Sunday, November 27, 2011

Experience and Judgment in Outdoor Activity

Recently, I wrote a post about self-reliance that I realize may make me sound like an elitist curmudgeon.  I’m okay with that.  To be fair, it can definitely be a hard pill to swallow any time someone says not to do something.  So, what are you to do if you lack the skills and experience to safely go into the backcountry?  The short answer is to go do things that will get you the skills and experience, but it’s not usually that simple. 

There’s a saying that, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”  This is an unfortunate catch-22.  What are you to do as a novice who lacks the experience to have good judgment?  The natural world can be a harsh classroom in which to learn things “the hard way,” because it some cases that may also be “the dead way.”  I think the answer to this question is to be conservative until you know better (and by then, you’ll know when you know better).

In practice, this means putting in a little planning and prep work, getting up a little earlier to start that long climb, picking objectives below your physical/technical/mental limit (until you actually know what those limits are), and doing your research about your chosen objective, activity, or system.  This also means having the humility to recognize that there are many things you do not know.  Further, do not be afraid to back off if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.  No objective, no pile of gear, and no amount of pride are worth your life. 

For example, despite the fact that I have been rock climbing for quite a while, I know that when it comes to alpine rock, I have less experience, so I choose more conservative objectives.  Similarly, while much of the fitness and many of the technical skills from rock climbing translate to ice climbing, there is still a learning curve and I know that I am still developing as an ice climber.  While this may limit me for the time being, in the long run it will keep me safe and shorten the learning process.

Of course, humility comes at the price of ego.  While ego is often regarded negatively, the plain and simple truth is that in order to climb well (or perform many complex physical-mental tasks), you must have a certain amount of ego to have the self-confidence to succeed.  For example, is it ego that pushes you to climb that scary looking but relatively easy run-out terrain with not much in the way of protection?  Or is it humility that tells you that you are in over your head and should retreat?  Or is it fear that forces you down?  Perhaps your self-confidence and your experience tell you that it’s possible to safely navigate that same terrain and to do so successfully.  Clearly, there’s a fine line between having the self-confidence to climb well and not psych yourself out and the humility to recognize when you’re going to get yourself hurt.

Confidence comes from intimate self-knowledge of your true capabilities. Here we have another catch-22:  the only way to really know your capabilities is through experience, preferably a lot of it.  Again, be conservative, take your time, and get some experience (finding more experienced partners never hurts either!)

So, the next time some curmudgeon is pissed at you for beating them to the start of a classic route and is yelling at you for moving too slow, stand up for yourself!  Kindly explain to them you could complement each other.  You lack the years of experience they have that lets them move fast and light, and they lack the patience you have in being intelligently conservative.  If all goes well, maybe they’ll offer to join forces and share some of that experience!  (And if not, well, there’s a reason “curmudgeon” has a negative connotation.) 

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