Little Si, 10/23/2019

I didn’t think we’d find a viable route with all the rain that we’ve been having. North Bend received 6.61″ of rain in the seven day period from October 16 – October 22. Rain means wet rocks. Wet rocks are slippery.

The usual scramble route starts up the normal Little Si trail and heads uphill in the climber’s gulley by Repo wall. This leads to a way trail on the south east side of the peak. The way trail leads to an open book feature and then traverses uphill on some slabs toward the summit. This terrain is shaded and sheltered and takes a while to dry out.

We found the open book sopping wet. It was dripping. We could have gone swimming up the open book move. I had heard about a different route traversing left (south then toward the west side of the mountain). What we found was a faint trail toward some slab moves. These moves were dry, and we followed obvious breaks in the rock to a ledge. At one point you could traverse on some exposed grass and dirt and end up at the top of the open book move. I scooted over and saw that the normal route up above the open book was just as wet as the open book. We continued up climber’s left of the open book route. This led us to some obvious small gulleys with occasional class 3 moves to the summit.

I thought I knew Little Si pretty well but found new terrain here. Even a small piece of terrain takes a long time to master. This new-to-me route was really fun; I’ll be back.

We were a small party of three. This was Kat’s graduation scramble with the Mountaineers. Congratulations on graduating Kat!

I’m currently reading Breaking the Halo, by Katjarina Hurt. Breaking the Halo attempts to provide context and tools for outdoor travelers to make safer decisions in the backcountry. Traveling in the mountain environment carries risk of injury. This is a risk that has been on my mind a lot lately. I think I was lucky this season; my friends made it through without getting hurt. But I think that nobody got hurt was only because of luck and close calls. There are enough recreation days in the mountains in my community that it’s only a matter of time. It feels inevitable.

“Our minds may begin to reason that something must be repeatable simply because someone else has broken through the prior barrier of impossibility.”

Katjarina Hurt, Breaking the Halo

Some of the circumstances that can lead to unfortunate outcomes is for us (1) to not understand the risk in the decisions that are being made, or (2) to think there is undue risk and not speak up. The book describes six “halos” that we may encounter that contribute to decision making that is less than ideal, including falling into the risk traps that I just mentioned. One of those halos is the badge halo, which strikes me as particularly insidious. I understand a “badge” to be a token of accomplishment, and the badge halo shows up in two ways:

  1. The concept of what is at the edge of possible keeps pushing forward. For example, in the “old days” 5.9 was the hardest grade possible. 5.10 was frequently reserved for routes that were impossible. Nowadays 5.9 and 5.10 are on the harder end of moderate, where 5.13, 5.14, and even 5.15 routes are going up. To be doing hard stuff you need to be climbing harder than 5.9. Breaking the Halo describes it like this: “What is less obvious are the assumptions we make when a record is set or a new badge is created. Our minds may begin to reason that something must be repeatable simply because someone else has broken through the prior barrier of impossibility.”
  2. Just because someone has a badge doesn’t mean that they are currently capable of achieving that badge now. For example, I may have been able to competently lead 5.6 last year, but if I don’t practice for a few years then me attempting to go lead 5.6 could be dangerous.

I was thinking about this badge as I watched us scramble into the unknown on Little Si. Was there additional confidence because I had been up this route a dozen times? Did we get tunnel vision attempting to get a graduation climb? I thought hard about what motivated us to go on this trip and my qualifications to lead it. There are other halos that can apply, but I think about this as an exercise against evaluating the badge halo.

We were successful getting to the top of this route. It was wet at times, and there were some exposed moves. It was terrain that was well within our capability. Some of the moves were wet. In one exposed spot my foot pivoted on the hold (it didn’t slip, but there just wasn’t nearly as much friction as I would have liked). Kat was elated to get to the top. I was elated to be out of exposed terrain. I suggested we high five like cool climber bros and bro-ettes. Congratulations went around. We were safely at the top. Were we skilled or were we lucky?

I consider the question of luck vs. skill frequently, especially when it comes to traveling in the mountains. The answer lies in shades of grey. We mitigate risk, we train, we practice the skills required to safely move on rock. Sometimes, though, we did not judge that risk properly. When that happens, it is only by grace that we are let through.

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