+1, -1 & 0. Risk assessment for outdoor enthusiasts

For anyone who is involved in decision making in mountain conditions and for the  members of different rescue teams.

These people are very often mountain guides, instructors, expedition leaders, rescue team members and others, who are in the position to take the leading role in a group and are expected or forced to make decisions with a high level of responsibility.

For all of us, the mountain is a lot more than a culmination of aesthetic categories. More than a workplace, more than a place to meet with friends or a mythical force. The mountain is everything for us, a complex allegory of the life we chose and the way we are living it. Also, in the mountain there’s everything – the idea is to enjoy as much as we wish, while avoiding the situations leading to unpleasant results. Avoiding those situations is possible by making adequate decisions on time and without compromises! In time we are getting used to the compromises, we are surrounded by them – numerous times our friends (and we as well) did what we should not… and what’s the result? Nothing special happened back then. But with time, we start paying our debts, the bartender yells at us that once or twice we can get away with it but not always, not today. Today everybody pays their bills!

A perfect day, Polezhan, Pirin

The model:

Perfection is a state (more often it is a product) where nothing is in excess and nothing is missing/deficient. It is something “just the right size’’ or ‘’just enough” and it should not be changed. Otherwise it could break down. Perfection is 0. However, this state is a fragile one… With 0’s, nothing comes your way and nothing is missing, and nothing is in excess, e.g. most often a change in this state is a change leading to a deficit. Deficiency is a bad thing, we only realize that when we need something and it is not present. For example, you are going out on a nice winter day and off you go without a second pair of gloves, you do not need them. You are at 0, everything is “just enough”. You do not need a second pair of gloves until you need them – the weather turns worse, the hike grows longer, you start shivering with cold… The lack of these said pair of gloves brings you to -1.

HGSS (Croatian Mountain Rescue Service) training – Omiš, Croatia, 2018

-1 is a deficit, such that it does not concern the lack of gloves or equipment as much as it concerns the lack of luck. Getting on snowy terrain that you reasonably consider unstable due to the risk of an avalanche puts you in a state of deficit, lack of luck. Developing such a situation further will be of no surprise for anyone but sometimes one just gets away with it, more often does not. In fact, no matter what is happening, the important thing is that you know what could happen. Transportation of a victim with a mild injury out of a canyon while the transportation itself if technically demanding but too fast results in -1. There is no point in hurrying, this will only open a variety of new risks and potential situations. Likewise, proceeding with entering a cave where the pit is expected to be a little bit wet but we find a waterfall instead, results in -1. It could be a success, but even a minor issue with the equipment, one’s skills, or the state of the speleologist could lead to a serious drama. This is the type of a risk that is not worth it – it is too big, too terrifying… unpredictable..

Waterfall at -268 m, Kita Gaćešina, Croatia

Indeed, +1 is that state we aim to achieve. In this case the safety comes from a proactive, preliminary assessment and precautions that are already taken before any situation happens, e.g. we are ready or we have “a reserve” enough to be able to face a bad situation. We have taken into account situations that are most likely to happen. Here our best companions are: the context, our experience and an adequate evaluation. When we think of risks in the mountains, most often we need to beware of: getting lost, exhausted, freezing, falling from a height, getting hit by a falling object, an avalanche, hypothermia, trauma, equipment issues, inexperienced participants, or a communication problem. Context, by all means, is the king here, it should define what is to be careful of, experience is to give a hint of what could happen, and the adequate assessment – how to reach straight to +1. An example of +1 is good planning and organization, e.g. information gathered in advance that concerns the area, route, place of interest, situation, team, etc. Such information and its proper analysis and implementation are priceless.

Evaluation of the avalanche risk, Cvrsnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Notwithstanding the risks and the hazards in the mountains, the risk assessment is the mechanism that provides us with the best of chances. An inadequate person could bring you down from +100 to -1 in just a couple of seconds, while a timely decision based on experience and analysis can optimize or at least keep under control an unwanted situation.

Author: Tsvetan Kosturkov
Photos: Marin Glusevic

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