8.27.2013

Risk and Blame in the Modern World

Yes, I'm aware that given the title this has the potential to take a quantum leap from blog post to doctoral thesis, but it won't. Instead, I feel compelled to discuss a recent event in the rock climbing world that, while being undeniably tragic, is apparently setting some potentially terrible precedents in terms of litigation. The incident in question is the unfortunate death of Tito Traversa, a 12 year old climbing phenomenon from Italy who had climbed several 5.14 routes at the time of his death. The accident occurred while Tito was being lowered from a warmup sport climb in France. The quickdraws he was using, which were allegedly loaned to him by a friend, were improperly assembled such that the rubber carabiner keepers on the rope side of the draws were the only things holding the carabiner to the draw as opposed to the carabiners being through the webbing. The rubber keepers failed on eight subsequent quickdraws, causing Tito to hit the ground from 60 feet which left him in a coma from which he never recovered.

Accidents are common in climbing, but accidents involving kids who are sport climbing at high levels are relatively rare. I can't readily think of many fatal sport climbing accidents in general, aside from this incident in which fixed carabiners worn to razor sharp edges severed a rope during a short fall. Perhaps the combination of Tito's age and the perception of safety integral to sport climbing are part of the reason for this response by Italian authorities. Even before this came to light, the internet was already abuzz in the form of typical armchair forum opinion mill responses. Tito's family and/or immediate adult chaperones have been decried for not making Tito wear a helmet; Tito and other new school elite climbers have been decried for not starting their climbing careers chuffing up 5.2 trad routes with 30 pounds of hexes and knotted slings racked on oval carabiners for protection; everyone from Tito's parents to his friends who loaned him the improperly assembled quickdraws to any adult accompanying Tito to the crag in France where the incident occurred have been vilified on forums such as Supertopo for not somehow preventing this incident. Without going into great detail, the general opinion seems to be that if Tito had come into climbing 25 years ago when sport climbing was only a nascent wisp of what it is today, he would have learned TRAD and would have been using water-knotted one-inch tubular webbing instead of quickdraws and clearly, then, this never could have happened. Not to mention that helmets, in the minds eye of the internet provocateur, most obviously and definitely prevent fatal injury during 60-foot groundfalls from overhanging routes.

I can't help the sarcasm. In this case, I am simply going to write off the hundreds of idiot responses I've read on the internet and focus on the much more perilous issue of the legal action being taken by the Italian authorities. As per the link above, they are currently opening criminal investigations against any and all who might be 'responsible' for the breach of safety protocol that led to Tito's demise. While the internet responses seek to assign some kind of logic and blame,  a criminal investigation is a bold statement against personal responsibility in general. It's true that someone could have noticed that the quickdraws were improperly assembled had an exhaustive safety check been done before their usage. It's also true that climbers generally should always perform said exhaustive safety checks. Undoubtedly, this was a real and true mistake on the part of the users of the gear. All new gear when purchased should be examined carefully and setup properly. Even usage of the gear by climbers is subject to great care and adequate knowledge of the appropriate applications and limitations of the gear. The internet cock jockeys on Supertopo, et al, have a right to bandy opinion about how ideal circumstances involving proper knowledge and action on the part of the climbers and parents could have prevented this accident. They're not wrong per se; it's just that it seems slightly pointless to offer retroactive solutions to something that already happened. However, opening a criminal prosecution against anyone in the chain of distribution for the quickdraws in question is just plain sinister. Here's why I think so:

Anytime we climbers go to spend time either underneath large rock formations or hundreds of feet off the ground on said formations, we are at risk of experiencing any number of life threatening outcomes. Whether or not we know or accept that risk, it is inextricably coupled with our activities at the cliffs. The choices that we make, the gear we use or choose not to use, and our knowledge about its proper usage weigh heavily on our chances of having an accident while we climb. With this, in my opinion, comes the understanding that when gear fails, whether it be a camming unit, a quickdraw, or, God forbid, the rope itself, that being 100 feet off the ground during said gear failure is our risk and no one else's. We are alone in our responsibility for choosing risk a fatal fall. If the gear is faulty either via manufacture or setup, it compounds that risk. If a rope breaks due to improper chemistry in the nylon polymer during manufacture, we can look at it in two different ways. We can say that the rope was being used in a manner that clearly engenders inherent risk; alternately, we can say that the rope absolutely SHOULD NOT fail and the regardless of the inherent risk, the manufacturer is at fault for their error. This is, essentially, the jist of the prosecution in Tito's case. The idea is to place blame on anyone and everyone who handled the gear aside from Tito himself. The manufacturer and the retailer are targeted for their complicity in selling an inherently dangerous product; the trip organizer and two of the employees are targeted for not finding the error; even the friend who loaned the quickdraws to Tito (or at least her relative since she is Tito's age) is being investigated. Note that the charges here are manslaughter, essentially the same as would be leveled after an unanticipated outcome of a violent crime resulting in death.

