How to Calculate the Risks of Mountain Climbing

Lee Gosling was once bouldering in North Wales when he lost his grip on the very top handhold. When he looks back on the moment, Gosling remembers his “fingers ‘peeled off,’” giving him time to turn outward, facing away from the mountain.

He took a 40-foot ground fall onto a slanted boulder beneath him. “I was able to use that to deflect my trajectory and then do a forward roll onto the floor. It was all just instinctive, though. Self-preservation kicked in,” Gosling says. From the equivalent of this 4-story drop, he walked away with only a sprained ankle.

“I am under no illusions that nearly 30 years later, the outcome would be the same,” Gosling says. “As you get older, your approach to risk changes, and you have to realize that you don’t bounce quite so well anymore.”

Grips can slip. Accidents do happen. Mistakes can be made. But real climbers know to avoid risks--or mitigate them. Other climbing tragedies include the ones in which the victims ignore the risks. Whether it’s feeling the thrill of accomplishment or witnessing the beauty of nature, these reasons can help motivate climbers to reach the top of the mountain. But to be blinded by these goals can distract adventurists from the very real risks of mountain climbing.

We tapped Gosling, a mountaineer with more than 30 years of experience, on how to face the risks of a mountain, stay focused and conquer it safely.

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Calculating the Risks on a Mountain

Whether driving an automobile of climbing a mountain, facing risk always involves making a calculation. That calculation ends with three options: You choose whether to avoid the risk, mitigate that risk or accept it.

“Sometimes, I face a move on a rock face past a runner and know that I can’t reverse the move,” says Gosling. “I am calculating how good the runner is; what other gear I have in (the protection that fixes me to the rock or ice); how much rope is out and what would the fall factor be if I slipped (distance fallen divided by rope available to absorb the fall); how strong I am feeling that day; who is holding my rope and what their capabilities are to hold the fall or patch me up; how far away help is, etc. Some days—often—I back off. Other days I go for it.”

Gosling credits a colleague for teaching him to constantly be aware of TACT:

  • Target: What am I/are we aiming to achieve.
  • Ability: Are we well inside, on the edge of or well outside our level of expertise and skill?
  • What are the Conditions: Weather, what equipment we have with us, solidity of rock/ice and number of anchors, avalanche risk, etc.
  • Time: How long have we been going? When will it be dark/start to snow? How long do we have supplies for?

“I think that this is sage advice for anyone attempting a mountain, whether that is a physical mountain or any other sort of challenge in their life,” says Gosling.

Ultimately, climbing a mountain requires a sense of humility. It is humility that allows a climber to walk away from a challenge if the risk calculation does not stack up. It is humility that will prevent an ego from being blinded by goals.

“But equally they must then have the drive to go away and work out what they need to do to manage that risk, which could be training harder, waiting for the weather to change, or learning new skills and have the dedication to put those conditions in place and go for it again,” says Gosling.