TOPOPHILIA: Risk Management, Fear, and the Love of Climbing with Climber & Mountain Athlete Brad Farra

NORTHER: To start, why don’t you tell us a little about your background and upbringing in the context of the outdoors?

BRAD: I grew up doing regular kind of stuff; just sports and playing outside, nothing too outside of the ordinary. I was in the navy as a helicopter rescue swimmer for six and a half years, and then got out, and got pretty serious about climbing. I was still doing a lot of triathlons and running and adventure races, mountain biking, and cycling. I was climbing for the first ten years of the 2000s along with all that stuff, and then kind of dropped it all in 2011 and just focused on climbing. I got really big into ice climbing and alpine climbing after 2008, and now I do ALL of the climbing. I go to the crag, I go ice climbing, I do alpine climbing; I enjoy putting it all together in the mountains; that’s probably my favorite aspect of climbing.  

NORTHER: In Wild Solitude, we talk a lot about Intimacy with Place or Relationship with Place. Another term is TOPOPHILIA, which is the name of this interview series. Do you find that concept resonant at all?

BRAD: Yeah, I definitely feel that a big part of being outdoors is a connection to a place, as well as the person you’re climbing with. I feel that it’s just as much getting out there into the wild and having a good experience with your climbing partner all around. A big part of taking care of the wild places that we go to is making sure that we are doing as much as we can to preserve these places.

NORTHER: I loved what you said about the partner aspect, it’s an experience that I was really missing out on when I was just hiking. Everyone that I have had as a steady climbing partner is something I have a deep level of feeling for, even though the original intent behind the relationship was purely practical.

BRAD: Yeah, I think the more epic adventure you have with somebody, the deeper the connection.

“What’s great about rock climbing is that someone who is a beginner can have the exact same experience as a professional climber in terms of training and improving and reaching goals, which makes it different than a lot of other sports.”

Brad Farra, Climber & Mountain Athlete

NORTHER: What is your relationship with risk, both outdoors and in your day-to-day life? There is a misconception that adventure sports athletes are more inclined toward risk taking behavior- despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary?

BRAD: Well, risk management in my daily life isn’t anything too crazy. The most dangerous thing I do in my day-to-day life is probably driving to work. I was introduced to risk management in the navy, as a helicopter rescue swimmer and EMT, and part of a flight crew. Risk management in the mountains is a little bit different, but you kind of take the same process. In the aviation world, you follow checklists. In the mountains, you kind of walk yourself through a mental checklist and walk yourself through all the potential bad things that could happen and make sure you’re prepared for each and every one of them.

Sometimes that means backing off before you’ve even begun- you look at the weather, you look at the Avvy report, and you just don’t even go. Sometimes you get to your approach, and you end up backing off even there. Sometimes you get halfway through and go, “oh, that’s not right, time to go”.

NORTHER: Since you have a military background, where you had already developed the skill of risk management, do you think that the way you evaluate risk has changed at all over the course of your athletic career?

BRAD: Yeah, it’s definitely changed. I’ve made bad decisions, I think everyone has made bad decisions, I think luckily, though, most of us get to live through and learn from our bad decisions. Failures are always opportunities to learn and luckily my decisions haven’t been bad enough to injure or kill me. So, get to reap the benefits and sit back and look at those mistakes and learn from them.

I’d like to think that I’m constantly learning, adapting and morphing my process, by learning from others and learning from my own mistakes. Just simply thumbing through the accidents of North American Mountaineering every year is always enlightening, even though it seems like people make the same mistakes year after year. Rapping off the end of the rope, and so on….

NORTHER: I talk to people about fear a lot. As I launched this guiding service, the conversations I’m having are not what I thought I’d be having a year ago. Initially, I thought, “Well, I’ll just teach people foraging and navigation and help them build confidence and competency. Once they see that they can master this one area, it will help them build confidence that will help them spend more time in the outdoors. And… it actually doesn’t work that way, because people aren’t concerned about the logical risks that the activity presents. Instead, they have subconscious fears and cultural stories that they are operating within…

What I’m observing is that people with less experience in the outdoors tend to prioritize those kinds of cultural fears over the actual risks of hiking or being in the mountains. I’m wondering if you have any theories as to why that is and what kinds of transformations you observe in someone as they go from lay person to becoming an adventure sport athlete? Somewhere in that transition, you let go of the idea that there are cougars and bad guys trying to get you and you become more respectful of the actual; dangers- like slimy log crossings, rockfall, and driving home tired?

