Saturday, July 6, 2013

Youth and Risk: A Parent's Perspective

The climbing world has only begun to react to the tragic news of the death of 12-year old Tito Traversa following a groundfall at Orpierre in the south of France. While the exact details remain unclear as of this writing, it appears that most of his quickdraws were improperly set up and failed upon being weighted when he lowered off a warmup climb. Regardless of the emotional impact of the accident, there seems no doubt that a re-examination of the use of carabiner-securing devices like the Petzl String will be undertaken. (For what it's worth, my suggestion is only to sell them permanently sewn into dogbone-style draws so that they cannot be installed improperly or put on open slings where they can be flipped and fail completely.)

 The deeper issue is that of how much responsibility young climbers can or should assume upon themselves when climbing. Given that many climbers believe in self-reliance and personal decision making, free of outside authority or supervision, it seems natural to blame the accident on "operator error" and similar to dozens of similar incidents that happen every year, some fatal, most not. However given the age of the victim and the preventable nature of the accident, I am not comfortable with that view.

 I think that there is a different audience for this sad event and that is the parents of young climbers. I am not going to presume to speculate on the private grief and sorrow of Tito's parents and I would never call into question their judgment with their son's pursuit of climbing. Tito had just completed his fourth 5.14 and you don't get there without safe climbing practices and careful supervision. But his death puts us in very new territory for the sport where parents especially have to ask what they can do to respect their children's desire to climb while being careful to acknowledge that they are not responsible independent adults and should not be treated as such. This is a place that young childless climbers simply cannot comprehend until they have children of their own and have dedicated their lives to the all-consuming task of rearing healthy happy children themselves. To lose one's child at any age must be unbearable and there is no consolation or easing of that grief that I can think would be adequate to the task.

 In the current celebration of young climbers' recent athletic feats is often lost any discussion of a less obvious kind of skill, one that was long ago described by Pat Ament as being "rockwise." This phrase describes a state of mind that is wary, cautious and deeply aware of the constantly changing environment of climbing, be it indoors or outdoors. If there is one problem with the attitude toward modern sport climbing and bouldering, it is the dismissal of risk as merely perception, that we can handle dangerous situations simply by rationalizing our fears and developing our mental and physical strengths. There is some merit in this approach but I wonder if it would be wise also to emphasize an outlook that recognizes hazard not merely in regard to procedures or technical skills but also in appraising routes, partner behavior, belaying strategies, and so on.

 Young climbers are very adept at mastering closed systems, quickly learning the rules for success in defined games such as sport climbing, games set up by teachers, parents, or mentors. But when things are open-ended or suddenly the rules change, children are still ill-equipped to handle them, especially when they really do not understand in a meaningful sense the real and permanent consequences of mistakes in climbing. Even grownups have a hard time mastering this kind of awareness as the steady stream of climbing accident reports makes clear. Climbing is simply not a safe sport in the sense that tennis or running or swimming are. In climbing, we are much more vulnerable than we realize, finding ourselves, even on sport routes, in lethal situations in a matter of seconds where we thought ourselves secure. Climbers typically deal with this through a combination of denial, black humor, and bad analogies (such as "climbing is safer than driving") and other coping mechanisms, mechanisms that, if we have any sense of propriety, have no place in the minds of young people.

 So this is new territory for everyone. As someone who started climbing independently around Tito's age, who had numerous close calls as developing as a climber, and who, even now, has to acknowledge failure at this (I'll discuss my recent head injury while bouldering very soon) I can speak to the difficulty of this situation. As an educator and youth coach I am aware how difficult the process of education and awareness really is. The difficulty however is only matched by the serious implications of failure if the message doesn't get through. If there is a positive outcome from this extraordinary loss it is through inspiring all of us to look clearly realistically and soberly at the risks of climbing and how our children are taught to understand and handle them.

17 comments:

Joseph Grossman said...

Deeply insightful.Thank you.

Robo said...

Well put.

Killko Caballero said...

