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08/12/2014 by Brian Eagen Click to Tweet

Objective vs Subjective Hazards

Understanding your Level of Acceptable Risk

Objective and subjective hazards are ways of categorizing potential risks found during our time in the wild as well as throughout our daily lives. We journey into the wilderness to envelop ourselves in an environment where decisions have direct and immediate ramifications. The results of those decisions allows us to have a deeper understanding of our comfort within these surroundings and helps inform how we will handle comparable situations in the future. Understanding what these hazards look like and how they affect our decision-making process allows us to embrace an acceptable level of risk without jeopardizing safety.

Objective hazards can happen to anyone. Whether it's rockfall, lightning strike, earthquake, Sharknado..., or any number of other occurrences. Your personal abilities have nothing to do with these events, for they would occur on their own whether you are there or not. Although some poor prior judgement can put you in harm's way, it largely comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Subjective hazards, on the other hand, are human-caused incidents. These hazards can be controlled or minimized through proper experience, skill, and conditioning. Climbing above your ability, dehydration, overexertion, and driving your car are all examples of subjective hazards.

Some hazards, such as avalanches, fall into both categories. They are objective because a snow-loaded slope will likely slide after a big storm, but poor decision making can cause a human trigger which would otherwise be avoided. So even with objective hazards, you are still making the decision to be there at that time.

I am reminded of riding on the Zion National Park shuttle bus. As we wound our way up canyon, seated alongside a variety of fellow bus riders, the park tour recording talked about how climbers scale the thousand foot sandstone cliffs outside our windows. This was always followed up with one of my fellow riders declaring something along the lines of, "those people are idiots." I'd sit in silence and smile to myself, comfortable in my climbing training and extensive experiences, thinking about my own level of acceptable risk.

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Acceptable risk refers to a personal line which measures both objective and subjective hazards; everything below this line is comfortable and anything above it is deemed crazy or idiotic. Alex Honnold has a very different level of acceptable risk than I do-- his is a lot higher. Every decision we make while climbing, boating, or backpacking is calculated based off our own personally calibrated level of acceptable risk. Our experiences and level of comfort allows this line to move up or down over time, but understanding your current line is an important tool to utilize when making those hard decisions. Do I go to the summit even though it looks like bad weather is coming? Do I raft that river with such a fast current? Do I climb unroped when the rock quality isn't ideal?

It takes time to learn effective risk management. A big part of why beginners get into trouble is because they have the physical conditioning to complete the task but lack the prior experiences to adequately assess subjective hazards. Luckily, the outdoors is a fantastic teacher. Purposeful decision-making allows us to experience the hazards of the wild within our own predetermined limits. As long as you keep yourself safe, your decision making abilities will become fine tuned and allow you to more comfortably assess hazards in the future.

What's your level of risk?

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