Measuring The Element of Risk

In his last post, our resident adrenaline junkie, Kurtis Kristianson, gave us his thoughts on “The Gut Feeling.” Since then, a scary incident shook him up enough to get him thinking about fear and how we decide whether the risks involved in a life of adventure are worth it. – Highline

Recently I had the good fortune (if you want to call it that) of walking away from an ultra-light plane crash. Although I have had enough time to recover I still hear the same question over and over again about my “adventurous” lifestyle: ““Don’’t you think that what you do is far too risky?”” Or even better: “”You must have a Death Wish.””

For the last few months I have become fascinated with the concept of fear. But, when I read a recent article, When Mountaineering Gets You Thinking, that fascination shifted to the idea of risk. Risk is an interesting idea and after a day of looking at what is involved and thinking of how I go about determining risk, I came up with a simple set of factors and questions in order to visualize my own evaluation of personal risk.

In today’’s western culture, everyone thinks they are an authority on risk for everyone else and there is always someone determining what is an acceptable level of risk whether it is for safety or for entertainment. In fact, we are even making playgrounds so safe with railings and soft surfaces that children are losing the ability to develop their own ideas of consequences of risk (I don’’t need to get started on that debate). The reality as I see it is that true evaluation of risk is based on one’’s own personal perception.

My personal perception of risk is simple, and if you were to see what it looks like on paper you would see a graph with two axes (see below). The first axis is the vertical with FEAR at the top and COMFORT at the bottom. The second, horizontal axis has KNOWLEDGE (experience) at the left and CHANCE (unknown) at the right. Evaluation is simple and I don’’t need units to determine the level of risk I am getting involved in. All I need to think about is this: do the odds or unknowns about the situation I am moving into far outweigh my knowledge or experience? Is that marker on the continuum way too far out into the territory where I am just rolling the dice and no longer using my experience to play the game?

Our personal perception of risk. Graph courtesy Kurtis Kristianson.

While this balance between experience (knowledge) and the unknown (chance) is going on, the comfort level is starting to rise into the upper axis of fear. I personally think that raising and developing a healthy respect for fear at a steady rate is what we all are looking for when we push the envelope – a nice straight gradual line on the graph going up at an even pace. But, when the shit hits the fan and conditions change rapidly beyond our experience, the line turns to a curve with a sharp exponential arc shooting straight up. The opposite of this, however, is the more time we spend in these parts of the graph, the more we become authorities on evaluating our own personal levels of risk. The knowledge begins to level out the chance.

In most cases you cannot foresee the future or realistically know you will get into the sharp steep curve on this risk graph. But, experience and understanding of risk will keep you calm when the situation does escalate, not only minimizing the carnage but potentially keeping you alive.

What you CAN do is be prepared and use good judgement and your past experience to minimize the chance of something going wrong out there.

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Kurtis Kristianson is an adventure lifestyle photographer based in Southern Alberta. Last year he found that his day job was cutting into his photography and play time so did the responsible thing and quit the day job. Kurtis can now be found photographing extreme people who are living out their passions in and around the Canadian Rockies.

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