As a parent of a 12-yr old climber that has been climbing outdoors for 6 years, this tragedy hit very close to home.
I agree with your point that the vendors need to learn and address the inherent risks of using open slings in quickdraws. The main problem is one that is not necessarily linked to youth climbers. Unfortunately often with experience comes overconfidence and carelessness. How many climbers don't check their knots, or let go of the rope while belaying with a grigri, for example? Our son quickly out climbed us, and we were faced with a simple decision, limit his progress by forcing him to stay on top rope, or training him to expertly and safely lead and climb in the outdoors. Now I'm in no way implying that Tito's parents didn't do that, on the contrary, I'm certain they worried and constantly corrected and oversaw their kid, but nevertheless close calls happen, and sometimes there's no walking away...
The problem with these super talented kids is that they demonstrate uncanny maturity, focus and concentration often well beyond their age, and it's really easy to forget that they're still just kids. When surrounded by friends, other climbers, etc they can easily get distracted in the middle of tying their knots, or forget to triple check their harness, or their gear, and being kids they also have a tendency to believe that they're invincible. There's no way to fully eliminate the inherent dangers of climbing, but we try to constantly impose simple rules, about checking everything from knot to harness, to gear, to anchor setup, etc. No matter how annoying to him, we constantly insist on following the rules, and correct every mistake. On a different note, whenever possible, we try to avoid climbing on someone else's gear, unless we are very familiar with it. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. Still the hard truth is that we can help prevent an accident, but we can't ever guarantee one won't happen. That's what makes Tito's accident so unsettling, as I'm sure he was trained and experienced well beyond his age! RIP Tito

Eric Horst said...

Great viewpoint, Peter--thanks for sharing. Also, good comments by Killko...I share his thoughts on things. RIP Tito.
rig

Justin Roth said...

Thanks for your perspective on this, Peter. Having kids who climb must throw into sharp relief the already difficult problem parents face of determining what is an acceptable level of risk for their young ones.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks to everyone who has posted comments! As I said above, if any positive outcome can result from this horrible accident, it is in rethinking how we as adults educate and supervise children at the cliffs or at the gym. Children are not simply miniature adults, no matter how well they may climb.

AlanL said...

Funny you should mention swimming. I spent a rather nervous few minutes yesterday watching my ten year old son - a stronger swimmer than I am - swim across a small alpine lake. It was a warm, calm day, the water was clear and the swim was about two hundred yards and well within my son's ability. Still: it was his first open water solo swim and I was pretty sure that, if something for some reason should go wrong, I wasn't a strong enough swimmer to get out there in time to do anything useful. I wasn't sure if my mate on the other side of the lake was either, even though he's a better swimmer.

But it's vital to allow kids to push the boundaries of what they can do, and vital for a boy to able to revel in the things he can already do better than Dad. So you let them, and you keep the little cold ball of terror firmly pressed down in the pit of your stomach and you try not to let it show.

The ongoing process of refining and fool-proofing our equipment and techniques in climbing is clearly a good thing; but in this case the main issue as I see it is that kids, no matter how experienced and capable, shouldn't be climbing on gear that hasn't been checked by the adult(s) responsible for the group.

Mark Reeves said...

Hi Pete

A well considered piece as ever. A total tragedy and one that is not necessarily common but does occur regularly.

As a coach it is something I find totally tragic and last night I had to give a lecture on the legal and moral responsibilities of mountain instructors. In the UK there is a sliding scale of the responsibilities that minors can take on with regards to risk. Everytime I teach children to lead indoors and outdoor I think of Whymper's quote.

"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end."

As whilst I am giving young people a set of skills I am more than aware that those skills can and will put them in life threatening situations and even in a week long course I cannot cover all the skills to keep them safe.

So thanks for opening up what is a good debate and thought provoking issue.

Michelle said...

Excellent post; thank you. I appreciate your attention to the idea that young people who grow up in climbing are exposed to a level of self-reliance that youth in other sports are not. And while I agree entirely with Killko about how kids can sometimes quickly outclimb their parents, I worry that there's another dynamic at play that may have more to do with some aspects of the culture of climbing. Personally, I have seen where the combination of ability, mental toughness/denial and self-reliance sometimes seems to translate into distorted boundaries where children are no longer seen as children but, as you say, miniature adults. That is not to say that I or any parent would’ve been able to do much to ensure the use of safe equipment, say, on a trip where my child was climbing with her local team. In that case, I would have to put my faith in the adults supervising the trip to ensure my child’s safety.

