The danger of experience

It’s usually true that greater rock climbing experience results in increased rock climbing competence.  However, I worry that there are a small minority of climbers for whom greater rock climbing experience leads to increased risk-taking and occasional bad practice.   What this demonstrates to me is a need to keep an open, questioning mind about my own climbing practice.

Climbing at Holyhead Mountain.

The taking of calculated risks is intrinsic to rock climbing.  As a rock climber does more climbs, they build up experience of calculating risks and making decisions in a variety of potentially dangerous situations.  They also learn from the experience of mistakes, near misses and climbing with people more skilled than them.  In the vast majority of people, this makes them a more skilled and safer climber.

However, I have seen experienced climbers taking unnecessary risks and engaging in poor, and possibly unsafe practices.  I’m thinking of such things as leaving long distances between runners, relying on one anchor for a belay or using dubiously placed protection when the situation doesn’t justify it.

There is always the possibility that the climbers who do this have gradually developed bad habits over time.  Another possibility is a fading memory of what they were originally taught or the copying of other climbers’ bad practice.

A further possibility is that the increased confidence that can come from increased experience can sometimes bring over-confidence.  This can make a person feel that they are less fallible or, in some way, lucky.  In particular, if a climber has found that they have done something risky many times in the past without a bad outcome, then they can feel that it is safe to continue taking this same risk in future.  I wonder if this approach to risk-taking is similar to the mind-set seen when people fall for the hot-hand fallacy.

The hot-hand fallacy is the belief that a person who has experienced success in a particular activity in the recent past will have a greater chance of success when they do this activity the next time.  The classic example of this fallacy is when someone predicts that a basketball player who has scored with their last four throws is “hot” (i.e. on a winning streak) and so will score with a fifth throw.  They might be right in this prediction, but they might not.  The fallacy is to believe that success in an activity in the past causes success in this activity in the future.  Yet, for the basketball player, each throw is an independent event and the probability of scoring does not necessarily increase simply because the last few throws have been successful.

You could argue that the reason people believe in the hot-hand fallacy is because they have seen how certain characteristics (e.g. skill, strength) can produce repeated, positive outcomes.  Rock climbers will have seen that skilled and experienced climbers can achieve higher performance and that they have taken risks that have paid-off.  They may also have seen this in their own climbing.  Skill, experience and confidence can certainly help a climber through a risky situation and achieve higher performance.  In addition, some risks must be taken in rock climbing at times.

My concern is not with the taking of necessary risk, but with experienced climbers taking risks that they do not need to take.  I am concerned that there seem to be climbers who believe that they will be safe doing something risky because they were fine the last ten times they did it.  As such, they may be falling for something like the hot-hand fallacy, maybe mixed with over-confidence and a lack of a critical perspective on their own decisions.  This could put themselves and those they climb with at risk.  Repeated positive outcomes in the past do not necessarily mean the next occasion must have a positive outcome.  Each situation is independent and its risks should be assessed as such.

I want to be a safe climber.  To do this, I think I have to work at being critical and questioning about my own practice.  I need to think carefully about each situation.  I need to not assume I will be alright a take a risk this time because I was alright the last time and the time before that.

5 thoughts on “The danger of experience

  • All very true. Picking a climbing partner you trust is very important too, especially if they can keep you using the best practices too.

    • Thanks.

      I agree that trust and respect between climbing partners is vital. You need to be able to rely on your climbing partner to point out when you are slipping into bad habits or have made a mistake. Equally, you have to feel comfortable letting your climbing partner know about something risky.

      Best wishes, Robin

  • Agreed – always question one´s own actions, what one did and why! My last flyer was on an easy section after the difficulties were over. 10th pitch on a Wilden Kaiser route, no pro., pulled up with both hands on a flake, flake breaks away, so do I. result – broken collar bone, broken foot and ruptured achilles and a helli flight.
    What did I do wrong? Didn´t protect straight after belay, pulled up with both hands instead of using one with the other on another hold – there were plenty. What did I do right? Wore a helmet and had a good partner who held me.
    Learn by your mistakes – if you´re lucky. And I was!!!
    Cheers
    Charles

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