant to draw that line. What is the balance between our own need for fulfillment (beyond what parenting in itself can provide) and our responsibilities for our children. We all have to make that decision on our own and determine what risk we are willing to accept for ourselves and our children. I know that I’ve lowered the threshold since becoming a husband and father, but I still have my dreams and aspirations.

    • Andy G says:

      Love the comment Joel about the time spent AWAY from the kids. That’s a huge point to make. I am an avid huge peak book reader and always ponder that point about how many months away from family. Heck, Rob Hall never saw his child.

      I don’t want to belabor the helmet issue, but I see it from a ski patroller’s point of view. I’ve seen a lot of head injuries occur in people doing normal, non-extreme things. Pro-cyclists finally made the transition to helmets. I’m not sure why all the kick back from skiers and motorcyclists!

  5. simon geering says:

    This is an interesting post following up on something i was reading over on the UK Climbing website a few weeks back about Mums who are also Mountaineers, either professionally or as a hobby.

    One of the interesting points raised there, and one that is a parallel thread to this discussion is that of at what level of risk is acceptable to expose children to when they are participating in outdoor activities, and at what point the young person should be allowed some say in that decision, normally in pushing the boundry beyond what the parent thinks is appropriat for them but to a point within the bound of the risks the parent is themselves prepared to take. At what point does someone become able to assess risk for themselves? Does this change with factors such as being a parent or being a young person brought up in an outdoors enviroment?

    • interesting article. The Allison Hargreaves reference is interesting. The press made her a hero and then raked her through the coals for leaving here children at home to follow her dream. It begs the question — do you think risk is different for mothers than fathers. Or maybe it should be phrased, do you think that mother and fathers view risk differently? Or is that a complete generalization.

    • Steve Bohrer says:

      You raise a great point about the acceptable level of risk to expose the kids themselves to. I hope that by taking my kids outside and letting them explore their abilities and boundaries with some supervision that they will be less likely to take foolish risks when they’re out on their own. I’ve seen lots of examples of kids in youth groups taking crazy risks because they have no clue how dangerous something can be. Stuff like rock soloing, cliff jumping, etc. Now kids will always push limits, but I think that exposing them to some risk early on might lead to better decision making later on.

      • simon geering says:

        That is precisely one of the reasons I became involved as a volunteer with a local outdoor charity working primarily with kids. I think the sad demise in modern culture due to liable and compensation society is leading us to a point where the most some kids know about level so risk is through playing first person perspective shoot ‘em up games on a PC!

        The trouble is that we have got so far down the line now that we are at a point where those parents complaining about things being to dangerous for kids where themselves from a generation where they were limited in the “risky” activities they were allowed to do when they themselves were children! Someone needs to help brake the cycle.

  6. I still remember the first time I took my 8-yr old daughter rock climbing. I had rigged and climbed the route dozens of times and knew it all by heart. But, when my daughter started up the face for the first time, my mind went into panic mode, flashing questions about the preparation process. Did I tie her in right? Did I get her harness tight enough? Should I have went with the full-body harness? Did I lock that biner on the top anchor? What would my wife, who is not a climber, say if I screw this up? When you take a partner climbing, they take partial responsibility for the risks. When you take your child climbing, it is all you. As my mind raced in a frightened state, I finally focused on my daughter who was rocketing up the face as if she had done it a thousand times before and my fear was replaced by an uncontrollable giddiness. My little girl was as comfortable 30 feet off the deck as she was on level ground. Seeing her climb that wall was no less exciting than seeing her take her first steps. Is the risk worth it? If it plants an adventurous seed which pulls her out of her comfort zone and causes her to seek all that life has to offer, it will absolutely be worth it.

  7. Steve Bohrer says:

    Eric, I know how you feel. The first time I let my daughter rappel by herself I must have checked her system over 20 times and it still terrified me.
    My own risk philosophy can be defined by two events. You can read about the first one on page 92 of 2005 Accidents in North American Mountaineering. My partner, Jerry, and I were leading the CMC route on Mt. Moran with his two sons following. Some careless climbers above knocked off a bunch of rocks, one of which smashed Jerry’s helmet as he cowered 5 feet away from me on our belay ledge. I got peppered by smaller rocks. After an exciting heli rescue he recovered completely, but he easily could have died there, 80 feet above his kids.
    My other experience happened just half a mile from my house. My two sons and I were T-boned in an intersection by a whacked out teenager running away from home in his parents’ Suburban. Fortunately, we were in an F-150 (totalled) and none of us were injured. I’ve read that your lifetime odds of dying in an auto accident are 1 in 84.
    Obviously, a sure way to avoid death in the outdoors is to just stay home. But then you could get killed on your way to buy milk. The same people who shake a finger at mountaineers, skiers, or surfers will drive down the interstate at 80 mph with cords sticking out of their bald tires.
    All that said, the risks taken by some parents are a lot more than I would take. One thing that bothers me a little is the usual comment to the effect of “so-and-so wouldn’t have been the same if he didn’t do those things.” That may be true, but would that make him less of a person? Would the surviving children care or would they rather have a slightly more ordinary living parent?

