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What does Acceptable Risk even mean?

Drew Hardesty
What does Acceptable Risk even mean?
Not long ago, I was asked this question by another long-time avalanche professional after sitting in one of our annual fall Snow and Avalanche Workshops.  In an avalanche accident this winter, I found - what I believe - to be a clear example.
First some definitions (these are my definitions): 
Risk - the potential of danger, harm, or loss to someone or something.  In the mountain setting, risks may involve injury or death due to the interaction with objective hazards, such as rockfall, lightning, or avalanches.
Reward - some desired good or outcome.  In the mountain setting, rewards may include reaching a summit or skiing a long mountain slope in untracked powder.  A reward may also be saving a life.
Safety - freedom from, or absence, of danger or harm. While risk and safety are inversely related, risk, reward, and safety exist along its own continuum. This paper assumes that safety is not (or not always) the ultimate objective or goal. 
Uncertainty - when the process or outcome is partially or completely unknown.  Uncertainty is usually inherent in the process or outcome.  There may be some risk for some perceived reward, but neither will be realized until after the event.  Maybe not even then.  

Situation 1:  High Risk  High Reward = Acceptable Risk
On the morning of Tuesday, December 13, 2022, a backcountry skiing party of two traveled up from the White Pine parking lot in Little Cottonwood Canyon to ski some fresh powder in Red Pine, the next valley to the west.  On their exit from Red Pine, they missed the turnoff back to the White Pine parking lot and continued down through the trees below the “Pink Pine'' ridge.  This terrain rolls over steeply through the fir and aspen forest as it leads to the Little Cottonwood Creek.  At about 7800’, the first skier skied down the steep north facing pitch while his partner waited from above.  From this vantage point, she saw a powdercloud from an avalanche running downslope and made a decision.  Many people will make this same decision to put themselves at risk in order to save a friend or loved one. She switched her avalanche transceiver to receive and went in after him.
High Risk  High Reward = Acceptable Risk
Situation 2:  Moderate Risk  High Reward = Acceptable Risk 
A 911 call alerted Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) that a serious avalanche accident had occurred below Pink Pine involving a male skier who had suffered significant traumatic injury.  WBR conducted a measured risk analysis, made a plan, and led a briefing of the situation.  The backcountry avalanche danger was rated as Considerable and the call-out was for an avalanche accident.  Rescuers might encounter avalanche danger to access the patient and yet the patient may not survive the night unless a team assisted in their rescue.  WBR is made up of avalanche professionals - ski patrollers - who are both avalanche experts as well as highly skilled outdoor/wilderness EMTs.  The team accessed the injured victim from above, stabilized him, and extricated him downslope, across the creek, and to the road.  By nature, rescuers know that they will at times put themselves at risk in order to save lives, but they will not blindly rush in to create more victims in an unsafe environment.  A risk management and mitigation strategy is discussed, agreed upon, and then briefed to the team at the Incident Command Post, SAR cache, or - if needed - at the trailhead or via phone/radio.  It is acknowledged that operations may change as conditions change.
Moderate Risk  High Reward = Acceptable Risk
Situation 3:  Moderate Risk  Low Reward - Unacceptable Risk
The following day, a team of three avalanche forecasters from the Utah Avalanche Center discussed the plan of traveling to the site to conduct an analysis of the avalanche accident.  This analysis was to gather relevant technical data and take photos/video of the avalanche and snow structure.   The team knew that the day’s avalanche danger remained at Considerable and knew that there would be similar pockets of unstable snow (the original avalanche was 3’ deep but only 60’ wide) might still be triggered.  Access to the avalanche, however, was through steep, forested terrain that did not allow for easy visual or verbal communication.  With some discussion in the low angle glade above the accident site, the team put their skins back on and retreated to the trailhead.  Based on previous days fieldwork and investigation of other recent avalanches, the forecasters knew with 99% certainty both the size of the avalanche and the slab/weak layer interface.  It was commented, “Why risk our necks to get information that we already have?”  
Moderate Risk  Low Reward = Unacceptable Risk
It’s my view that this series of events well describes the concept of Acceptable Risk.  In general, individuals and teams will have higher safety margins and safety records when the risk calculus is considered.  In mountain settings, financial markets, public health, etc; individuals and teams should strive for Low Risk - High Reward situations. 
Leave a comment
I think you have to have agreement by all involved and the decision maybe it is too dangerous to continue regardless of the victim who was caught in an avalanche while remembering the person or persons made the decision to ski a slope with an avalanche danger. I read the avalanche report everyday whether I ski that day or not. I follow the low risk at all times rule. I want to have another day to ski. It is always a great day on a 20 degree slope with one or two feet of new snow. I also ski alone most of the time in very low angle areas.
Willis Richardson
Tue, 3/21/2023
Drew: I find this to be a very sensible and well thought out risk/reward plan based on actual real life, as opposed to theoretic discussions. Thank you for sharing it. Craig
Craig Merhoff, ...
Tue, 3/21/2023
If the reward is less than the risk, then the risk is unacceptable. The converse of this statement, however, is not generally true.
Spencer Parkin
Tue, 3/21/2023
Great read, Drew.
Kevin Pusey
Tue, 3/21/2023
Thanks for writing thoughtfully about risk/reward. This is nice complement to forecasts, and that "safety is not pursued at any cost"
scott frei
Wed, 3/22/2023
Thanks for sharing, Drew. That’s a really helpful logic-based framework for us to use.
Jake Wright
Fri, 3/24/2023
Always appreciate your thoughts on the topic! Thanks! Dave
Dave Case
Mon, 3/27/2023