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Thoughtful Thursday#10: Decision-Making During Climbing

Posted Thursday, January 16, 2020

Snow sliders devote much more time to analyzing their route decision-making than do ice climbers, it's been my experience. That process helps reveal the human factors involved in deciding our goals and objectives in hazardous environments. Revealing those human factors help us to make better decisions moving forward. Here's a small attempt to encourage these sorts of conversations in the ice climbing community.

The Dark Lord, a stout WI5+ pitch at Poke-o-Moonshine, has long been on my list. We went after it today. This weekend was the ADK MountainFest and I'd seen a weekend picture from climbers on it. But, the Dark Lord is known for ephemeral conditions and it's also known to be tricky to find. So, we wasted an hour and a half not finding it, but finding lots of hellacious bushwhacking before arriving at its base. By that point, the sun had been beating down on it for hours. In short, many of the human factors for poor decision-making in the avalanche context were in place in the ice context:

  • Acceptance: My partner originally prefed a trip to Willoughby, but I was jazzed on this one and sold it. One primary reason I climb with Zach is that he's an all-around positive fellow, but that aside—after all the shenanigans involved in finding it—I didn't want to jeopardize that positivity.

  • Scarcity: We'd just found one of the plum “high-end” climbs in the ADK, during MountainFest, and we were the only ones there!

  • Social Proof: I'd seen photos of other people climbing it just two days before.

  • Sunk Costs: We'd already invested around two hours finding it. All that investment would be for naught if we bailed.

The climb was running with water, but we suited up. While we did, the column in Picture#2 calved off. Sure, it was the same aspect, angle, and bed surface as the ice I wanted to climb—the skiing equivalent of seeing a slope exactly like the one you plan to ski avalanche, but I rationalized: That column had a big slab above it channeling water underneath it. Another smaller piece collapsed and Zach said, “Yeah...let's climb something else.”

I was happy Zach said it and I didn't have to—and I think I probably would have called it on my own, though perhaps above the first curtain. We ended up having a great day on Goat's Foot and Discord. The truth is, I'd make a 99.9% bet that the climb would've gone. But for any avid recreational climber 99.9% odds suck. Do the math: If you get out 1 day a week, amortized over the next 20 years, those odds are horrible. The more you get out, the more those odds are increasingly unacceptable.

How often do you back off of climbs? How often do you post about it? How often do you explicitly discuss those decision-making processes with your partner? Let's bring some of the conversation of human factors found the “avi” world into our ice climbing!


Thoughtful Thursday Post#11: TTH is meant as a counterweight (but not a criticism of) the oh-so-popular climbing Tech Tuesday posts. See my Sept 5th post for background. I haven't posted in awhile, and yeah, it's not Thursday, but just like I don't want to be wed to posting every Thursday, why even be wed to posting on Thursdays? Make every day—and every climb—thoughtful!