    • simon geering says:

      That is what we always tell the kids in the groups that are a bit aprehensive; the most dangerous thing they will do that day they have already done, namely drive to the climbing session :-)

    • brian moore says:

      great points steve.
      “Would the surviving children care or would they rather have a slightly more ordinary living parent?”
      using ski base jumping as a place to leap from for this discussion is on the far end of what anyone with or without a family will be active with.
      the part that was absent here has to do with madness. mad people breeding. the offspring, I have come to think are more likely to save those of us who are foolish enough to stay involved in the activities that seem asinine to the public at large or even by members of our sport group. before or after we breed.
      meaning we will spend less time involved in those “fun” games, because we simply do not have as much time to devote to our chosen calling. we are too busy elsewhere.
      “slightly more ordinary parent” heading off to the fine line between and idiot and a wild man territory. the need for risky sports is a handicap. a biological throwback , to when we were less civilized. or a cop out to stepping up to the responsibility we take as soon as we start breeding.
      do the best while we are here and go from there. the big chunks of time away from the boy is where I draw the line. one of them, that is.as long as we are still kicking do both. stay active and be useful parents. If we get the chop sooner than later quality time higher on the totem pole, being the big idea. risk also brings the immediacy of the now into focus. that said being more present with our kids now..
      maria coffey’s books “where the mountain casts it’s shadow” and “explorers of the infinite” are both incredibly appropriate reads for this topic. each of us will have our own subjective formula as to what is ok and what is not. tough sometimes being a jackass with the mentality of a small soap dish, who is also someone’s dad.

      • I second Maria’s book Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow. While I think that the people profiled it in are a little bit out there, and the book can be some what repetitive, it’s also an amazing and heart felt, and unapologetic look out how the death’s impact family and loved ones.

  8. Danny says:

    I can understand both sides of the helmet issue. If I’m out riding and intending to push myself I were a helmet. If I’m just cruising or riding with my wife I don’t bother as I won’t be in any “risky” situations. When Levi (my son) is old enough to go with me, I’ll wear the helmet every time, and so will he.

    As far as the parenting aspect, I do think that a parents biggest sin (if you want to call it that) is not spending time with their children. Or selfishly depriving them of your presence. Putting yourself in the kind of danger base-jumping provides is in my opinion to much risk, but there are plenty of people like me who like Steve said, drive down the freeway at 80 with bald tires. That’s why I say the concept of risk is subjective.

  9. “Do mothers and fathers view risk differently? Or is that a complete generalization?” Interestingly enough, this conundrum seems to explode well out of the gender context into a societal one when you examine the recent events in Scarsdale, NY and the mom who was arrested for making her surly cherubs get out of the car and walk home after (what I would imagine) was one of those particularly challenging, “Mo-om! She just TOUCHED me!” “No, I didn’t!” type car rides. And this mom is a lawyer, for goodness sake.

    I enjoyed the article Simon Geering shared because the dichotomy between “Risk Taker” and “Mother” seems so pronounced to some, and less so for others. As for me, I lean more toward Hilaree O’Neill’s philosophy that “The time I take for myself to be in the mountains makes me a better mom.” And since bread-winning, lawyer moms are getting locked up for “tough love” in the poshest enclaves in the land—who is up for defining what a “good mom” looks like today? Yeah….I didn’t think so. As a mom, you know when you are on—and you know when you miss the mark—and I know that some time running talus, climbing, zipping through the forest on my hard-tail, walking in the woods at night, dodging Rocky Mountain lightning storms, letting kids belay me, traveling with Parasites I Haven’t Met Yet, surfing (new development), and just letting my kids see me limping, bleeding, sopping wet, or puking (but still smiling, damnit!) makes ME a better mom…and a believer in perceived versus inherent risks.

    Shane McConkey, as an expert and visionary in his field, knew the inherent risks, mitigated them through his planning, preparation and fitness, and—in the end–was willing to accept them. Does that make it any easier on his family? No. But there are people who die on the toilet. Moms die and dads die…many of them from NOT being outside. Healthy risk taking is not only necessary, it is ESSENTIAL for brain development in our species. But, as the helmet thread demonstrates, it really IS amazing when you read “Accidents In North American Mountaineering” how many people just mush their brains up on stuff because they chose not to protect their melon. (So, logically, you HAVE to take risks to grow yourself a top notch brain…but you potentially waste your new-found functionality that you could/can pass onto your own spawn when you choose NOT to wear a brain bucket. As my four year old would say, “That is just silly.”)

