Paul Hersey asks if taking risks in the outdoors equip us better for the ‘real world’
Kynan Bazley, a good friend, once told me that ‘the dignity of risk should be afforded to everyone’. It was the winter of 2004, and North Elcho’s confined alpine valley had piled high with avalanche debris. Having picked the least exposed site we could find, Bazley and I zipped up into our cosy tent beneath a cirque of snowy slopes and settled in for a long, cool evening. Mount Ward’s steep and icy south-east face – the feature we’d come to climb – faded with the light, but still played hide and seek with our psyche.
I remember lying there in my sleeping bag, and being struck by Bazley’s choice of words. He then went on to say that, too often, we are denied the opportunity to take risk because of societal judgements and laws. This was something I agreed with. “If I decide to climb a mountain,” he said, “my decision reflects how I see the world and where I fit into it.”
Deciding to play devil’s advocate, I countered with: ‘That’s fine, but climbing is not essential like driving a car, is it?”
“We as humans have needs,” Bazley replied, probably realising I was leading him on but enjoying the gist of the conversation. “And, I believe, self-actualisation comes at the top. We should be more inclined to take risks to feel good about ourselves rather than in the mundane day-to-day survival stuff.”
Since that cold night, I’ve found myself reflecting a number of times on Bazley’s ‘dignity of risk’ comment. I find it all the more profound given that, as a doctor, his daily job is to save lives. Some people would consider this being in direct conflict with Bazley completing a number of bold mountain climbs around the world – climbs where he has risked both his own life and the lives of his willing climbing partners. But Bazley, and indeed most who participate in outdoor adventure activities, don’t see it that way. And that’s fine. Adventurous activity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The issue for me is that, in today’s over-protective society, risk-taking in the outdoors is seen as a ‘dirty word’. Very rarely is there a conversation about outdoor activity without the question ‘how dangerous is it?’ cropping up.
Prime Minister John Key’s recent call for a national review on the outdoor adventure industry is yet another example of this. Key stated that the review was needed because of a number of recent accidents in this country, highlighting two high profile incidents that influenced his stance: the 2008 death of English tourist Emily Jordan while river boarding with Queenstown company Mad Dog; and the Mangatepopo tragedy the same year, when a teacher and six students from Auckland’s Elim Christian College drowned while on a Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre canyoning trip. These were among 29 fatalities recorded in the outdoor adventure sector in the five years from 2004 to 2009, along with another 450 reported accidents that resulted in serious harm. Key believed there should and could be a reduction in this number, and said that the accident rate was potentially harming our growing tourism industry.
As I see it, there are three main issues here: How safe are our outdoor activity operators, should organisations that are driven by profit be ultimately responsible for their own safety decisions, and has this review achieved little other than adding to the growing negative public perception of the level of risk in the outdoors?
Dealing with the first issue: some tragedies cannot, realistically, be avoided. This country’s accident rate is comparable to, if not lower than, most other countries in the developed world. But does that make it acceptable? And will the national review make any difference? Perhaps by exploring the two incidents Key referred to, some light may be shed on the issue.
Maritime New Zealand – the regulatory body responsible for river boarding – prosecuted Mad Dog for the death of Emily Jordan. The accident made headlines here and in the UK, and Emily’s father Chris Jordan was vocal both in his condemnation of Mad Dog and of our government for not acting quickly enough in ‘banning bad operators’. Undoubtedly, Key was influenced by such a vocal condemnation of our adventure industry – even if it came from the other side of the world.
After the court case – where MNZ presented its evidence but then, according to Mad Dog owner Brad McLeod, approached him for a plea bargain before the defence had a chance to present its own evidence – it was revealed that Mad Dog’s earlier calls for assistance in creating ‘best practice’ guidelines were ignored by the regulatory body. At the time of the accident, river boarding was still considered a ‘fringe’ water activity, and national operating procedures needed to be developed. In this instance, it appears to me that MNZ failed to meet its obligations in administering the Maritime Transport Act, instead choosing a ‘bottom of the cliff’ self-interest role after the accident. The plea bargain saw the company admitting two charges, and being ordered to pay $146,000 in fines and reparation. The other four charges were dropped.