In the last couple of years many of us in the climbing community have been given reason to consider how much this perception of children as miniature adults may be at play in our community in other contexts. As the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) puts it in its Core Values page, “climbers have developed their own lifestyle”, which in my personal experience has extended to kind, open-minded adults seeing children as capable of protecting themselves in what you so well describe as open-ended situations where rules may change. This combination of belief that kids are on par with adults and kids’ native inability to think through or believe in potential consequences (I always tell my kids it’s because the frontal lobes of the brain don’t mature until around age 25) is what I think may make our sport especially challenging. And unfortunately, the consequences of this situation may be subtle yet pervasive or may be fatal.

While we may be able to make our kids safer through supervision or education, unless we supervise constantly or educate ourselves beyond the level of our kids’ knowledge, we will at some point have to trust others to keep our kids safe. A brief examination of the USA Climbing and the IFSC websites shows documents related to the organization of the sport and rules of competition, but no safety standards; even the Coaches Code of Conduct focuses largely on conveying the values and goals of the organization with few references to ensuring safety. I have absolutely no knowledge of how other sports have developed safety standards related to equipment and technique, but I am familiar with ways to educate children and parents about understanding potential risks and I suggest that it is our duty as parents and members of the community to promote these standards and this type of education.

gian said...

Being italian, working as climbing and canyoning instructor and guide, often working with children and with parent+children groups, i am deeply shocked by this accident.

My thoughts concerning the youth involved in the accident are quite simple though: in any risk activity involving youth and adults, at least one adult should be officially responsible of the safety and have an eye on everyone and everything at all times.
This does not mean that we can't or shouldn't learn some form of risk-awareness to children and especially teens, as they are more likely to have some kind of independence and, for instance, manage to go climb without adult supervision (as i did in my time).
Yet on ordinary trips, a clearly identified adults should have the final word on key safety issues (eg knot&beleay system checking, or, as in this case, the approval of new equipement).


I have more complex and incoherent thoughts concerning the actual dynamics of the accident.
If the initial reports are true, the accident involved:
-an adult that i assume not to be the formally identified trip leader.
-a bad setup that should have been obvious and easily detected, yet wasn't.

As risk-activity teachers and guides, how effective are we in teaching risk awareness and management to adults?
To whick point can/should we trust them?

Should we make our equipement and systems as simple and fool-proof as possible?
Do "foolproofness" and simplicity communicate a sense of inherent safety and lead to more inattention, so that the resulting risk level is always the same?

Do all individuals have an identical potential for risk-management? Should we disencourage those who are less culturally/psychologically prepared to take charge of their own and other people's lives during a leisure activity?

gian said...

Being italian, working as climbing and canyoning instructor and guide, often working with children and with parent+children groups, i am deeply shocked by this accident.

My thoughts concerning the youth involved in the accident are quite simple though: in any risk activity involving youth and adults, at least one adult should be officially responsible of the safety and have an eye on everyone and everything at all times.
This does not mean that we can't or shouldn't learn some form of risk-awareness to children and especially teens, as they are more likely to have some kind of independence and, for instance, manage to go climb without adult supervision (as i did in my time).
Yet on ordinary trips, a clearly identified adults should have the final word on key safety issues (eg knot&beleay system checking, or, as in this case, the approval of new equipement).


I have more complex and incoherent thoughts concerning the actual dynamics of the accident.
If the initial reports are true, the accident involved:
-an adult that i assume not to be the formally identified trip leader.
-a bad setup that should have been obvious and easily detected, yet wasn't.

As risk-activity teachers and guides, how effective are we in teaching risk awareness and management to adults?
To whick point can/should we trust them?

Should we make our equipement and systems as simple and fool-proof as possible?
Do "foolproofness" and simplicity communicate a sense of inherent safety and lead to more inattention, so that the resulting risk level is always the same?

Do all individuals have an identical potential for risk-management? Should we disencourage those who are less culturally/psychologically prepared to take charge of their own and other people's lives during a leisure activity?

Killko Caballero said...

I'm troubled by comments I see on many boards. People seem to be using this accident to make points that while sometimes valid, really have nothing to do with this particular tragedy...

"Children running amoc unsupervised", "pushy parents", "grade chasers", "inexperienced gym rats", etc...

Certainly I have experienced some of that here and there on the crags, but here's the scary truth:

Tito was a very experienced outdoor climber, well beyond his age, as he's been climbing outdoors almost every weekend and vacation for several years.

