Feature Friday: Risky Business

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Last summer Hillary Allen was on top of the world. More specifically, she was on top of the rankings of the prestigious Skyrunning World Series. The elite mountain runner had fully committed to a season of competition in Europe, and her commitment was paying off. She had but one more race to go before packing her bags and heading home to Boulder, Colorado, and her work as a college science professor. The last race on her itinerary, The Hamperokken Sky Race in Norway, founded by former Skyrunning champions Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg, was one of the most extreme on the circuit.

Hillary Allen at The Rut 50K, Montana, en route to second place in 2015.

Although she was riding the high of a successful season, Allen says the fatigue of constant travel and competition was catching up with her.

“I was still psyching myself up because it was a race, but I was lacking motivation,” says Allen. “I told myself I could just go out there and enjoy it.”

For those who know Allen, though, when she enjoys a race she usually wins, sets a course record or at the least earns a spot on the podium.  True to form, while “having fun,” Allen had moved her way into third place and was ascending toward the course’s high point along a steep and technical ridge.

Abruptly, the fun ended.

The specifics are still unclear, due to a lack of eyewitnesses and Allen’s blurry recollection of the events. But she does remember one feeling quite clearly.

“All of a sudden it felt like a rug pulled out from under me and the horizon was turning upside down,” says Allen. “Before I knew it, I was just falling.”

She fell a horrifying 150 feet before stopping on a pile of jagged rocks below. After other racers and event organizers came to her aid, she was airlifted to a nearby hospital to be stabilized and tended to. Allen is the first to state that she is lucky to be alive, though she did sustain multiple significant injuries including two broken arms, two broken vertebrae in her back, two broken ribs, a popped ligament in her right foot, multiple severe lacerations and a sprained left ankle.

After 10 days in the hospital, Allen made the tough flight home to the United States to begin her long road to recovery.

Allan being attended to after her 150-foot fall

Growing Risks

Risk is something we rarely discuss in the trail-running community. And why should we? We just put on running shoes, go play in our favorite wild open spaces and then come home. We are not subjecting ourselves to the same hazards that rock climbers, mountaineers, backcountry skiers and mountain bikers do. Right? With this mindset it’s easy to consider Allen’s fall as a freak accident or an isolated instance. However, in recent memory, there have been a string of high-profile accidents involving elite mountain runners as well as numerous other incidents that may have popped up on your social-media feeds (such as the five deaths last summer on Colorado’s Capitol Peak, one of the state’s most popular 14ers).

Of course, tragedies in the mountains are not a new occurrence. For centuries, rugged and wild landscapes have enchanted humans into their complex and mysterious folds. There, humans have learned the hard way how treacherous these landscapes can be. We go to the mountains because we seek the peace and serenity they offer. However, amidst the awe-inspiring beauty, we are exposed and vulnerable to the challenges and risk inherent in mountain travel. As trail running grows and the sharp end of our sport evolves into something requiring a much more diverse skill set to stay safe, it’s imperative that we realize the risks and adjust accordingly to come home in one piece.

With Great Fitness Comes Great Responsibility

I’d like to share a secret with you. We trail runners have a superpower. Equipped with nothing more than powerful lungs and inexhaustible legs, we can go where few have gone before in just a fraction of the time. Fitness is our super power, and it’s a wonderful gift to explore the mountains in such a simple and efficient way. But as aerobic superheroes, we must face the reality that with great fitness comes great responsibility—a responsibility to not just transport our body into the hills under our own power, but also to bring along the skills, tools and knowledge required for safe travel.

Accomplished Canadian mountain runner, Adam Campbell, who survived a near-fatal fall off of a technical ridge in the summer of 2016 (see “A Long, Hard Road Back to Hardrock,” for the full story) fully agrees.

“What we sometimes call ‘mountain running’ is straight up soloing,” says Campbell. “The fact that we are doing it in running shoes, often sweaty and with very little, if any, gear, makes it that much more dangerous. [W]e can move quite fast, we can get ourselves out there, away from easy help, very quickly. If something goes wrong, then we can be several hours away from rescue.”

Drew Hardesty, who works as an avalanche forecaster in Utah in the winters and a climbing ranger in Teton National Park in the summers, had been described to me as a risk philosopher who could speak well to this issue. Leaving no room for doubt, he began our conversation by quoting a dead author.