After the accident, Mad Dog changed some of its operating procedures. This is an indicator that it realised there were certain areas it could improve on. But to be labelled a ‘cowboy’ operator was misleading. If anything, it was MNZ that acted inappropriately and needed to tidy up its act.
Obviously, the concept of commercially-driven outdoor adventure is a double-edged sword. The need to create a ‘buzz’ that compels domestic and international tourists to part with their money has to be offset against the real (rather than perceived) risk of any activity. Issues around the monitoring of safety operational plans and clients being fully informed of the actual risks involved certainly need to be addressed. But, according to international mountain guide and registered outdoor auditor Hugh Barnard, there’s no way to eliminate risk in the outdoors despite the best practice of operators. “To stop all risk is to stop the appeal of these activities,” he says. “Some are just riskier than others, and this must be recognised both within the industry and by regulatory authorities.” Barnard believes that tourism operators are getting better at informing their clients of the actual risks involved, especially when compared to a decade ago.
Since the release of findings from the national review, the government has introduced new safety rules – the most obvious being a national registry of all operators. Barnard feels that this is a step in the right direction. “Registration is better than legislation. As soon as you legislate, it becomes difficult to change when new and better practices emerge,” he comments. Barnard says the compulsory registration process means all operators will need SOPs, regardless of whether they are on DOC estate or private land. “This was an anomaly in the past. Operations on DOC needed these plans but others didn’t. Hopefully, this will help to lift those sectors of the industry that perhaps weren’t quite up to scratch.”
In terms of a paper audit trail of a company’s safety plan versus a physical assessment, Barnard questions whether the more costly physical assessment would improve safety. “Some people are calling for this,” he says. “But the cost to the industry will be high, and I don’t know that it would reduce the number of accidents. A good paper audit usually picks up discrepancies in safety systems anyway. At the end of the day it’s impossible to completely control the human element.” Barnard feels that, generally, New Zealand’s outdoor industry is in a good place. “Most operators are conscious about customer safety and self regulate to ensure this as best they can.”
The question for me here is – and this deals with the second issue I highlighted earlier – is ‘most operators’ good enough? Surely, there needs to be 100 per cent compliance. Also, how much should we trust operators who are there, primarily, to make a profit? Sure, their business depends on good safety practice, but if the safety aspects cut into their profit, and this cost could make the difference between profit and loss, are they always going to make the best decisions in terms of customer safety? The only way to ensure this is through thorough and ongoing independent assessment. The national registry then is certainly a step in the right direction.
While adventure tourism is focussed primarily on making money, outdoor recreation and education is about providing a service that encourages personal growth. And often the providers are non-profit organisations. It is likely that the Mangatepopo tragedy has done considerable damage to the notion that outdoor education exerts a positive influence on our young people. Investigating coroner Chris Devonport recommended a number of changes for OPC, but recognised that ‘safety in an outdoor adventure capacity can never be guaranteed 100 per cent.’ However, he stated that all reasonable steps needed to be taken to minimise the chances of serious injury or death. ‘Even if those risk-management strategies are in place, complacency can defeat them. For commercial/educational outdoor institutions, regular emergency exercises are required.’
After the Mangatepopo incident, and Devonport’s findings, some schools started scrapping their outdoor programme altogether. And according to a number of teachers I have spoken to recently, there is growing confusion in the education system between risk management and the elimination of risk. Current thinking seems to revolve around the idea that the best way to manage risk is to eliminate it. This approach forgets the positive value of risk. Learning is reduced, along with the ability to make decisions – recognising the connection between action and consequence – if there is no opportunity to ‘skin one’s knees’ from time to time.
Obviously, the balance here is that children are not needlessly exposed to risky situations. Parents expect, and rightly so, that any activity with an element of uncertainty is managed appropriately.
