The Risk Formula | Rapid Magazine | Rapid Media
Whitewater risk management Photo: Francois Brassard

When it comes to whitewater, we must look at danger differently

 I raced one of mountain biking’s crown jewels this summer. One hundred and one miles of roots and rocks, hour-long climbs and jack hammer descents left me with two numb hands and unable to climb stairs for two weeks. It was hard. When I was younger, I rock climbed a lot—that was hard too.

The semi-objective rating scale used by climbers made difficulty easier to measure than a 101-mile slog, but, like most action sports, “hard” is a relative term where enthusiasts find their own frontier. Whitewater is different—hard means unforgiving. More difficult means inherently more dangerous.

A simple way to understand and assess risk is: Risk = Probability x Consequence.

Probability is the likelihood of something going wrong—going off line or getting pinned, or going over your handlebars or taking a lead fall.

Consequence estimates how bad the situation will be if the above is realized—broken gear, a broken body or death.

Multiply them together and a relative risk rating is created. It’s an approximation at best, but provides language to deal with these ambiguous dangers. This formula illustrates why whitewater carries more risk than almost any other sport.

For the majority of action sports, consequence is more or less fixed regardless of difficulty. Serious injury is the exception, not the rule.

Consequence is always present, but generally realized at low to mod­erate levels. For example, the potential severity of going over the bars is the same whether the mountain bike is going fast or slow—a bro­ken collarbone. The consequence of a climber’s lead fall is the same regardless of an easy or hard route—a short fall arrested by bolts and harness. Likewise, these consequences are the same whether a novice or expert—falling is falling.

Probability on the other hand, does change with difficulty. We are more likely to fall off of a difficult climb than an easy one. It’s also in probability that novices differ from experts. High skill levels suggest less probability of a negative outcome. Only at the extremes of these activities does this break down.

Whitewater paddling is different. For each increase in the difficulty of rapids, both probability and consequence rise in lock step. Difficult rapids imply both more chance of something going wrong and worse outcomes when something does. The multiplying effect of the for­mula cranks up whitewater risk much more quickly than other sports.

In other sports, the individual defines when things get hard. For us, the river tells us when it’s hard. At class IV and above, things can unravel quickly regardless of skill. A hard river is an unforgiving one.

For aspiring paddlers, this lesson may be hard learned. While difficult rock climbs keep novices away because they can’t get off the ground, anyone can drop into a class IV rapid. And they do.

New paddlers may tempt difficult rapids and realize their limits with a thumping, but I see advanced paddlers falling into a similar trap. So focused on whether they can make the line, they mistake confidence for low probability. Confidence in being able to make a line does not change the odds of it going wrong, or the consequences. At the extreme, elite paddlers are merely rolling the dice on whether consequence will be realized or not.

In whitewater, hard means unforgiving, but we can find challenge wherever we choose. Given a target level of risk and consequence dic­tated by the river grade, it’s our decision-making and skill set that manage the probability of something going right. In whitewater, the reward of putting it all together is harder earned.



Jeff Jackson is a professor of Outdoor Adventure at Algonquin College and is the co-author of Managing Risk: Systems Planning for Outdoor Adventure Programs. His Alchemy column appears in every issue of Rapid. 

This editorial originally appeared in the 2013 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it on your desktop here. 


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