Risk Assessment with Josh Cole, North Cascades Mountain Guide

Learn about leadership in this interview with Josh Cole, a North Cascades Mountain Guide.
Steve Smith Steve Smith
Mountaineers Climbing Education Manager
November 28, 2017
An interview by Steve Smith, Mountaineers Climbing Education Manager

Josh and I first met when we worked together at the Northwest Outward Bound School, and I’ve always been struck by his creativity, analytical skills, approach to teaching, and sense of humor. Josh has a rare ability to champion and role-model the highest values and expectations as an outdoor educator/guide — one of many attributes that make him such an inspiring professional colleague.

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed today, Josh. You have presented several times at our Leadership Conference, and a common theme throughout these talks is the relationship between risk management and organizational culture. Why is this a particular interest of yours?

I think it’s important to explain what I mean by effective risk management — to me, this is all about maximizing the beneficial outcomes of a program while having an acceptable level of risk. That balance obviously changes from organization to organization, but it is finding (and constantly re-tweaking) that balance that is risk management. And while many organizations have a person with “risk management” in their job title, highly functioning organizations are ones where every employee, volunteer, and stakeholder is taking an active role in risk management in one way or another. 

So, how do we create culture? I’ve found that one of the most powerful tools is consistent organizational language. The person creating the website or marketing brochures might not understand outdoor risk to the degree that the senior trainer might, but they can be part of the process by utilizing the organization’s common language around risk when producing marketing material. One great example is the very word risk, as opposed to safety. Safety indicates the absence of risk, and if we’re being realistic, everything we do in the outdoors is not entirely safe — there is risk. I particularly like the nascent trend of calling our risk managers risk-benefit managers — which is a piece of language that includes both the minimization of the negative aspects of risk but also recognition that risk has benefit. 

When I began my career in outdoor risk management, I was coming from a scientific background and spent a great deal of time looking at incident data. While the data is ultimately a piece of the puzzle, I quickly came to realize there was a bigger picture to be seen — that of the organization’s culture. When we look at the data, we might be able to change some specific practices to improve our risk management — perhaps the data shows a trend of increasing lower extremity injuries and the organization responds by encouraging participants to use trekking poles. However, if we want to make significant change and prevent significant incidents, we need to consider how we make decisions as individuals that are part of a larger organization. If we are to get to a place where risk management is dynamic and embraced by the entire organization, we need to focus on the big picture; organizational culture. 

How do you recognize an organization that has a culture conducive to effective risk management? 

Unfortunately, I think it’s far easier to see when an organization’s culture is out of balance than when it is working effectively. The recent implosion of Uber due to toxic organizational culture is an example of this — any person reading news reports describing their internal culture would immediately recognize that something was very wrong. So, how can a Mountaineers executive, member, staff member, trainer, or other stakeholder assess that the organizational culture is effective? I think the key is how the organization does two things: assessment and communication. And Sydney Dekker’s work on creating an organizational culture is an excellent template for understanding whether an organization’s culture is creating effective risk management. Just culture is one that accurately balances holding staff or members (at all levels of the organization) accountable in a manner that is fair. 

One specific example of a way to assess an organization’s risk management is to consider how the organization reports near misses (defined as an occurrence where, if something slightly different had happened, the outcome would have been a serious incident). If The Mountaineers are creating a just culture, then members, trainers, and staff will actively report near-miss incidents with the goal of creating better risk management throughout the organization. If The Mountaineers are creating a just culture, the organization will take those incident reports seriously, incorporate the learning into organizational practices and disseminate them in a way that is fair and useful with the same goals in mind.

I’ve heard you talk about the concept of heuristics — mental shortcuts we all use to make complex decisions more simply — and their relationship to organizational culture. What are some examples of how heuristics might arise from a program’s culture? Can heuristics steer or define a program’s culture? 

It was Ian McCammon that widely introduced the concept of heuristics to our industry with his 2004 paper about the role heuristics play in avalanche terrain. While he focused on the negative aspect of heuristics — the traps we can fall into due to our reliance upon heuristics — they can be beneficial as well. Outdoor activities require many complex decisions are made quickly (think about standing on a ridge and watching thunderclouds build in the distance). We must appropriately balance our use of heuristics as individuals and as an organization. One example of assessing whether that balance is being actively managed is to ask whether we’re doing things as an organization because that’s what we’ve always done (what McCammon would call the “familiarity heuristic”) or whether we’re using our experience along with a defined process to achieve continual improvement. My belief is that clear organizational structure and a shared common language are critical in keeping heuristics from defining an organization’s culture. One way we sought to improve this in our own guide service is by harnessing modern technology to increase communication between our guides who are often working solo. We have in-depth reporting both before and after trips that is shared with all of our employees and a more informal information-sharing system. We encourage debate with the hope that our emphasis on critical thinking will create a culture that values that approach.

What are some common issues you see beginning climbers or private parties struggle with in terms of efficiency, safety, or impact on other climbers/the environment? How would you suggest we help address these issues as a community? 