    I would love to further digress on Simon’s wondering of what “level of risk is acceptable to expose children to when they are participating in outdoor activities, and at what point the young person should be allowed some say in that decision…At what point does someone become able to assess risk for themselves?” (possibly because I’m That Mother Who Let Her Child Fall at the Playground and Break His Femur and Didn’t Sue Someone)—and, frankly, it ties right in with this risk-taker gender debate—because the latest brain research out there says our brains aren’t completely “cooked” (and able to make complete, logical decisions regarding risk) until our early-mid twenties (ladies) and mid-upper twenties (gents). I would guess, however, that the average age of parents in this forum is slightly older than the national average (24.9 for mothers)—thus making the biological models for risk taking behaviors somewhat moot.

    So the question remains, as a mother do I continue to take the same type of inherent risks as I did before I was a parent? This brings us full circle and back to a topic parents agonize about constantly in a different context, to the Quantity vs. Quality debate. And this is my answer:

    Do I still get the same number of days in the backcountry post-motherhood as pre-motherhood? No. Did I get the same number of days in the backcountry post-matrimony, post-full-time job, post-lease-agreements, et. al as I did when I was single? Hell no. The difference is this: When I get out there now, I don’t screw around, miss weather windows, nurse hangovers (unless you call the first year sans sleep one long-ass hangover), or linger by the fire—if I’m out, I’m on it–inherent risks and all. If I’m not, I operate from the “You Get To Know Things Better When They Go By Slow” philosophy of backcountry meanders…which works out pretty well when it’s your kids you are out there getting to know.

    • You bring up some interesting topics. It would be intriguing to tackle a question about exposing children to risk. I wonder if fear is an acceptable indicator, or weather sometimes you have to help your children over come fears by embracing challenge. Maybe Steve would weigh in with some of his City of Rock’s stories — I’ve heard he’s got some good ones.

      Other than that, here’s to catching weather windows and getting after it.

      • Steve says:

        City of Rocks stories? Where to begin? Caleb deciding 80 feet up a rock face that he didn’t want to go up or down? Not just deciding, but screaming his lungs out, right across from the parking lot. Or our friends’ daughter getting a bloody nose at almost the same spot a couple years later and the nice shirtless man soloing up with a towel. Or the horrified parents watching us let our kids scramble all over the rocks when our only warning was “keep your helmet on”.

        I once watched one of my kids hurt himself, and did nothing about it. He was balancing on a shaky horizontal branch just off the ground. I saw him get ready to jump, and you know what I knew then – that the force of his jump would shoot the branch backwards and he’d fall on his face. But what should I do? Should I stop him and explain Sir Isaac Newton to him and caution him to always make sure the branch is stable or should I let him learn by experiencing physics and gravity on his own in a relatively safe environment? That’s the way we all learn, we make mistakes and we try not to make them again. My goal as a parent is to allow that kind of growth without letting them get into too much trouble.

    • Nathan(8), Ella(2), Shane & Annie(35) says:

      Honestly, I can’t say it any better than that…I had to read your comment twice just to take it all in. Thanks…

  10. ck1 says:

    A truly amazing outdoor parent and author Mark Jenkins speaks about what he calls CCL. CCL is conditional comfort level. It has to do with how comfortable you are within your current conditions. For example, spending the night in a tent during a thunderstorm has relatively low risks, so to me, the CCL for that activity is low, however, my 5 year old daughter would have a much higher CCL for that same activity. It’s judging the perceived risk vs. the real risk. While it isn’t foolproof or scientifically based, the idea of the conditional comfort level hasn’t left my mind since becoming a parent.

    It’s perceived risk vs. actual risk

  11. Steve says:

    I think the CCL idea accurately expresses the way many of us FEEL about risk. I don’t think it reflects the reals risks very well though. I love Mark Jenkins’ writing, he’s gone to some amazing places and done some incredible stuff. But I think that you’d have to say that there are some uncontrolable hazards with say trekking through lawless Afganistan. If someone decides to use you for target practice in an area of the world known for that sort of thing, it doesn’t matter how comfortable you previously were with the situation. It’s similar to the statistic that most avalanche victims have had some training. Their higher comfort level with potentially dangerous conditions allowed them to get into a situation that a less-comfortable person might have avoided.

    So part of me thinks that for a given activity there is a given hazard level, say 5. I’m pretty comfortable and experienced so I might think it’s really 2, but my daughter is new to it so she thinks it’s a 10. But our feelings don’t change the fact that it is indeed 5. On the other hand, if I’m comfortable and experienced I might move faster, make better decisions unconsciously, etc. which actually decreases the hazard level.

    Good thoughts, thanks for posting.

  12. ck1 says:

    I agree with you Steve. I was thinking the other day of an example. A quick hike down Bright Angel Trail to the 1st rest house is a rather risk free endeavor in my eyes, perhaps a 2 during good weather. However, the first venture to the same location with my 5 year old raises the risk level to an 8 or 10! CCL can change!

    Enjoying this website a great deal, thank you all.

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