And it’s not just the volunteer organisations focussing on our youth that are finding the wider public’s attitude to risk challenging. Recently the New Zealand Alpine Club has clarified its instructional programme – one of the club’s core functions – to see if and where improvements can be made. Yet, NZAC Executive Officer Ollie Clifton still believes that, while risk taking places a cost on society, the positives far outweigh the negatives. “I guess the real question is ‘should society still value risk taking?’,” he says. “Society has become too focussed on the cost without seeing the benefit. And I can understand that, especially if I experienced having a loved one killed or injured in an outdoor activity. I would want to look really closely at that activity and see how the risk is managed.”
Referring to climbing, Clifton accepts that, as an activity, it is intrinsically linked to risk. “Safety is in many ways a subjective concept, and people can choose where to engage on the safety spectrum. This club’s role is to help facilitate this process either through instructional programmes or less formal mentoring situations.”
Also, Clifton thinks there needs to be careful management of how volunteers are used in the instructional process. “With our volunteer instructors, we are certainly more focussed now on offering instruction at the basic level of mountaineering – the fundamentals of movement. As the skill levels of club member’s progress, we then look to bring in professional guides to further their development.”
There is an inherent risk to climbing, and indeed to other outdoor activities. But Clifton sees the decision-making process, necessary when dealing with risk, as a valuable tool in society. “Too many people don’t know what to do in times of stress. Take the recent earthquake in Canterbury: having the ability to quickly assess a situation and make the appropriate decision is vital. So much of our day-to-day living doesn’t expose us to this or allow us to make these decisions.” Clifton explains that outdoor adventurers have the opportunity to step away from their normal lives, and then to re-engage into the community with a more rounded perspective. “Yes outdoor adventure can certainly be seen as self indulgent. Yes there’s the potential for things to go wrong, and sometimes the end result is catastrophic. But that doesn’t mean that we should remove risk from our lives.”
Without taking chances, what would our lives consist of? But where is the balance, and how do we achieve it? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. From time to time I have asked myself the question while climbing: Is the risk worth it? For me, the answer is still ‘yes’, but there are times when I’m not always sure. So perhaps the question we should be asking is can the ‘more rounded perspective’ and ‘decision-making abilities’ that Clifton refers to be garnered without the need to expose ourselves to constant risk?
But are we looking at the concept of risk, especially when referring to our youth, in the right way? Jodi Apiata, a Christchurch-based facilitator of youth development, doesn’t think so. “For me, the major risks in life for our youth are things like unprotected sex, drug taking, alcohol abuse, and negative social interactions,” he says. “When trying to manage risk outside the classroom, we’re just not thinking about it in the right way. We live in a predominantly urban environment, and in this environment there are few opportunities for our youth to learn concepts like responsibility and the relationship between action and consequence. You can’t teach the practicalities of these in a classroom. And you won’t find them on video games or through web socialising.”
Apiata sees the outdoor environment as an essential part of developing life experience. “Outdoor activity is equipping youth to make better decisions back in the real world. We should be encouraging them into it, not putting up protective barriers. By trying to protect them, we’re actually making the situation worse. Actual experiences are becoming harder to get, and the only way to really learn is through experience. There’s a reality that goes with the understanding. Theory-based learning doesn’t come close.
“The way to tackle things like teenage pregnancy, suicide and substance abuse is through building self esteem, resilience, responsibility and relationship development. And this needs to be done in a medium where young people can recognise and understand consequences quickly. The outdoors is an ideal medium for this.”
This article has focussed on risk in the outdoors and its value to society. The national review is a reflection of society’s changing attitude to risk. And whether the action taken from the review’s findings will actually lead to a reduction in accidents remains to be seen. Yet, these days, it seems that doing the right thing is not good enough anymore. It’s almost become more important that we are seen to be doing the right thing. And that highlights a lack of understanding about decision-making, about consequences, about self reliance and about responsibility.
Some of the concerns raised in the review are certainly valid but some, for me at least, are missing the point. My learning about the outdoors as a youngster had a practical aspect to it, an ethos that I have carried with me and will continue to carry with me for the rest of my life. I do not proclaim that it is the answer to all of life’s woes, but then nothing is. What I do feel is that, if we continue to carry on down the road we’re heading, the quality of our life will be the lesser for it.