Getting Out Alive


What is Judgment?

Teaching Judgment at Stevens Pas

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.

Some day I was going to ski Everest

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?

Stevens Pass Memorial

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?

7 responses »

  1. Insightful post, Kim! Many climbers who’ve died on Everest ignored warning signs that it was time to turn around. I gave a talk last night in which I reflected on this tension between what we want and what we need. In any good story – like yours, which I’m reading – the protagonist faces obstacles to what he or she wants, then changes course to deal with those obstacles. This is how the character grows. Obstacles shape us into better people if we let them. Like the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

  2. I’ve thought about this idea in the context of trying to pass along wisdom to my children about risk. My older step-son taught me that some people need to develop judgement as you suggest, by doing, by making mistakes and learning from them. Insightful post. Thanks for sharing, especially your adorable kidlet ski pass.

  3. Kim – I’ve had to let this post linger for a week to be able to come back and comment and I still feel like I’m lost for words. You cracked open a very large can of worms, and one I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the past year.

    I’ve been mountaineering for about seven years now, and in the last few years I started tackling some rather large objectives with my climbing partners here it the Canadian Rockies. Not just large objectives, but technical ones that involved a fair amount of risk. Some, like Mt. Assiniboine, I genuinely enjoyed but knew that there was the chance I had escaped by the skin of my teeth. Had we summitted any later, we may have encountered terrible snow, or worse yet, avalanching on the way down.

    A year later, I stood on top of Mt. Sir Douglas after feeling like I shouldn’t have been there for much of the climb up. What goes up must come down, but somehow I was able to suppress my fears about down climbing while I was on my way up. It ended up being a dicey climb through winter conditions, and we got back to the car about 24 hours after we’d left our bivy site in the alpine hours the day before. Normally I come back from a climb happy I’d persevered. After that one, I felt to my very core that I’d wished I hadn’t put myself through that.

    The realization has left me a different person. I used to be very good at shutting off a good chunk of my brain that acknowledged risk and while I still used good judgement, I was able to be more immune to the possibility of a bad outcome. But, now I have a hard time doing that. I have moments where I am very aware of the consequences of a missed step and am even more aware now that I am choosing to ignore some of those thoughts in the moment. Perhaps – likely – it’s a coping device.

    In your post, you wrote about how when the risk gets too high, we often still go. This is the part I struggle with the moment. 9 times out of 10, nothing will go wrong, and these have been the best times of my life. If something is incredibly risky, I do have the good sense to turn back. But it’s when things get grey – when we can’t anticipate the level of risk – that now leaves me wondering if I’ll ever climb those big guys again.

    Thanks for starting the conversation! No doubt there is more to come.

    • Meghan,

      I was recently talking to a friend about kayaking. She figured that her kayaking peaked a few years ago, when she was running some very big stuff and even put in a first descent. She just wasn’t willing to take such big risks anymore. I know the feeling. The more times I get close to mortality, the more I realize that I want to live. Being lucky is part of it. But building judgment from those lucky moments in the next step. It is important to find a balance–where we travel to our edge and feel the mad rush of exhilaration, but also know where to stop. We must also remember how to not put ourselves in those too-risky situations.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  4. Pingback: Go With the Flow: A week on the Salmon River « Kim Kircher

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