I see two common issues that lead climbers to struggle with achieving their objectives in an efficient manner. I use the term efficient here not to mean simply “fast” but to mean moving through terrain in a way that allows us to meet objectives as climbers without unnecessary risk. For example, a new climber might belay across every crevasse bridge they come across thinking that this increases their safety whereas by slowing their pace they inadvertently create other hazards, such as traveling late in the day when crevasse bridges are weaker. The first issue I see centers around mis-assessment. A climbing party might mis-assess a climb, the weather, themselves, etc. The growth of gym climbing has created a lot of super strong climbers who commonly tackle difficult climbs in the gym. We’ve seen a series of rappelling fatalities on the Goat Wall in Mazama recently that have a common theme of strong, but inexperienced climbers mis-assessing their ability to safely conduct rappels in complicated terrain. 

The second issue I see is around inflexibility. There are a lot of ways to do almost everything we do and numerous decision points along the way, and we all have a tendency to fall back upon familiar techniques and decisions. Managing risk effectively requires that we have a variety of techniques and apply the right technique in the right way at the right time and that when we don’t, we recognize this and correct our errors. I’d like to see our community of climbers focus not just on teaching technique (how to build a 3:1 mechanical advantage system, for example) but on teaching assessment skills. These skills are indeed harder to teach, but ultimately more critical. I’d much rather employ a guide with great assessment skills (most critically their self-assessment skills) who has less technical expertise than someone with tons of experience, but lousy assessment skills. Ideally, we blend both of those skills to maximize the effectiveness of our risk management. Lastly, I’d emphasize that both of these critical factors (accurate assessment and flexibility) are far more difficult in large groups, which I would define as greater than 2-3 people in an alpine setting. The Mountaineers often recreates in large groups and I think that it’s possible to be effective in this structure, but requires far more diligence and time to make consistently accurate assessments and is far more difficult to be flexible.

What has North Cascades Mountain Guides done to positively influence the climbing community? 

The local climbing community in the Methow is small (like the Methow itself) and we were all painfully aware of the trend of rappelling incidents and related deaths on the Goat Wall and local crags. Our guides are a bit older than the average and most of us are now parents, so we’re starting to see many local teens (mostly the children of our friends and neighbors, and many we’ve known since they were toddlers) embrace climbing. We wanted to help our community learn some preferred practices to increase their own risk management, so we ran a series of free community climbing clinics tackling skills from rappelling to anchors. We had an incredible response from those that attended and I feel very confident that they are sharing their newfound knowledge with their own climbing partners. We’re also advocates for local access and have worked closely with The Mountaineers on projects such as the Methow Headwaters, which seeks to prevent large-scale open pit mining in Mazama.

I have seen you teach outcomes-based approaches to outdoor pursuits — the idea that we’re not just climbing a peak, but using climbing to achieve larger goals as climbers, team members, or human beings. Can you elaborate on how leaders might take an outcomes-based approach to designing and delivering their students’ experiences? For example, how might an ascent of Liberty Bell be facilitated differently depending on the individuals in the group, or on the goals of the trip? 

A very smart man once told me that “you’re not managing terrain, you’re managing people in terrain” and I think that still encapsulates my approach — I’m ultimately guiding to provide an experience that impacts the life of climbers in a positive way. The elemental connection that occurs when we mix a wild setting and a true challenge is why I do this work. That doesn’t mean that every climb is earth shattering, but I think we’re missing something if we choose to climb simply to stand on a peak and Instagram the moment! Organizations that work in this field (whether they’re clubs, outdoor education organizations, or commercial guides) must have missions that incorporate a desire to improve the connection between a climber and their environment, their team, and ultimately their life at home. In my mind, this makes it critical that organizations create structures that further these outcomes within their activities. If you’re a new leader and adding this layer on top of your already complicated role sounds tricky, my advice is to keep it simple and trust that the experience will create these outcomes — and that simply focusing on how you frame and close the experience can help highlight them. Sometimes asking your group to share a bit about their experience is all that is needed to bring home the power of that experience.

Another topic I’ve heard you speak about is the concept of risk tolerance. Can you define that and explain what significance it has for you as a guide, business owner, and new father? 

Like organizational culture, we tend to identify this concept when an organization has a practice that falls way outside their risk tolerance. There are a lot of factors that push organizations to do this, including financial pressure, mission creep, lack of clearly communicated risk tolerance, lack of training, etc. While it’s critical for an organization to clearly understand and communicate its risk tolerance, it can be detrimental to an organization if it’s viewed as a static standard. As an organization changes, its practices and risk tolerance must do so as well. Consider the change in our society’s view of risk during your lifetime, and imagine if The Mountaineers still had the same tolerance for risk they did in 1970! I want to emphasize that we’re not seeking to eliminate risk or even to minimize risk —we’re seeking to maximize benefit within a reasonable and clear risk tolerance. As a dad, I’ve certainly recognized that my own tolerance and desire for risk has diminished, and honestly, I think that’s helped make me a better guide who’s more in tune with the desires of my clients. As a guide, I’ll sometimes have clients who have a risk tolerance that is in excess of my own and it can be hard to manage when they push hard to make the summit or ski a steeper slope. To counteract that tendency, I’ve learned to involve my clients in my risk management decisions — regardless of our relative experience levels. I want them to understand the risk and to be engaged in recognizing risk, communicating risk, and have an understanding of the uncertainty in each of those. When I guide a new alpine climber, I want them to ask questions, I point out the features of my anchors and techniques, I talk to them about my assessment of the weather and the route — and I admit where I am uncertain. Ultimately, I am fully responsible for managing risk in the field, but I find it far easier to do that when all my participants are engaged in the process.