Tito was running amoc. He was one of 10 children supervised by 3 adults.

Tito wasn't grade chasing, he was warming up on a very easy climb especially by his standards. He probably didn't do anything wrong, clipped 12 draws on his way up, reached the top, asked to be lowered, and fell, as the top 8 draws failed to hold him...

It appears the fatal mistake of badly rigging the draws was made by a parent, not a child, but we don't know if it was a mistake due to inexperience, or lack of attention. Either way that person must be agonizing over the consequences of that incredibly stupid mistake.

We don't know the level of experience of the adults on site, but I have been climbing for 25 years, and still have to see climbers check their quickdraws in detail before climbing. Be honest, most of the time someone hands you the draws and you just blindly clip them on the your harness!!!

The sad and scary part is that this probably has nothing to do with the age, the experience, or the focus of the climber. It could have happened to most of us.

I watched some videos of possible scenarios, and I have to honestly admit to myself that I would probably have missed the bad rigging too, and I'm as experienced and as careful as it comes. I enforce rules about checking gear, I avoid climbing on someone else's gear, I triple check everything, and yet I might very well have missed this one, and sometimes I can't avoid using someone else's gear, and these were brand new draws, how bad could they be???

Obviously the manufactures will pay attention, and will ensure that this sort of accident doesn't happen again.

Most certainly it won't happen to me in the future, because I will check for it, and I will be even more reluctant to climb on someone else's draws, but, honestly, it could have happened before!!!

It was a very very dumb mistake, resulting in a freak tragic accident. The person making the mistake, and the parents will re-live it over and over for years to come...

Matt said...

there's a reason why you (used) to see the old "Climbing is Dangerous. You can be seriously injured or killed..."

Not to sound cold, but Tito is as much responsible as the person who rigged the quick draw for the oversight in safety. You should ALWAYS inspect your gear and i believe that the culture of gym climbing has diminished the value of safety first and replaced it with grades first.

Peter Beal said...

So Matt, I am going to guess that you don't have any children of your own? Do you work with kids in any way? I am guessing not so much,because your comment does not sound 'cold" so much as it is oblivious to the reality of how children's minds work. Tito is dead, so he "was" or "was not" responsible, not "is." Whatever the problems might be with the "culture of gym climbing" the central point is that children cannot be held entirely responsible for their actions, a principle recognized on multiple levels in virtually every society/culture on the planet. Climbers,as your comment shows, can take the personal responsibility thing too far.

Thanks again everyone else! Killko, I totally agree and that raises another problem, that of well-meaning but less experienced adults brought into the sport by their kids and how they can be properly trained in safe climbing and belaying.

Ian Kirk said...

Honest question... Should kids be sport climbing if they don't possess the awareness and critical thinking skill set required to mitigate risk?
ie. Do we need to check all the bolts ahead of time? If there are fixed draws on the route, do we need to check them first? When does your child get to tie in and clean a route? If they are cleaning (untying their rope) are you going to go up and inspect it every time? How and when do you know children are capable of making these judgements?

Ian Kirk said...

Honest question... Should kids be sport climbing if they don't possess the awareness and critical thinking skill set required to mitigate risk?
ie. Do we need to check all the bolts ahead of time? If there are fixed draws on the route, do we need to check them first? When does your child get to tie in and clean a route? If they are cleaning (untying their rope) are you going to go up and inspect it every time? How and when do you know children are capable of making these judgements?

Peter Beal said...

Hi Ian,
It's pretty easy to check all these issues off one at a time.

1. There is no need to "check" the bolts if the route is popular, well-maintained and the gear reasonably spaced so that no single piece determines life and death. If there is any doubt it may be smart for an adult to climb the route first as needed. This assumes that the child has shown a clear understanding of the skills and safety principles needed for leading.

2. The above paragraph answers the "fixed draws" question as well.

3. Regarding untying to clean a route, it is pretty easy to train a child to do this safely. I think by around age 10-12 the child can handle it. There are certainly ways of doing this that provide back up in case of error. Otherwise an adult can do it until it is clear the child understands the system and what to do. This is really about communication and not letting things get casual.

4. I would add that the key principle is that a young climber recognizes what safer climbing looks like and what unsafe climbing implies. Visual inspection of all links in the safety chain is part of it plus clear communication with a belayer about what's going on.