I recently climbed La Plata, a 14000 + foot mountain in Colorado, (fondly known as a 14er). The experience reminded me of important lessons in risk analysis and decision making. If you are in a hurry for the lessons, you can go to the end.
Years ago, I lived in Colorado and climbed several 14ers. Since it had been more years than I care to admit since my last summit, I decided to try again during a recent visit. I chose to climb La Plata, based on the recommendation of a mountaineering guide. It is not one of the easiest 14ers, but it was pretty nearby and I felt up for the challenge.
The day of the climb started well and I was feeling good in spite of the early hour and potential for some very nasty weather. However, after a couple hours when my guide John and I reached 13,500 ft., my pace slowed dramatically. I knew I did not have the “climbing zen” that day. I wasn’t able to clearly concentrate on where to step next in order to maintain balance and not tumble backwards into some large and very unforgiving boulders. I remembered that sort of thing used to be easier. (Apparently, I am not the gazelle I once was). It was at that point that I began the decision making/risk analysis process.
John asked me how I was doing and I realized he too was concerned that we may not reach the summit in time to beat the weather. He said we could still make it, but we would have to move faster. There was also the descent over the same steep terrain to consider, likely in the rain, making things riskier. I realized I was not the only one affected by my decision. Not only did I not want to get injured or worse, I was sure John would prefer not having a broken limb and being unable to work. Stuff happens even to the most experienced climbers. Risk is certainly part of his job, but the wellbeing of another definitely factored into my analysis. My safety also depended on his.
I asked myself why I was doing the climb. Was getting to the top at all costs the goal? I knew the answer was decidedly no. I had done enough of that in the past. The view from those high peaks is certainly unlike no other and awesome in the true sense of the word. However, on that day, I was there mostly for the experience, a hike in the wilderness, the deep sense of perspective that the mountains bring, and a bit of nostalgia. The bonus was making it to the top, but not my primary goal.
After weighing all the factors, I told John I wanted to descend before the trail disappeared into the steep boulder and snow field. After some discussion, we began our way down. After a little while it started to rain and hail, but we descended safely (I even surprised myself on how well I did). We met some folks who turned back with only a quarter mile to the summit since it had started to rain. Their descent had been quite slippery.
During our way down, John and I struck up a conversation on risk management. He is very informed on the subject since his life literally depends on it. He commented that risk analysis is an equation with many factors and found that people often have misconceptions of real versus perceived risk. That has also been my experience. La Plata reminded me of two important things:
1) Be clear about the real purpose or goal. Know what you have already invested and can’t get back (sunk cost) and what you have yet to invest (opportunity cost). What else could you do with the investment (time, energy, money)? Too often we confuse sunk cost and opportunity costs. Just because we have invested already doesn’t mean we need to keep investing. Having the overall goals in clear focus helps the analysis of the risks and rewards of various options.
2) Think of others affected by the decision. In collaborations and partnerships, in business or other areas, discussion and communication is crucial to making optimal decisions.
John and I descended La Plata without incident. As we were leaving, I looked back and La Plata was completely shrouded in very heavy, dark and severe looking clouds. No doubt the summit was under some very nasty weather. I was glad I was not there.