BRAD: You know, it’s an interesting thing, I don’t know where the transition happens, but I think you’re right- early on, we have all these silly stories lodged in our heads because we’ve watched too many movies. We have falsified the actual risk, and put it into the wrong place. As we get more experienced, we realize, our risks are actually different than where the movies placed them. And then we get more experience and we start to develop our own narrative, and we learn, “Hey, these are the things we need to pay attention to. Maybe if I know it’s going to be a sixteen-hour day, don’t plan to drive back tonight.”

The transition between having illogical fears and getting to a place where we are telling ourselves the right story and paying attention to the right things… I don’t really know what happens, I think it must just be experience, working with other, more experienced people, and learning from others. Reading from authors that tell us the right stories and tell us the things that we should pay attention to.

“Failures are always opportunities to learn and luckily my decisions haven’t been bad enough to injure or kill me. So, get to reap the benefits and sit back and look at those mistakes and learn from them.”

Brad Farra, Climber & Mountain Athlete

NORTHER: So, I sent you a link to a study…

[Expert and lay judgements of danger and recklessness in adventure sports]

BRAD: That was so detailed…. [laughs]

NORTHER: I found it really interesting that the experienced athletes were weighing the statistical risk as well as the experience of the person, and that they layperson was not really prioritizing either one of those things but instead was kind of looking at other factors.

BRAD: Yeah, the layperson part of that makes sense to me, but, like how often do you think of the statistical risk of a given activity? [laughs] I guess I’m not because maybe I just don’t know the exact statistics. Like, the likelihood of being caught in an avalanche… Yeah, it’s pretty low, but every year you hear about people getting caught in avalanches and even hear about avalanche forecasting professionals getting caught in avalanches. Which tells us- the science and the prevention that we do is still not perfect. I don’t even know that I can take that into account when I’m making decisions about whether to go or not go, or back off, or whatever.

NORTHER: Yeah, I think there might be a certain person who actually looks that stuff up and tries to quantify it, but I think in that study that statistical information in that case took the place of the experiential knowledge you gain interacting with other climbers, or whatever your sport may be.

When I first started climbing, I definitely did not respect the more mundane dangers. Now that I’ve climbed for a while, I’ve heard a lot of stories about people dying or being seriously injured on an approach. That was something I was probably not thinking about right out of the gate. “Oh, the approach is not big deal. A little third-class scramble- no big deal.” Or, like, Slimy log crossings… I just did one yesterday. [laughs]

BRAD: Like, over a raging stream? [laughs]

NORTHER: Yeah [laughs] I was only a half mile from the car, so if I fall in, it’s not like I’m looking at a hypothermia situation, I’m just going to be cold and grumpy and ruin the snack in my bag…

BRAD: What you said, though, is about considering the consequences of a given activity. You know, with the log crossing, “this stream isn’t going to kill me. It’s not raging fast enough; I’m going to be able to get out of it. I’m not going to break my leg, but I am going to get cold and wet and ruin my lunch, but I know I’ll get back to the car and be able to change clothes”.

 Whereas, if you’re on an approach and there’s Avvy risk, well now all of a sudden, I have to think about the approach as being just as dangerous as the climb. Or, am I on exposed third class scrambling that turns out to be just as dangerous as the actual climb. I think that’s always a good thing to think about: what is the actual risk of taking said activity. 

NORTHER: After I had my accident in 2017, an older climber from Yosemite left me a comment on my blog, and said this thing that I think about all the time. She said, “every climb is a life, with a potential death attached. Oftentimes, the easier climbs kill more people, simply because they are climbed more often.”

BRAD: Which is another statistical thing, right? Everyone likes to throw out, “my drive to the crag is more dangerous than what I’m doing at the crag.” but when you correct for the number of people driving vs the number of people climbing, is that actually the case? I don’t really know, but it’s also not something I really think about- how many people get hurt rock climbing. It doesn’t really change my decision about whether or not I’m going to climb, because lots of people make really bad decisions. I see them at the crag all the time… climbing without a helmet, the belayer has no idea what they are doing, someone lead belaying from a lawn chair, something stupid like that. 

I’m not sure that we can really follow all the statistics because the statistics don’t necessarily apply to people who follow all the rules and take ALL the necessary precautions to mitigate risks as much as possible, when the people creating the statistics are not taking as many precautions 

NORTHER: That’s a really good point.

For me, the thing that really sticks in my side is the idea of risks that we are acclimated to versus novel risks. Like, hydroplaning 500 yards on I-84 between two semis, with a cup of coffee between your knees. We’ve all had that experience as drivers in the Pacific Northwest.

BRAD: Scary

NORTHER: That stuff is really scary to me. When I started rock climbing, I became a safer driver. I was like, “why am I thinking about risks in the mountains and not taking that same way of thinking home back home? So now I don’t speed or drive aggressively and I keep the ego out of it.

