The genetics of risk: a close call in Squamish

Death smiles at us all;
all a man can do is smile back.
― Marcus Aurelius 

Enjoying the view in beautiful Squamish.
Enjoying the view in beautiful Squamish.

Two months ago I found myself pondering death in a more immediate way than usual. In fact, I was pretty certain I would be dead less than thirty seconds from the time this thought first arose. Aside from my blood-curdling scream and subsequent adrenaline-induced hyperventilation, I was pretty calm about the prospect of impending death.

We were in Squamish, British Columbia, on a climbing trip (part of my Pacific Northwest road trip). Ben and I had decided to climb one of our favorite routes at the base of the Stawamus Chief, a 2,300-foot granite monolith overlooking the sparkling turquoise fjords of the Sea to Sky Highway. The weather had cleared after a day of heavy rain, and we were about a hundred feet of the ground when we heard it.

A thunderous crack. A crashing, rumbling, echoing roar interspersed with the screams of other climbing parties higher up on the wall ahead of us. As I looked up, I realized that everyone was yelling, “ROCK!” As a climber, this is never something you want to hear.

Yes, that's me way down there, before the rock fall.
Yes, that’s me way down there, before the rock fall.

And there it was. Or, more accurately, there they were. A portion of the wall had broken away from a ledge about 1,000 feet above us, and came crashing down the cliff face in pieces. Some of these chunks were fist-sized, and others were proper boulders. Any one of them would have either killed or seriously maimed us.

I screamed as I watched the huge granite projectiles hurtle toward us. A few of them bounced off the low-angle cliff face less than a hundred feet above us, separating into yet more deadly missiles. We could not move out of the way, being tethered to a near-vertical rock face. I remember thinking, Well, here it is. Today is the day. My helmet will not help me here. At least it will be quick.

I shut my eyes. I heard the whoosh of falling stones cutting through the still summer air around me, and I felt the wind from them against my skin. The granite chunks then shattered on the rocky forest floor below.

Amazingly, none of the climbers on the Grand Wall were hurt by the rock fall that day. One of the larger boulders fell only 15 feet from us, and a couple of the smaller chunks whizzed by at an alarming proximity. The tree that held my dog’s leash at the base of the wall was splintered by a falling stone, and my timid little dog stood quivering and tangled in the bushes. But everyone emerged unscathed.

It was not our day to die after all. That day will surely come in one form or another, but it was not that day.

We finished that pitch and climbed one more, completing only three of the five sections we had planned. We rappelled back down to the base, comforted the dog, and chatted with some other climbers about our collective close call.

Later, someone asked me if this experience would make me more nervous about climbing as recreation. I didn’t really even have to think about it.

No. Absolutely not.

The view upward toward where the rocks fell from.
The view upward toward where the rocks fell from.

Fact: We all engage in dangerous activities every day, and some of us will die while doing them. Driving on the freeway opens us up to the very real possibility of high-speed collisions, yet we engage in this behavior almost daily without a second thought. We are desensitized to the danger, and the benefit of convenient transportation outweighs our perceived risk.

Now, one might think, but wait! I’m a safe driver, so my risk is minimal. And driving is just part of life. We have to do it to function in our modern world, and even if we walked instead we could be hit by a bus as we cross the road. That argument is ridiculous. Rock climbing isn’t necessary — it’s dangerous and reckless!

I would agree with part of this rationalization that, indeed, you could be killed randomly doing any number of mundane things. In fact, a hiker fell to her death from the top of the Chief only a half hour after we left the base that day. But that contention only strengthens my analogy. While climbing carries with it a certain unavoidable risk factor, it can be done with a relative degree of safety. We are safe, mindful climbers. However, there will always be the potential for a rock fall or an anomalous equipment failure, just like there will always be the potential for a safe driver to be hit and killed by a drunk, or for an experienced hiker to slip and fall.

The second part—that climbing is an unnecessary and reckless activity—I would take issue with. The line between risky and reckless can be a blurry one. We all make our own determinations about risks vs. reward, and that line occupies a different space for each of us. I am not an adrenaline junky; I undertake potentially risky activities in the safest way I can. If adrenaline is involved, I’m probably doing something wrong. And I’ll probably start hyperventilating. Adrenaline is not my friend.

I enjoy climbing immensely. It pushes me both physically and mentally. Being challenged this way calms my mind, focuses my attention, and inspires in me a gratitude I can’t seem to find by any other means.  When we get out of our comfort zones, amazing things can happen.

Beautiful fjords from the  Chief campground.
Beautiful fjords from the Chief campground.

So for me, finding ways to push myself is necessary. For me, climbing is just a part of life, and the scales tip far enough toward reward that I can accept the inherent risk. The bottom line is that it makes me happy, and as previously mentioned, that’s about all the meaning I can hope to extract from life.

So then the question arises: why do we make the choices we do regarding the balance between risk and reward? Do we inherit a certain adventurous disposition from our parents, or do we learn it along the way? Why do I find solace in activities that are so unappealing to many others?

