🤯Unknown Unknowns #59 - Captain Safety
4 min read

🤯Unknown Unknowns #59 - Captain Safety

The idea of risk is inherent in climbing.  I would consider myself a recreational gym climber, so my risk level is really low.  But many non-climbers who aren't familiar with the ropes or techniques think it's risky.  I mean, I still feel fear when hanging 20 feet off the ground, forget 100 feet off the ground outside, and I know how all the ropes and anchors work.

Even in a gym, there's danger.  Last week, I saw a lead climber deck (hit the floor) 10 feet away from me (He was fine).  He only fell from about 10-15 feet and was slowed by the rope, but risk of injury is always possible.

Expert climbers have a unique perspective on risk and how to deal with unknown unknowns.


Alex Honnold became famous from the documentary Free Solo.  He was the first (only?) person to free solo (climb without any ropes or protection) up El Capitan, a 3,000 foot rock face in Yosemite.  It took him less than four hours.  He hosts a podcast called Climbing Gold.


Two episodes of Climbing Gold standout to me in terms of understanding risk.

Alex interviews two people, Michelle Walker, who understands risk theoretically and Colin Haley, an expert climber with the nickname Captain Safety.  Even if you have no interest at all in climbing, you'll find these conversations fascinating.

Michelle talks about how every one has a "risk fingerprint" and every activity has a "risk ecosystem."  A risk fingerprint is the individual's risk tolerance and choices, influenced by background and temperament.  The risk ecosystem is the risk inherent in the activity.  The byplay between the individual's choices and the dangers of the activity determine the overall riskiness.  This matches up with Colin's understanding of "background risk" vs "the way you play the game."

Colin illustrates this point.  His name is Captain Safety while he's participating in one of the most dangerous activities people can do.  His risk fingerprint is low while his risk ecosystem is high.

These episodes leave me with a question and a lesson.

The Question: How do you know how much risk you're actually taking?  It's hard to match up perceived risk with actual risk.  The usual evaluation of risk is through the outcome - if you survived, you handled risk well.  But that's Resulting.

The Lesson: Even though your understanding of your risk fingerprint will be flawed, it's necessary to understand as best as possible and also compensate for your tendencies.  Choosing a partner with a complementary risk profile can lesson unknown unknowns.

Choice quotes:

A risk is making a choice, when you don't really know how things are going to turn out. - Michelle Walker
When people are in a group, they make decisions that are more likely to be at either extreme, either much more risk seeking, or much more risk avoidant - Michelle Walker
If you've got people with different expertise, if you've got all of the sorts of skills and insights that you need, if they're coming from different perspectives, and particularly different risk fingerprints, you are much more likely to be able to have a structured debate and exchange ideas if you're open to those different ideas. And there were examples of people with different attitudes, outperforming people who are all coming from the same point of view. - Michelle Walker
Every climbing accident can be viewed as a combination of bad luck and making the wrong decision. And sometimes it's 99%, bad luck and 1% making the wrong decision. And sometimes it's 99%, making the wrong decision and 1% Bad luck. But it's always some combination of the two. - Colin Haley
I do feel like to some degree like if you want to push harder and harder, the amount of risk you take starts to become too much. There is a huge trade off between performance and safety. - Colin Haley
Humans are really obsessed with predictions and forecasting, and assigning probabilities to certain outcomes. And most of us don't appreciate just how tenuous some of those predictions are.  - Michelle Walker
So look at the probability of something, you look at the likelihood that you can do something about it. And then you can sort of narrow your list and focus on the things that are the most probable and the most impactful or the combination of those.  - Michelle Walker
I would say they were all risks worth taking, unless the next one goes sideways and die in an accident. And then you're sort of like, well, maybe they weren't worth taking. And that's and that's what I think is the crux of all this kind of stuff is that, you know, all it takes is getting one choice wrong for it to sort of cast doubt on all the other choices. - Alex Honnold
You know, it's like, up till now it's easy for me to justify all the choices that I made. It's like, oh, you know, I've been doing a great job of evaluating risk. But if I get the next decision wrong, then people will assume that, that everything I've, you know, sort of decided up until here was was probably a little sketchy. - Alex Honnold

=> Captain Safety
=> Spotting The Gray Rhino


Free Solo, the documentary about Alex's climb.

=> Documentary Here


If you thought Alex Honnold's climb was crazy, this is even crazier.  Marc-André Leclerc climbs mixed routes - climbing rock and ice on the same climb.

=> Documentary Here


Alex takes a climber on his first free solo.  Magnus Mitbo is an extremely accomplished climber in his own right, but seeing him face new circumstances and dealing with unknown risks is amazing.

=> Video Here

Questions, suggestions, complaints?  Email me me at [email protected].  Feedback welcome.

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Leaving you in peace,