Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

On risk, stories, and self-evaluation

Mike Deri Smith has a smart piece about 127 Hours:

Since I was child rappelling down the stairs with my father’s climbing equipment, I’ve been taught the importance of outdoor safety and about being well prepared. The adventure tales on my dad’s bookshelves are vastly outnumbered by his mountain guides, maps, and instructional books about mountain leadership, swimming safety, advanced canoe technique, etc….

Even a part-time outdoorsman like myself can recognize the almost-fatal mistakes Ralston made.

These kinds of accidents are usually due to human error rather than lightning-strike bad luck. Despite many years of climbing experience, Ralston made the near-fatal error of failing to tell anyone where he was going. Had he told someone his plans, he may not have lost his hand and would have had a better chance of being rescued. Ralston’s idiocy should be condemned in equal measure to the extent that his heroics are applauded. After all, the heroics were in response to a self-inflicted predicament.

Unfortunately, stories like these may encourage people to be unsafe:

The initial Outside magazine account of Ralston’s tale, written by Mark Jenkins, concludes, “It’s the survivors’ ingenuity—not their errors—that leaves the most lasting impression.” But it’s their errors we should learn from, not miraculous survival that promotes the myth that those who take risks are bulletproof supermen. We remember only one or two incredible tales of survival from a decade, rather than 250 climbers killed unspectacularly in North America between 1996-2006. That’s not forgetting the 1,260 documented mountaineering injuries in the U.S. over the same period.

I’m not saying people should stop climbing, but stories glamorizing risk increase the chance of future disaster.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Alex! Glad you enjoyed the piece

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