Good Judgement

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.” —Rita Mae Brown

The mountains, quite frankly, don’t follow you on Instagram. They don’t know how rad you got last week during the powder cycle, or that you have the latest, greatest gear. 

Time spent in the mountains unlocks potential through experience in adventure. What’s a bit odd about this is that the more you know, the less you know. In risk management, the term is known as the 
“levels of mastery.” At the basic layer, is unconscious incompetence. Basically, you know so little that you don’t even know what you don’t know. Ignorance is bliss! 

As your skills develop, so does your imagination for what could go wrong. For many, including myself, what I’ve uncovered in the backcountry is more than just fresh turns that I lived to tell about. After years of close calls, injuries that could have been worse, and losing far too many close friends to the mountains, I’ve learned to adjust my risk tolerance based on a few simple guidelines. This level of mastery is conscious incompetence. You know enough to recognize that there is so much more to learn. Recognizing your skillset between unconscious incompetence and conscious incompetence is how meaningful dialog (leading to informal mentorship) happens. By leveraging all of the information at hand—and recognizing that we all have blind spots—we can have meaningful and empowering conversations around seeking adventure in the mountains through basic risk management. 

To help others in our community make this leap from the unconscious to the conscious in the multi-faceted art that is backcountry skiing, I wanted to offer a phrase that helps decipher decision-making in complex terrain and navigating group dynamics: What are the hazards and how can I manage them? 

This simple phrase is effective for breaking down complex pieces of terrain while considering all the many factors that go into risk management as a whole. 

The definition of a ‘hazard’ is a potential source of danger. With this definition in mind, risk tolerance is the degree of risk you are willing to undertake in order to reach a goal. Everyone has their own level of risk management and it should not be a source of judgement towards ourselves or others. The important thing to recognize is that you need to talk about this with the people that you choose to venture into the mountains. This is how mentorship shows up in a way that everyone can participate in. 

Claire Smallwood Photo