Will Gadd
Credit: Redbull Content Pool

I find adventuring in the wild deeply fulfilling.

The reasons why have changed with the seasons, decades and geography of my life, but amidst all this change, my love for the unconfined world is a constant. In the words of one of Canada’s most inspiring photographers, David McColm, “There’s just something wonderful about watching the universe unfold in front of me.” Yes. The problem is, while the great outdoors can lift many of us to great heights—literally and mentally—it can also bite. Hard.

I’ve been doing “serious” mountain sports for more than 35 years. I’ve bled a lot, but probably more from mosquito bites than from traumatic injuries. My worst accidents mostly involve toboggans in elementary school and volleyball and basketball in high school. But I’ve seen many accidents in the mountains over the last four decades, and lately I’ve started to wonder what separates those of us who injure ourselves (or die) from those of us who don’t. And there are some patterns. I’ve been discussing these patterns with friends who are guides, paddlers, mountain bikers and skiers, and I’m interested in the common themes and experiences. 

Some rare accidents do “just happen,” but most happen in a long chain of factors. The temptation is to look for ironclad systems and protocols to prevent accidents, but it’s not usually system failures that lead directly to accidents. Bike forks come off and anchors fail, but the usual causes are anchored firmly inside our heads. Those who tend to get seriously injured or die usually have a long string of less-serious incidents beforehand—little incidents, or big “that was close” situations, or even, “wow, nothing happened, but that could have been bad.” These are situations with low margins.

By “margin,” I mean some degree of ability to handle the unexpected, or the distance from serious danger. If you’re 10 metres from shore in a warm lake on an August day and everyone with you can swim, well, then having five kids, three adults and two dogs in an ancient canoe is, perhaps, just fine—and could be really fun, even if the systems are massively overloaded. But if you’re out in the middle of the lake in April with two inexperienced adults and suddenly the canoe dumps due to big waves and an exciting fish on the line, then there’s very little margin and everyone may die. Knowing how much margin you have in any given situation is critical, and often independent of the systems in the activity. 

Those who can accurately assess how much margin they have—and travel with an appropriate margin—are good partners in the outdoors. The person who says, “Never overload a canoe, that’s dangerous!” while 10 metres from shore on a warm day is a pain in the ass, and more importantly, only sees the systems (the overloaded canoe, dogs), not the margin (warm day, good swimmers, big fun). The person who misses the dangers of canoeing in April but sees a “safe” system (two people, load in accordance with the canoe’s placard, lifejackets, spare paddle, fire-starter kit) is more dangerous to me, because they are not recognizing the thin safety margins.

My own margin is on a slider. I have taken huge risks knowing I was taking them, and I fully committed to that risk. In doing so, I placed very high value on a successful outcome, and devalued everything else in my life—occasionally including life itself. This is inexcusable to some people, and I respect that view, but I accepted a bad outcome knowingly, and knew the margins intimately. The worst accidents I’ve seen all involved situations where the participants either didn’t know the margins or deliberately shaved them to nothing. Those who had accidents in the former situations often didn’t need to, while those in the “knew it and went for it” category get little sympathy from me. Interestingly, those who shave the systems to nothing often also didn’t need to, but chose to do so anyway. These are the people who tend to have serious “adventures” every time they go outside. Only push when you need to. Going as fast as possible in dangerous terrain when you have unlimited time is not a good application of low margin, high-risk movement.

The safety margin is different for everyone in every situation. Someone paddling a class VI drop who has an extreme skill and experience level may be far safer than a novice floating down a fast-moving but flat river with sweepers everywhere. The class VI paddler knows his margin and has some room to manoeuvre; the novice doesn’t know his margin, and is one fallen tree away from a bad incident. Just as seemingly solid systems do not equate to safety, the hazard level of any environment is often more dependent on the people in that environment than the environment itself.

I try to leave a little more margin than I think I need in all my activities, with the understanding that I don’t have perfect judgment. Those who travel with me in the mountains for the first time are often surprised by how willing I am to turn around, or that I want a rope for a risky traverse, or that I don’t like the snow or weather conditions and run away. I also deliberately add to my margin whenever doing so actually improves the safety, not just so it makes me feel better about doing something with high consequences. Having a fire-starter kit does not improve my safety on an alpine climb; it just slows me down in an environment where speed is safety. An extra ice screw at the anchor while my partner is coming up adds safety for the leader in a high-impact fall and costs nothing in time.

Another common theme in outdoor safety is “presence of mind.” I previously detested the whole hippie “be present, man” thinking as meaningless jargon, but it actually has a lot of merit. If I’m guiding and I approach a section with a guest that has a big hazard (if they fall down I need to be able to stop them, but it’s in difficult terrain) then I usually slow things down and say something like, “Super flat feet on your crampons, quarter-speed, let’s pay attention, this part is real.” I don’t want to terrify them, but I do want them totally switched-on and present, focusing on moving solidly and slowly. Last week, I crashed my mountain bike hard enough to bruise my face; I wasn’t thinking about mountain biking despite being on a steep section of trail, I was spacing out about a presentation I was to give that night. On risk. It would have been funny, if it didn’t hurt so much. Pay attention when it matters.

The final common denominator in my loose discussions, often with beer, was recognizing change, especially in “benign” environments. The wind picking up a little on the lake, the upwind storm-cloud that you can just barely see over the ridge, the long period of cold weather rotting the snowpack. If we don’t see those changes, then we don’t know our margins. If we can’t understand a situation, then we can’t operate in it safely, and we need to pull way back. I’m very conservative in new environments because I don’t know my margins. 

People may see me climbing Niagara Falls and think, “Total nut case!” I have decades of experience with water and ice. It’s still risky, but I have a big margin. I am totally switched on to the climb and attuned to any changes (if the power plant at the top of Niagara stopped taking water for power generation, then the water level could rise very suddenly, drowning me and my team if we don’t get out of the way). 

I hesitated to write this article because I have a superstition and distrust of ever claiming to be “safe.” I believe that mild paranoia is appropriate most of the time, and I don’t want to lose that margin, or rationalize real hazards. But I think that’s often the case with outdoor sports—a sort of “see no evil, so it’s not there” attitude. As with anything in life, looking at the problems directly and figuring out how to solve them will lead to more margin. And maybe that younger kid in the canoe should have her lifejacket tightened up a bit—it rarely hurts to have more margin, even though she is a strong swimmer and we’re close to shore... 

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.

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