It seems to me that my restless spirit and sense of adventure are embedded somewhere in my genetic makeup. It feels like this trait is in my DNA, immutable and persistent. And in fact, studies have shown that genetics account for about 60 percent of individual variance in what is called “sensation-seeking” behavior.

On the surface, it would appear that  my family is, for the most part, more risk-averse than I. My grandmother once told me that I had an “overactive” sense of adventure, and that my fearlessness would catch up with me someday. My brother told me recently that when it comes to physical difficulty and danger, my perspective is “skewed” (or maybe he said “warped”). Am I the risk-taking black sheep?

I think, in truth, risk is a relative measure. That same brother recently went on his first trip abroad, spending a month in Europe by himself. And he broke up with his cohabiting girlfriend of several years. I think these choices were personally very risky for him, and it took courage to make them. And I know that all of my family members have made equally risky decisions, whatever their personal definition of risk.

We become desensitized to risk over time. What once was terrifying becomes normalized. I remember the first time I climbed on lead I was very afraid. Now it is routine. But then I look around me at all of the amazing athletes and adventurers I know, and they are far bolder than I.

It takes courage and strength to make each step along the way; our comfort zone lies in standing still. Some people just walk faster than others, and we all walk a different path.

And who knows? Maybe my mother would have been a mountaineer or a world-record free diver if she wasn’t too busy being my mother.

I do know that I am usually not afraid when I climb (or travel, or backpack, or engage in any number of other rewarding activities), and I don’t push myself to the point of recklessness. I am aware that, despite my safety precautions, I might be injured or killed. If that is my fate, so be it.

What I am afraid of is allowing fear to prevent me from living.

Woe is the day I decide not to gaze out from the summit because I am afraid of the struggle to get there.

Woe is the day I stay home instead of traveling to amazing overseas destinations because I am afraid of instability or the unknown.

We're alive! After the rock fall.
We’re alive! After the rock fall.

Woe is the day that I cannot enjoy the wild places because I am afraid of their wildness.

Woe is the day I allow fear to prevail.

The truth is that we all embrace this bittersweet world the best we can, knowing all the while that the very world we embrace will eventually kill us. And, every once in a while, a granite boulder hurtling earthward might poignantly remind us of this reality.

Death twitches my ear. “Live,” he says, “I am coming.”
― Virgil

How do you make decisions about what is an acceptable level of risk in your life? What role does fear play in this decision-making process? Does your family share your outlook?


3 thoughts on “The genetics of risk: a close call in Squamish

  1. Robyn October 2, 2013 / 7:20 am

    Well, my “genetics” say you got it right. As far as making decisions about what is acceptable in my life, what I notice is that the line is always changing with the accumulation of my experiences….I also had a “near” brush with death recently. We were in Bend riding around with a realtor one morning and I was in the front passenger seat. We were talking about houses when I noticed that the van in front of us had a trailer on the back for hauling river rafts. It had a long canvas strap hanging off the back about 8 ft. So being the good(but not smart) Samaritan, I jumped out of our vehicle at a stop light and grabbed the strap and attempted to throw it back into the trailer before the van took off. I tried to get the driver of the van’s attention, but he couldn’t hear me. The light changed and the strap whipped back out of the trailer and around my ankle. I started shaking that foot as hard as I could and eventually the strap slid off. When I turned around to go back to the car, everyone in every car around us had their mouths dropped open. Nobody said a word when I got back into the vehicle. Then it really hit me how close a call I had just had. It still makes me shiver when I think about it. Will I choose not to be kind and helpful because of that? Of course not, but I will give my actions more solid thought before I act, but of course there are never any guarantees. Life is dynamic, ever changing, visceral, beautiful and sometimes scary. But what the heck, it’s what we’ve got to work with! My mother use to tell me that I was adventurous and courageous, more than she could ever be comfortable with and yet she did many courageous if not adventurous things according to parameters of her personal choices. It took me years to see that. I believe that fear is useful to get our attention. To look keenly and sharply at something and get new information to continue on with, not hole up from.


    • rameyontheroad October 2, 2013 / 5:08 pm

      Glad you got your foot free from that strap! And yes, I too believe that we all have a different measure of risk-taking. What I define as risky, others I know see as mundane. And I can see many other people’s actions are brave and risky for them, but would not cause me second thought. I wonder, though, where that threshold comes from. Does it simply migrate over time as we become desensitized? Or, for some people, does it remain static? I don’t know. Fear certainly has a purpose, but it can be irrational and cripplingly prohibitive. It can also manifest in some very undesirable traits, at least in my book. I strive to keep fear in check, and to examine it honestly when it comes up. Some fear, like the fear of being crushed to death by a falling boulder, is entirely natural and exists for good reason. We should listen to that. But the fear of failure, the fear of hard work, the fear of new experiences… these deserve a second examination, I think.

      Thanks for all your feedback – it’s fun to chat with you about these things!


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