BRAD: Right along the same lines of reducing the stress of driving because of the risk management you doing the mountains, I’d like to think that adventure sport athletes can take that same idea and reduce the stress in their daily life. Because, if you don’t finish that report by tomorrow, nobody’s going to die. [laughs] Approach things a little bit differently and de-load some of that stress that other folks can’t really rationalize.

“Every year you hear about people getting caught in avalanches and even hear about avalanche forecasting professionals getting caught in avalanches. Which tells us- the science and the prevention that we do is still not perfect.”

Brad Farra, Climber & Mountain Athlete

NORTHER: Yeah, that’s really challenging.

What kind of fears do you still experience in the outdoors?

BRAD: Well, I think fear is a healthy thing, you know, I have fears of all the things I’m managing in risk management. I am afraid of avalanches; I have seen them in the mountains and I do everything I can to avoid…… In ice climbing, the medium is just so different, something I fear is falling on lead while ice climbing. I’ve done it before and I certainly don’t want to do it again. It’s kind of a rule in ice climbing; the leader doesn’t fall.

I’ve made mistakes in the past and you think back to those mistakes, so you continue to learn from them, and keep them in the back of your mind, so you don’t repeat them in the future. Things that are outside of our control, objective factors like falling rock or crossing underneath a serac that is going to move at some point in time. Crossing over snow bridges, over crevasses. You’re roped up, and you’ve taken all the precautions that you possibly can. I’ve fallen in crevasses; I’ve had partners fall in crevasses roped up. And everything’s gone…. as well as it can when someone’s fallen in a crevasse [laughs]

Those are the things I fear, certainly the fear isn’t crippling, but it helps guide decision making and keeps us safe,

NORTHER: I mean, risk is its own reward, right? If you didn’t ever try anything that had a negative consequence potentially attached to it…. what are you even doing in life?

BRAD: Yeah, you’re right. Sometimes the magnitude of the reward comes from the amount of effort that you have put into something and sometimes that effort has risk associated with it.

NORTHER: I think been true in my experience. The amount of effort coupled with the context that you can build for a place… I feel like mountain climbing sets you up for this kind of really great mindful experience that I wish I could translate to other sports more easily, because you have to know the terrain, and know what you are doing, and know the names of the features along the route, and things you can see around you as well.

BRAD: Yeah, it can be hard to translate what we experience in the mountains to someone who plays basketball. Basketball is a neat sport, but it’s hard to translate what happens in the mountains for someone who plays ball sports, you know?

NORTHER: I do watch people who know how to play basketball really well just in awe. How do you… I mean I can’t even dribble a ball; you know? [laughs]

“Sometimes the magnitude of the reward comes from the amount of effort that you have put into something and sometimes that effort has risk associated with it.”

Brad Farra, Climber & Mountain Athlete

BRAD: Those are totally different skills, it’s a totally different world. I played ball sports growing up, and I was solidly mediocre. [laughs]

NORTHER: I am definitely a below average athlete, but you just put in the work and then go do the thing.

BRAD: It’s amazing to see someone find their sport, because you don’t really know. Maybe somebody loves to play soccer but they were born to be a baseball player, and they just don’t know that. Using some of the greatest climbers in the world as an example… That person not only is really talented and hardworking, but they’re genetically gifted in a way that makes them better at that sport.

NORTHER: I am not any way gifted at rock climbing, I’m a very mediocre climber, but…. rock climbing is such a weird sport, too, because it’s very comparison based. Like, you know what grade you climb, you know what people are doing around you.

BRAD: What’s great about rock climbing is that someone who is a beginner can have the exact same experience as a professional climber in terms of training and improving and reaching goals, which makes it different than a lot of other sports.

NORTHER: I had a conversation recently with someone and he was like, “well, I thought I needed to be a 5.12 climber…’ and I was like, “who said you needed you climb 5.12?”

5.10 used to be all there was and it was good enough for everybody else. You can climb any mountain being a 5.10 climber! What is waiting for you on the other side of being a 5.12 climber, really?

BRAD: My advice: Try hard, have fun, get into the modality of climbing that you love the most, and get better and have fun.

NORTHER: Awesome. Well, I can’t imagine a better ending than that. Thanks for talking with us today.

BRAD: You bet.

Brad Farra is an avid climber and all around outdoor adventurer.  He has been focused on climbing objectives for over a decade and loves being in the mountaints.

He works professionally as a Sports Chiropractor and Strength Coach at Evolution Healthcare and Fitness.

Published by Norther

Norther Emily, Wild Solitude Guiding. I teach foraging classes, lead guided private hikes, host retreats to remote places in Oregon, give excellent travel advice #NortherKnowsBest , and I’m here to teach people how to reconnect with nature.

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