That was the word shouted from above as a 10-pound stone bounded down the slope toward me. I dodged it, as did other members of my group, and watched it continue its rapid descent down the slope and toward the river below.
Falling rock was just one of the issues confronting us as we clambered up a rib of the Black Canyon on our way toward what was promised to be a sweet fishing spot on the Gunnison River.
The Black Canyon, located in southwestern Colorado, is one of the deepest canyons in the country. The Gunnison flows quickly through the chasm, its cold and heavily churned waters making an ideal place for trout to live and thrive. The trouble is the most accessible parts of the canyon are pretty much played out in terms of fishing. To find the fish, you have to work for it. In this case it included a scramble up a rock buttress littered with loose scree and, in some places, notable exposure to falls.
The crux of the climb: a short, albeit blind bouldering move that has you reaching for a handhold you can’t see, then swinging over to the other side of the canyon rib.
For taller people, not a problem. They can maintain their grip on one side and feel for the handhold on the other. I’m not tall, and neither were several others in the group. So that made it a little trickier. The move isn’t hard, but you better land it. If you don’t, you won’t stop falling for another hundred feet or so — a guaranteed cartwheeling tumble down a steep and rocky slope that likely ends with a crash against massive boulders at the bottom. More broken bones than you can count, for sure, provided you live through it.
I know for most anglers, such rock-hugging maneuvers just aren’t worth the trouble. But I’ll tell you this — the fishing was worth it. Nearly everyone who traversed the rock rib caught a bunch of fish.
So what the main point of this little story? It’s about weighing risk.
Mention risk to most people, they think about investments. Most of the things we do for fun entail very little real risk of injury, illness or death.
Like to play golf? It’s only dangerous in the thunderstorm. Summer softball? YMCA basketball leagues? Volleyball? Sure, there are some risks of injury here. But no one takes it to the rim or rounds third base wondering if this particular action will cost them their lives. Basketball courts, softball fields, golf courses — these are man-made places designed to be tame, by outdoor standards.
Wild places like canyons, mountains, rivers and forests are not designed with the same rules in mind. That makes them incredible to be around. But it also makes interacting with them less safe than heading out to the local park for an afternoon outing. Weather, terrain, wildlife — all these things are variables that are governed by nature. No one made the Grand Canyon wondering if the lawyers thought it was safe.
We’re getting into that time of year where people will be outside more often. With that in mind, think about your adventures with risk on your mind.
First, weigh the risks. What risks does your activity involve? Car camping a Lake Keystone? Not much. Attempting a 5.12 pitch in the Wichitas? A whole other matter. And of course, there’s a whole range of activities in between.
So think about what things could go wrong. And then do an inventory of the skills you have to complete your goal, as well as those skills which might get you out of a jam. Just how good of a climber/swimmer/diver are you? Do you have the right gear and clothing for this outing? What do the weather forecasts look like? What kind of shape are you in? All of these (or some variant of them) are important questions to ask before you step out the door. And they’ll help you make your decision.
It will eventually boil down to categorizing risk in one of two fields: acceptable and unacceptable. For me, my limited climbing skills, gear and the conditions in the canyon that day didn’t make the climb risk-free, but it put the risk in the acceptable category. And I caught a lot of fish. But if someone were to invite me on a climb of El Capitan in Yosemite, the Diamond on Longs Peak or one of the many 5.8 or greater pitches here in Oklahoma, I’d have to pass. Even under ideal conditions and with the best equipment, I don’t have the skills to do much of anything that involves 5+ pitches. The risk would be unacceptable for me.
I’ve been on the wrong end of bad decisions involving risk before. The consequences were not fun (lucky to be alive). But I’ve also been on the right side, assessed the risk correctly and enjoyed the rewards of challenging myself.
Traversing the rock rib was a lot more dangerous that jacking up a three-pointer in a pick-up game. But there’s no moment on the basketball court that will compare to the memories I took away from the Black Canyon and the many fish we caught.
And that’s what enjoying the outdoors is all about.
– Bob Doucette