Ngawang Sherpa crosses a massive crevasse on a ladder; at 18,000 feet in the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, Nepal.

Thursday Thought: Climbing, Risk, Kids, and Life

Ngawang Sherpa crosses a massive crevasse on a ladder; at 18,000 feet in the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, Nepal.

Ngawang Sherpa crosses a massive crevasse on a ladder; at 18,000 feet in the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, Nepal.

Last week, I read a great article in Boulder’s Daily Camera about risk: “Chris Weidner on extreme sports: Risky or reckless? It’s relative.” Written by the great climber, writer, and person, Chris Weidner, the article brought back to mind a lot of the discussions I’ve had about risk here on The MountainWorld Blog, late at night with my wife, in coffee shops, and on high peaks around the world.

In his article, Chris pulls some quotes from various climbers and sources, as well as his own very real experience, to build a case for how risk is, indeed, relative…relative to the person taking risk X, Y, or Z, and their personal level of risk tolerance. What is foolish and overly risky to some may be a simple walk in the park to others whose risk tolerance is higher. And, that same activity or action is very likely pedestrian to other, more risk-embracing folk.

One thing that caught me was a quote by the climber and adventurer, Will Gadd, about how his approach to risk has – or has not – changed since he had kids. Will’s response was simple: “If I don’t do them [seemingly risky mountain sports], or something similar, I become an SOB. Or I turn toward less healthy alternatives.”

Will’s words echo loud and clear for me. The past year has been, for the most part, one of lots of office time, computer time, kid time, bill time, life time. Not bad per se, but in the rush of it all, I’ve not fed my inner passion; I’ve not indulged what to some is risky behavior – climbing and spending time in the big mountains. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge one moment of time spent with my family. But, as the past year has worn on – and worn me down – I realize that, in Will’s words, I’ve become a bit of an SOB. Or, more accurately for me personally, a bit down and depressed. I’m missing, and I’m craving and needing, some risk, some adventure, some challenge and unknown and uncertainty from the outside, wild world.

Yesterday morning, I got a dose of it, and it was just what the doctor ordered. A 9-mile trail run through the ramparts of Jefferson County Open Space, some solo climbing/scrambling up lichen-covered rock pinnacles to destinations unknown. A simple adventure, a little risk, a touch of adrenaline, a pump of endorphins…and the world – my world – seemed right again.

I’m not going to say here, or ever, that my form of risk is the right one for everyone. It is right for me, it’s boring to Will Gadd, and it’s ridiculous and reckless to millions. As Chris noted in his article: “Trying to draw an absolute line merely leads to judging others.” But, I do feel certain that risk is critical to life. As humans, we evolved in a primordial soup of risk; nothing was certain, nothing was simple, nothing was a given. Today, however, we can reduce or eliminate risk in almost every aspect of our lives. Hungry? Go to the grocery store. Thirsty? Turn the tap. Cold? Turn up the heat. Challenged politically or philosophically? Turn on Fox if you’re on the right, MSNBC if you’re on the left. The list goes on.

Risk, however, is not just important, it is essential to us as humans. Risk, challenge, adversity…these are the things which push us, which test us, which drive out complacency and force us to perform, to question, and to grow. In 1963 on Mount Everest, climber and sociologist Dick Emerson studied the relationship between uncertainty and motivation in his teammates, concluding that – somewhat counter-intuitively – the greater the uncertainty in a given endeavor, the greater the motivation to follow the uncertain path. And, conversely, the more certainty, the less motivation. As Tom Hornbein so simply and eloquently put it: “Risk and uncertainty are just the essential seasonings of life.” And, as William Arthur Ward put it pointedly, and perhaps a bit harshly: “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.”

So, today’s Thursday Thought quotes are some of my favorites on risk and uncertainty…enjoy!

But, the irony, the Christian irony, is that the man who goes deer hunting and does not get a deer, the man who goes spearing for sturgeon and gets one and doesn’t like it…they are blessed, in a mysterious way that is hard to explain…but worth trying for yourself. In defeat, in failure, in suffering, is joy. That’s the irony of Lent. And, once you’ve learned that…maybe you’re ready to die.
– Garrison Keillor, April 2, 2011. Read the whole quote and post here.

Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked. It becomes as shallow and empty as, let us say, an American flirtation.
– Sigmund Freud

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.
– William Arthur Ward

Those who cultivate risk for its own sake…are probably emphasizing only their own inner torpor, just as the people who talk most fervently about the beautiful emotions induced by drugs are those who have most difficulty in feeling anything at all. The pleasure in risk is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination – in a word, experience. Climbing, in particular, is a paradoxically intellectual pastime, but with this difference: you have to think with your body. Each pitch becomes a series of specific local problems: which holds to use, and in which combinations, in order to get up safely and with the least expense of energy. Every move has to be worked out by a kind of physical strategy, in terms of effort, balance, and consequences. It is like playing chess with your body.  And, that, for me, is the final satisfaction…On a climb…I am thinking with my body rather than my weary, addled head, and if I make a mistake, the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing, and possibly painful. For a brief period and on a small scale, I have to be directly responsible for my actions, without evasions, without excuses. In that beautiful, silent, useless world of mountains, you can achieve at least a certain clarity, even seriousness of a wayward kind. It seems to me worth a little risk.
– Al Alvarez

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out where the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood. At best, he knows the triumph of high achievement; if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
– Teddy Roosevelt

The climbing of earth’s heights, in itself, means little. That we want to try to climb them means everything. For it is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that we are never so much as we can be as when we are striving for what is beyond our grasp, and that there is no battle worth the winning save that against our own ignorance and fear.
– James Ramsey Ullman


About the Author : Jake NortonClimber, guide, photographer, speaker, founder of, and - most importantly - husband and father.View all posts by Jake Norton

  1. Aaron McHugh
    Aaron McHughApril 17,14

    Jake-always love checking in on you. Great thoughts on the need for adventure and every man’s differing definitions of risk. It’s true. What you can call easy-another guy would call risky. The better story here is what we become when we are not engaged in what we love-SOB.

    I’m putting on my running shoes now to go find somewhere I’ve not been before.

    • Jake Norton
      Jake NortonApril 17,14

      Hey Aaron,

      Thanks for the comment and kind words…always great to hear from you! We still need to get together and catch up sometime. Hope all is well with you and the family, and have a good run/adventure!!

      All my best,


  2. Spinner
    SpinnerApril 21,14

    For a season of life, I’ve changed my outdoor ways for a more corporate existence. But the need for risk is inherent and won’t be denied. I supply my co-workers with a steady dose of head-shaking material: When I come in from a weekend, tired and sunburned with chapped lips; when I horde my vacation days for 8 days on Rainier; when I stream alpine climbing videos on my computer rather than Pandora.

    Thanks for this post and others–it helps keep my sanity in check and feeds the rat, at least vicariously in the afternoon doldrums.

    Keep up the good work. Let me know if you ever get to DC, I’ll buy you a beer.

    • Jake Norton
      Jake NortonApril 21,14

      Thanks for the comment, and glad you liked the post! Keep feeding the rat, and having fun and embracing risk however you can. And, same offer if you’re out in CO – let me know and we’ll grab a beer. Thanks!

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