By Derek DeBruin
I sat quietly in the back of the Subaru, speeding home through the darkness, exhausted from a day of difficult sport climbing. My compatriots in the front seats were debating the merits of different makes and models of carabiners for their ease of clipping. This seemed like an insignificant detail to me. As long as the gate was bent or made of wire, I thought they all clipped just fine.
It was then that I realized I must not have been climbing hard enough for it to matter—the clipping action on the carabiner clearly was not the thing keeping me from sending hard routes. As the conversation turned to weight and durability, my friends agreed this didn’t matter as much in sport climbing, but was certainly consequential in alpine climbing. It seemed reasonable to take a lightweight kit on big routes, but I thought counting grams was overkill. Clearly, a couple extra pounds in the pack wasn’t what was holding me back.
But as I’ve grown in my climbing, I consistently find that the closer to the limit the more these small things matter. And when there’s real consequence involved, managing the details is everything.
In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond introduces the idea of “constructive paranoia,” a seemingly obsessive and unnecessary preoccupation with mundane details as a way to manage the risk of low-probability events. As one piece of evidence, he cites native peoples of Papua New Guinea. During one of many stints doing field work there, he was struck by how consistently his hosts refused to sleep under or near any “widow makers”—standing dead trees or limbs. This seemed absurd as the likelihood of a particular individual being struck by dead fall while sleeping was quite low. However, Diamond soon noted that on any given day he would witness or hear dead fall at least once, often multiple times. He realized the aversion to sleeping under dead limbs was completely rational if living in these forests every day. Sleeping under widow makers was simply a numbers game that was far more likely to catch up with a local than a Westerner visiting for a few weeks or months. This bit of information created a cultural norm that New Guineans only dared violate at their own peril.
When I worked for the Outward Bound school, we typically slept under tarps (away from widow makers). On one of my first courses, my co-instructor and I built our shelter hastily and, frankly, poorly. I was concerned this would prove problematic, but my desire to get to sleep allowed me to write it off. Because the mountains are a great teacher, I awoke the following morning soaked by rain with a sleeping bag that wouldn’t be fully dry again for another five days. From that point forward I emphasized to my students that if they were going to make a shelter, they should really make a shelter. Anything less than a bomb-proof set up was simply wasted effort. I was beginning to collect my own set of rules and habits for success in the mountains. This particular rule about making shelter paid off one day after climbing in 70mph gusts in Red Rock, Nevada when we returned to the campground to find that ours was the only tent still where it had been left. Anyone else not sleeping in a vehicle was picking up scraps out in the cactus.
When I learned to paddle whitewater, I was fortunate to fall in with a crew of serious Class V boaters almost immediately. Despite the fact that they had boats someone else paid for and I had a dry top that didn’t actually keep me dry, they were happy to run rivers with me simply because they loved paddling that much. On my third day of paddling, after a series of hypothermia-inducing swims, my friend noticed the non-locking carabiner on my PFD. He admonished me. His system was simple. Carabiners go in zippered pockets. If a carabiner must be exposed on your PFD (such as on a quick-release harness), it is a locker that always stays locked.
It would only take one time with an unlocked carabiner accidentally clipped to a rope or tree branch while underwater to learn this lesson, if that experience didn’t kill you first.
I nodded, shivered violently a bit more, and stuffed the carabiner in a pocket. New rule: locking carabiners only on the river.
Years spent working in the Southeast meant days on end with wet feet, and that meant immersion foot was a real concern for me and those in my care. On an expedition, one’s feet might be the only realistic way out of the backcountry, emphasizing the importance of treating them properly. I quickly learned the system to manage this from a more experienced guide. Every morning started with donning the driest pair of socks available. The midday lunch break doubled as a blister check. Socks were dried against the chest all day. The evening routine included at least 15 minutes of bare feet followed by judicious application of lotion on hot spots. Clients and students were instructed in the same. Diligence was a requirement and these daily chores were not optional. As a result, when working one season with 26 straight days of rain, no one had a foot injury more severe than a blister.
When learning to ski, a patroller taught me a basic tenet of ski patrol: never stop above someone. When pulling into the safe zone at the end of a run, stop below your partner. It would be a pretty shitty day to accidentally let loose a sluff or take an uncontrolled slide that sent a co-worker downslope just because you stopped above them. A long-time avalanche forecaster and field observer taught me another: at the bottom of the run, get out of the way and put your skins back on immediately. At the base of the slope, it’s much harder to search for someone if there’s an avalanche, and having skins on skis could be a life-or-death difference. “10cm and 10mph” is the succinct rule for closing uphill traffic at my local ski resort. When I’ve asked about this, the assistant director of mountain safety gives a straightforward answer based on decades of experience on that hill. Wind greater than 10mph is fast enough to transport snow and four inches of fluffy white stuff is plenty to form all manner of slabs. If both those conditions are met overnight, the ski patrol will be throwing charges in the morning, meaning no inbounds uphill travel. While it may seem unnecessarily conservative to always follow these rules, all three of these professionals follow these maxims religiously. They each also have at least one story where not heeding these rules cost them dearly.
Many strong alpinists have similar rules and habits. Conrad Anker is incredibly diligent with foot care. Steve House always carries mittens when climbing so his hands are guaranteed to work if he needs to bail. Colin Haley habitually wears a nose protector on his sunglasses because looking cool is less important than not getting sunburn (or skin cancer). Rolando Garibotti weighs every piece of gear to the gram and writes the weight directly on the item. Will Gadd has pretty strong opinions about racking with a gear sling. Reinhold Messner maintained a daily diet that was the same as he would eat on expeditions, so there was never a need to transition diets and he was always assured a regular morning bowel movement.
The common thread among all of these anecdotes is in the consequence for breaking the rules. These are not idle whims, nor are they meaningless compulsions. Each habit is based on an axiom that serves to decrease risk in an unforgiving environment. It might seem obsessive to count grams. However, attempting cutting-edge alpine style routes on big mountains with little margin for error by definition does not leave any margin for unnecessary weight. The clipping action of a carabiner is no longer an inconsequential detail when you factor in icy ropes, gloves, fatigue, and difficult, runout climbing. It could be the difference between sending or not, or even making it home. Inadequate shelter might only mean an unpleasant night out, until the one time it means death by exposure.
Consequently, nearly all of the guides, climbers, and other outdoor professionals I respect the most have strong opinions on the manner in which they conduct themselves in the mountains. They follow their own rules diligently and use habits they can’t always explain. They are of course open to learning new systems and engaging with new ideas, but each moment of an expedition from initial research to logistical preparations to execution of a climb is the result of a certain carefulness born of years of near misses, close calls, and shiver bivies. Everything is done with purpose, nothing is left to chance. The mountain is already unpredictable—that shouldn’t be exacerbated by doing this haphazardly. I’m wary of those who haven’t figured out the rules yet. I just hope I’m following the correct ones.
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