Where is the logic here? Not that the Italian courts are known for being particularly rational, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere. To be fair, this could easily happen here in the US as well. In fact, there is some precendent for this kind of blame game prosecution here even without mentioning the Mcdonalds hot coffee morass. In any case, what kind of blame can we assign to each party in this case? The manufacturer can be accused of not properly labeling the rubber keepers as 'not load bearing', but there is no indication that they didn't in this case. The retailer, although they sell every piece of gear as a use at your own risk item, could be targeted for not assembling the quickdraw properly. The club leader/trip organizer could be help responsible by proxy for using the gear, even though the club or gym didn't even own the quickdraws, nor would he/she as the organizer even have seen them. The instructors, of course, would be expected to have oversight of the gear used, although the quickdraws in this case were given to Tito by a friend. That friend or her relative would be expected to provide safe gear even though they clearly didn't know about the issue nor did they scrutinize the quickdraws closely enough to ascertain their improper setup. So who do we blame? Who do we point the finger at to make ourselves feel better about an otherwise tragic accident? These are the real questions that also indicate the real problem. There simply isn't a way that the victim can be personally responsible. In this case, the victim being a child, there is the unfortunate fact that he wouldn't have had the perspicacity to know what level of responsibility he was taking on in the first place. Nor did his parents, who quite possibly assumed that the type of climbing in which he was participating, sport climbing, was 'safe'. So who do we blame? The instructors? They may have simply overlooked the quickdraw issue. A quickdraw is often assumed to be pre-assembled and beyond suspicion. It would be somewhat hard to notice at a cursory glance that something was awry with any set of quickdraws. The club leader/trip organizer? Frankly: no case. The distributor/retailer? Inherently should be immune unless their employees are purposefully sabotaging gear. The manufacturer? Unless there is a pattern of abuse of accepted manufacturing standards, there can't be liability here. So what gives?

Really it comes down to fear. There could be any number of factors, but in reality it is a fear of facing up to what life really is. It's a series of choices and experiences, none of which are without inherent risk. At any point it, life, can be snuffed out by an errant car, a meteor, organ failure or the failure of a piece of climbing gear. If a man points a gun at another man and shoots, we can easily assign blame, but is there ever a case without mitigating circumstances? Can I claim that if I was standing under a large rock face in Yosemite, that my injury via rockfall is the fault of anyone other than myself? Tito's case is very similar. His parents should have been more involved, perhaps. His instructors should have noticed the quickdraw issue. Tito himself and his friend should have known to check their gear first and, as children, the adults on hand should have taught them the absolute necessity and how to go about fulfilling it.

In principle, I agree with the crabs-in-a-barrel forum wastrels that had Tito learned climbing via the traditional 'ground up' approach, he probably would have been better equipped, even at a young age, to be self reliant and to double check every aspect of climbing that was in his control, including his gear. The problem is, it just doesn't work that way anymore and no amount of caterwaling is going to change that fact. People learn to climb in gyms. Gear is widely available for purchase with little instruction as to its proper use. Individuals are free to go outside and experiment at great personal peril until they figure out not to kill or injure themselves. In some ways, this has always been the case. The problem is that now there is an actual expectation, perhaps due in part to the popularity of indoor climbing, that certain types of climbing are and should be safe. This includes bouldering, obviously, given that a great part of the 'hipness' of the climbing scene revolves around it. But what what WHAT? Neither bouldering nor sport climbing are actually safe?! For shame! How will our children climb if it isn't safe?

I offer an anecdote here in explanation. The playground I frequented as a child featured a slide that descended a stepped concrete structure. Several retaining walls comprised the structure and gave it its height. I have no doubt that numerous children experienced their first broken limbs amongst those retaining walls, falling or being pushed by bullies to sprained ankles and broken arms or wrists. Who do we blame when we don't want to take responsibility for our own actions? What exactly should we be required to assess as a determinate for said responsibility? I would say that right now, the prevailing opinion, respectively, is: everyone and nothing. I hate to see young climbers die from stupid mistakes that aren't even necessarily their faults. I hate to see any climbers die from unfortunate accidents that were almost entirely preventable. Hell, most of us hate to see people die from accidents at all. The truth? It's going to fucking happen. Every time I go out climbing, there is a chance I'm going to die an unfortunate death. Rocks might fall or I might forget to finish tying my climbing knot. My belayer might drop me or my rope might break because I spilled brake fluid on it from my last car repair. Another kid like Tito is going to end up at the wrong end of a simple mistake and pay the ultimate price. But to criminally prosecute those involved? That's crossing the line into fantasy. That's saying that there must always be order in this world, that everything happens for a reason and that all events are traceable to a cause, that our environment is made up of a million variables that all can and must be accounted for. Ultimately it's saying that we needn't be responsible for ourselves, that every ill that befalls us can be blamed on someone or something else, that we can even find meaning in the assignment of blame. It's saying that somehow we can find meaning in Tito's death by distributing blame as opposed to reflecting on the choices we all make and how they affect our lives.

The hot coffee on lap paradigm, far from shaming us into a more enlightened approach to blame, has poisoned our perception about what it means to be alive. Part of the problem is idiots seeking money for nothing, yes, but a lot of it is also idiots with completely selfish worldviews, for whom nothing can go wrong unless someone else causes such a thing to occur. A death like Tito's, unless it's clearly and absolutely not accidental, should be a time for reflection, not occasion for a blame game. It should be a space in which it becomes possible to stop and say "look, we've assumed too much about the safety of this sport, now we need to hang back a bit and make sure we understand that it's dangerous but that we can do a lot to mediate the danger. Oh, and we should teach our kids too..."

Rest in peace, Tito.

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