Man hiking along snowy ridge, Silver Peak, Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Cascade Mountains, Washington
Hiking along snowy ridge, Silver Peak, Cascade Mountains, Washington

As outdoor enthusiasts, we are often exposed to risk of physical disaster, whether from falling, drowning, avalanche, hypothermia, or a myriad of other potential fates.  Whether mountaineering, back-country skiing, backpacking, snowshoeing, kayaking or whatever, we are subject to risk.

I find that this is even the case with outdoor photography, where I am often out alone and sometimes pushing the boundaries a little to get just the right angle for a shot.  “If I could just scramble down this steep slippery gully then I could get a better angle on that waterfall.”

I would like to share with you an approach I use to manage risk in my outdoor pursuits.  It is a simple approach that I learned from a risk management seminar presented by John Graham.  John Graham was a US diplomat with assignments including Libya; was on the first and never repeated assent of the north wall of Mt. McKinley; is a speaker on outdoor leadership and risk management; and is President of the The Giraffe Hero’s Project.  The Giraffe Project is a nonprofit that “honors the risk-takers, people who are largely unknown, people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good, in the US and around the world.”

One approach to risk management that John teaches is to simply imagine that you are carrying a little “warning panel” around with you.  The warning panel has yellow and red lights on it that illuminate when new threats or risks arise.

The idea is that you use this simple mechanism to help you think about and assess the level of risk you are exposed to.  As you go through your activity, you ask yourself, what’s going on?  does that turn on a new light?  how many lights are illuminated on my warning panel?  should I continue, re-plan what I am doing, or turn back?

This basic principle is obviously rooted in how we use caution and warning lights in many other areas of our lives, from the dash-board of your car, to the flight deck of an airplane, to a control panel in an industrial plant.  For us outdoor adventurer’s, why not consider an imaginary warning panel?

I find it to be a very simple and useful tool to use.  Let me illustrate with an example.

The other day, I had planned to hike up to Hidden Lake Lookout in Washington’s North Cascades to do some photography.  The idea was to hike up there; photograph Hidden Lake, the lookout and the surrounding mountain scenery at sunset; spend the night in the lookout; photograph some more at sunrise; and hike out the second day.

I left on a mid-October Friday, alone.  I quickly ascend the trail from 3700 feet to 5400 feet in about an hour.  Here, I hit 3 inches of fresh snow on the ground, with some footprints through it.  Continuing along, the snow deepens to 12 inches, the footprints are gone and the trail becomes pretty well obscured.  At this point, I’m seeing two yellow lights on my warning panel:  one for being alone in the back-country when/where I am not likely to see any other people, and a second one for being there alone in snowy conditions that can obscure navigation in case wind-blown snow covers my tracks, fog rolls in to create whiteout conditions, or more snow falls.  This navigation issue could be a red light, but I am confident in my backcountry navigation skills and am carrying redundant navigation aids with me (map, compass, altimeter watch, smart phone with GPS and cached digital map, extra smart phone battery).

40 minutes of hiking later, I’m in 9-18 inches of snow, the trail is gone and my legs are starting to get tired.  I have a bad habit of hiking too fast when alone and the deep snow really take it out of me.  Another 2.5 hours of wading through snow, at 3:45 pm, my legs are exhausted (3rd yellow light), but I finally got to a point where I could see most of the general route to my destination.  I could see the terrain to a pass and I could see the lookout atop the peak beyond the pass.  But the route between me and the pass was a maze of jumbled buttresses and little cliff bands with the route through it completely buried.  Further, the off-trail scramble between the pass and the lookout was not visible, presumably hidden on the other side of a ridge.

At this point, I have a choice:  turn back with enough remaining daylight to be back at the trail head before sunset, or continue upward.  If I continue, would I have the strength and time to make it to the lookout before dark?  I had a -25F sleeping bag and a bivouac bag with me, so I could survive the night pretty much anywhere (the weather report called for temperatures just below freezing that night with clearing sky).  But the “point of no return” time-of-day is worth a 4th yellow light.

Now, taking stock of my supplies, I add another yellow or maybe even a red light since I have no stove and only about 1 quart of water (though plenty of food) left to get through the night and back down to the car the next morning.

So four or five yellow warning lights plus a red … hmm.

In the end, I decided to turn around.  Partly due to the risks, partly due to the distant call of a hamburger down in Marblemount, and also because I didn’t like the prospects of having to still get to the lookout, get through the night, probably still have exhausted legs on which to have to hike all the way out the next morning and because my prospects of having enough energy to make any good photos (my primary mission) was waning.  So I hiked out, had that burger, drove to Washington Pass and got some good photos there the next morning.

Man in alpine mountains sitting on backpack for protection during lightning storm, Bailey Range, Olympic Mountains, Washington
Man in alpine mountains sitting on backpack for protection during lightning storm, Bailey Range, Olympic Mountains, Washington

Now my evaluation of what conditions call for a yellow light or a red light, and how many yellow or red lights I am comfortable with, are solely up to me.  For me, 3 or 4 yellow lights equal a red light, and maybe anything over two red lights says it’s probably time to change plans.  But if you choose to use this tool, you will need to feel these things out for yourself.  Just try to be realistic and honest with yourself as you go.

But the key here is to use this simple tool to cause you to:

  1. Be thinking about conditions and events going on around you and assessing their risks.
  2. Maintaining awareness of the overall accumulated level of risk you are exposed to as your adventure unfolds.
  3. Be asking yourself whether there are actions you should take to change the situation (i.e. “What action could I take to extinguish one or two of those pesky warning lights?”).
  4. Recognize when there is too much risk to continue on.

I hope you consider this simple mechanism in your outdoor adventures.  Perhaps it might even be useful in other aspects of life as well.

Be safe out there,

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