What advice would you have for a new leader for The Mountaineers, working on their leadership skills? 

As a new leader planning a trip, there are a million things to consider from trip logistics to weather to route conditions. I personally try to use a repeatable structure when planning trips and the structure I prefer begins with two critical components that have nothing to do with logistics, weather, or the route. I begin by trying to understand and accurately assess my participants and myself and then I focus on our desired outcomes for the climb. The other piece of advice I have is something I often work hard to remember in the middle of a climb, and that is not to fear error correction. If something isn’t working well, stop and change it. We’ve all gone the wrong way in the mountains or gotten part way up a pitch and realized that we need to change how we’re climbing it, and it can be super hard to admit mistakes — particularly if you’re a new leader looking to gain the confidence of those you’re leading — however, I’ve repeatedly found that stopping and correcting is one of the best ways to gain the confidence of those you’re leading!

Great point about being clear and accurate with a self-assessment, and desired outcomes for the trip, before you start planning the actual route or strategy for the trip. Can you give an example of how you’ve done this recently? How about an example of a time when you saw the need to make an adjustment to a plan or took the chance to correct a mistake of some sort? 

I worked a trip for Outward Bound last year on Rainier, and we all diligently set our alarms for midnight and it turns out we didn’t need them since the wind crushed us all night and prevented any chance of sleep. It was too windy to climb, and when the weather improved, it was already 6am. Our plan was shot, but we didn’t want to hang around in camp all day bored, so we decided to start moving up the mountain — to get as high as we could safely. As it turned out, the weather stayed cool and stable all day and we easily progressed to the summit and back. My co-leader and I had to be diligent to check in with one another consistently throughout the day to update our assessment of our team and the conditions. He and I had worked together a lot, so this type of communication came naturally to us, and we had similar organizational language and training that facilitated these exchanges. It was a good reminder that just because we normally do something in the mountains (alpine starts, for example), that we need to resist falling back on the familiar so that we are making real and accurate assessments in the moment.

Do you have any skeletons in your Cascades closet that you’re hoping to knock off this climbing season? 

With a toddler and an infant at home, even consistent cragging seems like an unrealized alpine dream! I have a list of classics I still haven’t found the time or partner for, and the one I’ve been thinking of this season is Liberty Ridge (which I’d secretly like to try to ski)… given my realities, it was immediately clear that this was an objective for another season. But, to your point of “skeletons in my closet,” I tend to replay my mistakes in my head ad nauseam (as opposed to a summit missed out on). Sometimes this can be really useful as I consider what went wrong and how I can apply that learning. Sometimes, however, this approach can be de-motivating and I need to work on moving past the incident so I can go climb or ski with a sense of fun again!

Part of Progressive Climbing Education at The Mountaineers entails engaging professionals like yourself to help with skills development for our amazing volunteer leaders, and to supplement the knowledge base of the organization. What are some topics you believe might be useful for a volunteer-led climbing club to “outsource” in this way?

I just had a conversation about this with a close friend who was in town to help our family out with our new baby. She works for the American Alpine Club and we talked at some length about their standards-setting work (i.e. setting standardized curricula for clubs and other organizations to deliver). To me, this is incredibly important, not because they necessarily know better, but because it creates consistency of practices, approaches, and language. These kinds of consistency, when utilized effectively, create an organizational language that extends to an industry language. If we professionals can provide one thing, it’s a set of consistent practices that work well. There may very well be twenty other valid ways to do something, but at a certain point, it becomes wasteful to sit around and debate the best rappel set-up because we better stop debating, choose one that works well and spend that extra time getting everyone on the same page. I look forward to the day when everyone I see in the mountains is rappelling with an extended device and a backup because that will let me know that a preferred practice has trickled through our broad climbing community. 

Josh has been adventuring in the mountains for more than 20 years and guiding for 15. He has climbed and skied extensively in the North Cascades, Alps, Dolomites, Sierra Nevada, New Zealand and the ranges of SW Montana. Josh has given trainings and presentations on wilderness risk management to numerous organizations and is a lead instructor for Wilderness Medicine Training Center. Josh has worked as a professional ski patroller in Montana and New Zealand and has a former life as a geologist. Josh works in the North Cascades as a ski, alpine, and rock guide for North Cascades Mountain Guides. He is an AMGA Certified Ski Guide, Single-Pitch Instructor, and is working towards his AMGA certification in the rock and alpine disciplines. 


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2017 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.