Rock Climbing and Managing Risk

Logan Erf on

Logan Erf on “Anthill Direct” in Eldorado Canyon

For months, I awaited my friend Matt Dodson moving to Denver. He arrived last Sunday. And having climbed together while students at Belmont University, it was only fitting to strike rock together as soon as possible. Tuesday was the day.

Ripping its way through our rolled-down windows, the wind fueled our energy as we drove to Eldorado Canyon. Our goal of climbing “Yellow Spur” seemed to blur out the radio. There was nothing else. Sunny skies welcomed the upcoming climb. The moment was filled with ecstasy.

But as we pulled into the state park, we began to see them. Grey clouds were easing their way into view behind our destined summit.

Quoted a 5% chance of thunderstorms by the park entrance ranger, we still decided to approach the climb. As we toiled forth a mile, the 700 foot elevation gain seemed to bring us closer to a darkened sky. Onward, we hiked every inch of it.

And as we found the first pitch of the climb, flaked our ropes, prepped our gear, and I tossed on my climbing shoes, I became more psyched for the lead. Then, as I placed my first foot onto the rock, we heard it—a booming echo through Eldo’s walls. Thunder struck.

At this point, we were left with a choice. With the clouds appearing to move away, it seemed unlikely for the storm to blow directly through the canyon, but there was still the chance of danger upon the sandstone above.

I think in my past, I may have chanced it.

But, life has a way of changing. This is no secret. Circumstances ebb and flow and our outlooks on the world change with them. I will soon partner with the most beautiful woman in my life; our wedding date is July 18th. It will be the happiest day of my life thus far. I also increasingly yearn to inspire an adventurist culture towards a spiritual understanding of creation. I have many reasons to live. Tuesday was not to take my life for granted. The chance of lightning strike, however slim, was not worth the climb.

Matt and I gathered up our belongings and headed home.

A famous climber and base jumper, Dean Potter, and his friend Graham Hunt recently died while wing suiting in Yosemite National Park. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean a couple of times, and I know some of my friends in the park are suffering the loss of these two individuals.

I have watched over the past couple weeks as climbers nation-wide have responded to their death. Some have stressed the “decision-making” that led to it. On the other extreme, many have commended them for “going out doing what they loved to do.” I hope that both extremes can agree upon one thing. These men were cherished. They lived in this world just like we do, and they had further aspirations for their life that will never be accomplished. This should be tragic to us.

Yet so many responses to their death tried to hit on something beautiful about their final act. Can risk really be beautiful?

Dean and Graham risked it all. Was there beauty in that?

Is there anything for which I would risk everything, including life itself?

For climbing I would not. The people and aspirations for which I live outweigh death on a rock. Sure, climbers constantly face the challenge of risk assessment. Some may even consider the risk of death worth a climb. I myself climb routes that I believe have no serious risk of death. The point is we choose the level of risk we engage when we choose which route to climb.


Andrew Bellisle cleaning the summit of “Anthill Direct” on a different day in Eldorado Canyon

I think life often works the same. There are daily risks of failure, looking the fool, pain, embarrassment, health issues, injury, hurting others, and getting hurt. Like an impending storm, so many of these things are out of our control. We can only control our reactions once they have happened.

But often, we do control our risks by placing ourselves on a certain path. Depending upon which path we choose, certain risks will arise. And we each beautifully decide some of these risks are fully worth taking!

For instance, I know in marrying Laura, I will embrace certain risks: hurting her, being hurt, failing to put her best interests at heart, watching as she goes through sickness and health, seeing her cry, letting her down. But ultimately, these risks are minimal compared to the incredible gain of spending my life with the most beautiful woman I know. She has my heart. She’s worth the risks. And I hope to be for her.

So what risks are we willing to take? Which are worth it? Some are. Some aren’t. It may not be as simple as the cliché, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.” Perhaps the phrase should be, “The greater the risk, the more sure we should be it’s worth risking.” Then, it can be beautiful.

Let us be selective and wise about the routes we choose. Let us be selective and wise about the risks we take. This is our responsibility. Risks—that are truly worth it—can and should be beautifully taken. Find what those are for you. Embrace them. And go risk it.

Eyes wide open,

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12