“It’s like Hemingway said, ‘There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountain climbing. The rest are merely games.’” Hardesty went on to explain,

“The consequences are real. There is so much joy and simplicity in mountain running. You just have shoes, shorts and a couple-hundred calories. I understand that. However, in mountain running, there is no room for error.

“You often don’t have gear, a partner or a way to communicate with the outside world if you are deep in the mountains. If something goes wrong, you only have your wits and a little food and water. In the government, we are always discussing the need for personal protective equipment or PPE. Mountain runners don’t really have any PPE.”

Beyond bringing the right gear to limit your risk exposure in the mountains, it is important to also develop the proper skills and judgment for safe and efficient mountain travel. Renowned alpinist and mountain guide Will Gadd touched on this exact sentiment in a recent post on his blog.

“Know what you don’t know. It doesn’t matter if you can run a six-minute mile,” Gadd stated, “if you don’t know how to read a glacier to get to your climb.”

While many of us may not be crossing a glacier anytime soon, this sentiment hits on a central issue. To travel safely in a complex and consequential mountain landscape, we must rely on much more than our fitness to stay safe.

Hardesty calls it a fractionalization of expertise.

“It’s a fun term to use in the bar,” he says, “But essentially it’s the idea of bringing a singular expertise into a new realm. When trail running evolves into mountain running, you haven’t developed the judgment or skills yet because you lack the experience.”

Allen at Norway’s Tromsø Skyrace, just minutes before her horrific fall from the ridgeline.

Risk Management 101

Risks are inherent not just in trail running, but in everything we do. And every day, we are subconsciously practicing our risk-management skills. To effectively manage risk, we account for two factors—probability and consequence. Risk lies directly at the intersection of these two metrics. It’s a simple equation really.

Understanding ourselves and accounting for the imperfections of human nature, however, is much more difficult. Yes, we humans have a high capacity to complicate things. We bring emotions, subconscious motives and an incomplete understanding of consequences into our decision-making matrix. As our desire to travel in complex mountain terrain increases, it’s important to gain an awareness of certain influences that can impair our judgment in precarious situations.

Heuristic Traps

To better understand what influences our decision making, trail and mountain runners can steal a page or two from groups who have a deeper and more complex history with risk in the mountains. We need look no further than to the backcountry-skiing community, where the objective hazard of avalanches has elevated the discussion of risk in the mountains to a much higher level.

In 2002, avalanche educator and researcher Ian McCammon reviewed 715 avalanche accidents, looking for common motives that negatively influenced the judgment of the avalanche victims. In his research he identified six “human factors” he described as “heuristic traps” that lead to these accidents in the face of clear signs of danger:

Familiarity—refers to an individual’s use of past experiences to make decisions within current situations in familiar terrain.

Acceptance—represents the tendency of individuals to engage in activities they feel will be approved by their peers or those whom they hope to impress.

Consistency—is the propensity for someone to stick with prearranged decisions regardless of the risk.

Expert halo—describes how individuals in a group may rely on the decisions of those perceived to have more experience, skill, knowledge or assertion (i.e., perceived experts).

Scarcity—is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them, especially to a competitor.

Social facilitation—is someone’s tendency to decrease or increase the amount of risk he or she is willing to undertake depending on the presence of other group members.

Mountain running takes on a new gravity on committing high-country ridges.

Naturally, these heuristic traps are not contained to making decisions in avalanche terrain. They are pervasive in all that we do, such as risks we take while driving, with our finances, our relationships and, of course, while running in the mountains.

Campbell agrees that these subconscious motives may have precipitated his accident.

“Like a lot of athletes, I have a healthy ego and I think that played a part in my accident,” says Campbell, who was attempting the traverse with fellow elite mountain runners Nick Elson and Dakota Jones.

“I was moving a bit slower than Nick and Dakota through the early hours. I was struggling a bit to keep up with them and rather than speak up and ask them to slow down … I just put my head down and moved as fast as I could. Because I was rushing, I wasn’t checking to make sure that I had solid feet at all times.

“Basically everything in the alpine comes down to having solid feet. If I had solid feet, I would likely not have tumbled when I pulled out a big loose block. Also, if I had had enough self-confidence to speak up and ask them to slow down a bit, then perhaps I would have been able to be a bit more careful. So having solid communication and solid feet could have changed the outcome for me.”

