In case you’re not aware, I’m an avid outdoorsman. At ten months old, I spent my first night in a snow cave. Ever since, I’ve jumped at every opportunity to experience the outdoors. While my peers had sleepovers, video game tournaments, birthday parties, and whatever else it is normal people do, I played in the woods and took frequent hikes and backpack trips. Once old enough to go out on my own, I took to the outdoors in earnest, filling my winters with ski touring, ice climbing adventures, and snow cave outings. My summers were filled with rock climbing, ultralight backpacking trips in the wilderness, and the occasional mountaineering trip to Mt. Rainier in Washington.
One of the things I’ve grown up knowing is that being outdoors is inherently dangerous. Glacier National Park, where I do a lot of my adventuring, is full of Grizzly bears, avalanches, scree slopes and cliffs on which one could fall, and a host of other dangers. Bone-breaking falls, sudden storms, frostbite issues, and countless other dangers have afflicted other adventurers, and could foist themselves on me. Consequently, I’m fairly careful when playing outside. I use plenty of safety gear and take a lot of reasonable precautions. Any time before this week I would have attributed my accident-free backcountry history to these precautions. But anytime before this week, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about “normal accidents” and chaos theory.
This week, I read a chapter out of a book that my dad described as “overwhelmingly disappointing with the exception of chapter six, which is actually excellent.” He was right, but I came away rethinking all I “knew” about safety in the outdoors. The premise of the chapter was that major accidents are 1) part of the system of adventure, 2) fundamentally alike, and 3) get more severe as the system of adventure becomes more complex. At first this sounded like fancy jargon. I had little understanding, but further reading helped me.
In 1984 a book was writen on the subject of “normal accidents.” The premise of this book is that big disastrous accidents occur when a large, complex, high energy system is built and then fails in one point – often an imperceptibly small and seemingly insignificant point. Though I don’t exactly understand why, these accidents cannot be avoided. Trying to add safety devices into the mix only makes the accident worse, because it introduces additional components (potential points of failure) and generally causes the system to incorporate more energy before failing. Turns out, there are actually mathematical formulas which relate the size of an accident to the frequency at which it will occur.
These accidents aren’t limited to outdoor recreation, either. The author I was reading provided examples from earthquakes, airplanes, and other common things from all walks of life. At least that made me feel better. Outdoor recreation isn’t the culprit. Rather, inevitable accidents are part of life in a chaotic universe.