What is Judgment?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, judgment is “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.” In the backcountry that usually equates to knowing when to forge ahead and when to turn around. Having good judgment might help us decide when the risk is just far too greater than the reward. Judgment helps distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The adventure will be here tomorrow, and our judgment can help us return another day to take it on.
How do you gain judgment without getting yourself killed in the process? Look at any aging adventurer and he or she will tell you about the time they almost died, or the time their climbing/skiing/parachuting comrade nearly bought the farm, or the time when, at the last minute, they couldn’t join their friends for a trip and someone got killed in an avalanche. It could have been them.
Experiences such as these–if we live through them–give us the ability to notice risk. We gain judgment by sheer proximity to death. The closer we get, the more humble and cautious we become. But then there’s the opposite effect. Being close to death can make us feel immune. Perhaps its like sugar to a diabetic, slowing them down rather than hyping them up. Maybe those that feel immune to death in the midst of it lack some important hormone, like insulin or humility.
Where Does Judgment Come From?
As a ski patroller, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents; some ending in injury, others ending in death. Does this lend me judgment? I think it has. Instead of feeling like I’ve cheated death and won again, I marvel that there but for the grace of God go I. This season I felt that especially, with the loss of such luminaries as Jamie Pierre and Sarah Burke and friends taken in the avalanche at Stevens Pass.
When I was very young, I thought I could conquer the world. I was pretty sure that by age 20 I would be skiing Everest on a weekly basis. Give me a mountain, and I would ski it. Give me a river, and I would kayak it. Like any teenager I was oblivious to risk, and ready to take on the world. I was immune to judgment.
Then I developed Type 1 Diabetes, and all that changed. The first doctor I went to wasn’t an endocrinologist and didn’t know much about the disease. When I asked if it would kill me, he sighed. “While the threat of immediate death is controllable, diabetes does lead to a myriad of other complications.” He was kind enough to list them for me–heart disease, blindness, amputations. I imagined myself in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to see and really hankering for a bag of caramel corn. For the first time in my life I saw my own death. I grew humble in about fifteen minutes.
While living with a disease like T1D might temper one’s ability to take risks, it also taught me judgment. I was no longer immune. If I was going to work this hard to stay alive, I didn’t want to just throw it away in a risky ski descent. Not that I haven’t taken risks. I have. But I’ve also learned to listen–to really listen–to my fear. Fear is a gift reminding us that at the heart of it we want to live.
How do we develop judgment?
I’m not sure there is a single path to gaining the knowledge of when to go and when to retreat. No GPS unit worn on our sleeve can worn us when the risk is too high. No amount of gear, not an Avalung pack or an Airbag System or Avalanche Transceiver will grant us immunity to slides. Sure, we take classes and sharpen our skills, but when the risk gets too high, more often than not we go anyway. A few get caught, but many don’t. They can mistake luck for judgment, and it isn’t the same at all. Years of accumulated luck will eventually catch up with a person.
Judgment isn’t about years so much as it about experience. The more experience we carry with us–being sure to carefully glean the lessons–the more likely we are to make it back home. Because isn’t that the goal? Willi Unsoeld said it best when considering why he didn’t just stay in the wilderness.
Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized. -Willi Unsoeld
Often, we gain judgment through close calls. There’s nothing like a heart-to-heart with the Grim Reaper to bring about some calculated decision-making. What about you? How have you gained judgment in order to keep returning to the adventure you love?