Also, rewinding Allen’s accident in Norway, the scarcity heuristic comes to mind. Competitors are all vying for the scarce resource of standing on the podium.

“It ups the ante, if people are in groups or in a competition,” says Allen. “We are accepting more risk. And just because we are in a race doesn’t mean Mother Nature is going to put herself on pause. The risks are still there.”

Moreover, many may recall legendary trail and mountain runner Dave Mackey’s 2015 accident while running on his home trails in Boulder, Colorado. Mackey’s lower leg was crushed by a boulder that gave way while he was scrambling along a ridge (he later had the leg amputated). In an article in this publication (see “The Mending of Mackey,” Issue 106, September 2015) highlighting the accident, the familiarity heuristic was summoned when Mackey recounted, “I’ve stepped on that rock hundreds of times.”

Though it’s important to understand that these heuristic traps exist, the real magic happens when we become aware of which traps we have a higher propensity of falling into ourselves. I am often guilty of the consistency heuristic. I make plans, and, damnit, I want to stick to them. Regardless of the potential risks and hazards I encounter, with tunnel vision and blinders on, I put my head down and stubbornly grind away toward my objective. This may be considered a strength during an ultramarathon, but can also be considered a liability if I’m grinding away amidst a growing storm, deteriorating conditions or other increasing hazards.

We can all fall into these traps. And the more aware we can become of these patterns, the better chance we will have of breaking them when the risks begin to outweigh the rewards.

It was 15 years ago when McCammon initially researched and wrote about heuristic traps, and social media was nowhere near as pervasive in our lives. Now though, many of those traps coalesce under the umbrella of social media.

“Everyone is supposed to send it all the time, but not enough people are talking about the risk,” says Allen. “With Kilian [Jornet], for example, people see what he does and think they too can summit Mount Blanc in shorts.”

Drew Hardesty concurs, adding, “What folks don’t see is all the work and preparation that goes on behind the scenes. I don’t think that preparation and adventure need to be incompatible.”

Skills and Tools

So what kind of preparation is necessary to go on the running adventures we all love? When alpinist and mountain runner Gadd listed all the things necessary to be a better and safer alpine climber on his blog, he intentionally ranked “fitness” low on his list. Why?

“Fitness is number 10 on this list, but most people would put it first,” he stated. “Fitness is good, but … what’s more important than fitness is skill. Fitness good. Skills first.”

Responding to a question about how his relationship to risk has changed since his accident, Campbell says, “What has changed is my understanding of my competence. Competence reduces the odds of the gamble and changes the nature of the risk you’re taking. It gives you a bigger bag of tricks. So knowing how competent you are, or aren’t, can allow you to take appropriate risks.”

In addition to developing skills, the right tools (or PPE) can be extremely valuable in the event of an accident. One such tool is a satellite-enabled communication device such as a Spot Tracker, Garmin inReach or satellite phone (see trailrunnermag.com/gear/accessories/gps-trackers-satellite-safety-devices.html). These tools can send messages when you are out of cell range. And just like an avalanche beacon or bear spray, they fall into the hope-to-never-use-but-may-save-your-life category. Allen says she will begin using a tool like this on her longer outings in the future, but was quick to point out that, “having the proper tools and being more prepared doesn’t eliminate the risks.”

The Two Greatest Risks in Life

Last, do not strap yourself to the mast of the ship, as Odysseus did to resist the sirens’ call luring him into treacherous waters. Trying to avoid all risk is a fool’s errand. John Muir did not resist, and we too must go when the mountains call, and go with a healthy respect for the risks inherent in mountain travel. Because, if you are like me, you value risk in your life. After all, it is a growth point for many of us, and a catalyst to building character.

Even if you will not be free soloing a technical ridge, crossing a glacier in your running shoes or scaling a remote alpine peak in a faraway land any time soon, it is important to gain a better awareness of the dangers we face when we leave the trailhead and seek the freedom of the hills.

“The two greatest risks in life are risking too little, and risking too much,” says Hardesty. It’s a perplexing paradox. And it reminds us that life itself is a knife-edge ridge, an act of balance. So, go on. Make sure you have solid footing, choose the right partners, bring proper tools, be prepared, progress slowly and enjoy the ride.

Mike Foote is an accomplished mountain runner and The North Face Athlete who lives in Missoula, Montana. As his age grows, his risk tolerance shrinks.

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