Life: Risky Business

One of the guides that I climbed mountains with, Phil, taught the skill of weighing objective risks versus subjective risks. Objective risks in the mountains include avalanche danger, weather forecast, rock fall areas, and navigating around crevasses. It is because of objective risk that we’d often leave for the summit in the middle of the night, when things like big blocks of rocks and ice are still frozen to the mountain. That way we reduced the risk of climbing in the heat of midday when the sun warms things up and they pop off to crush you.

As an aside, I found climbing at night to be one of the most beautiful things to do. While it was exceedingly painful to leave a warm sleeping bag, the intimacy of my steps enveloped only in the circle of my headlamp was a way to be both big and small. In a huge arena but only focused on a small area. Groups ahead look like a caravan crossing through the desert because the landscape could be anything. And, crossing things like ladders laid horizontally over crevasses is way more doable when you can’t see the gaping hole below.

A friend ready to cross a crevasse on Mt. Rainier (image mine)

But subjective risk, as I understood it from Phil, is what we internally sense and measure. How do I feel? Does this seem doable today? Subjective risk is more personal, trickier to plan for, and different for everyone.

But this is a post about life, not climbing

I’d argue that in my life now, I have very little objective risk. Perhaps the most hazardous thing I do is forget to wear eye protection when I’m using the weed whacker.

But the subjective risks I’ve found in middle age to be plentiful. Daring to be vulnerable, trying to learn something new, opening to new friendships, asking to be seen, and offering grace instead of judgment – all those things lay bare my heart in a way that can be terrifying and precarious.

I think meditating and writing both are huge subjective risks to my perceived well-being. Hazarding a look inside at the goopy mix of who I am, taking on attempts to change myself, the conditions for my children, and generational patterns of my family. Geez, that’s harder stuff than I ever faced in the mountains.

And yet, I find when I try these things that are subjectively risky, they get me somewhere. Not always, and I haven’t kept track but I think it’s safe to say not usually, where I intend to go but with a receptiveness that moves me forward.

It’s a round-trip sport

As my guide friend, Phil, says, “Climbing is a round-trip sport.” It’s both the up and the down. And the risks are often greater on the down when I’m exhausted from the climb. And now have to cross the crevasse on a ladder in the daylight when I can see the gaping hole beneath me. It’s the same in life for me, taking the risk to extend myself in vulnerability and openness is hardest when I’m tired and depleted but it’s often necessary to lead me home.

I don’t think you have to have climbed to imagine how life can be a slog, both uphill and downhill. But whatever the slope looks like, thinking about it this way has helped me to take the steps to evaluate and take on subjective risks in order to get to my best and highest place.

There is no way to get to the summit, whatever our personal summit may be, without exposing ourselves to risk. But the view from the top and the learning from the trip change us forever.

View from Mt. Adams (image mine)

What do you think about risk? Any tips for how you face risk?

For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at or follow me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

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(featured photo is mine from Ixtacchuatl a 17,160ft mountain in Mexico)

44 thoughts on “Life: Risky Business

  1. I love this analogy! The part about dealing with life when we’re tired is particularly challenging. Dr. Wayne Dyer used to say we get lemon juice when we squeeze a lemon; what happens when life squeezes us? What comes out? Do we vent angrily on people, or are we still able to be patient? That part of life really shows who we are, how we’ve internalized our life lessons, and where we need to grow.

    1. Well said, Tamara. Where we need to grow for sure! Those are the hard moments that teach us something for sure. Thanks for weighing in with your wisdom!

  2. I can remember thinking as a younger me that someday life would be settled. I would know 95% of life and have the answers and probably have nothing much to do but sit in a soft chair on a porch and look out at the world. Reality can sometimes suck, a lot- yet thankfully if we stay open and aware the risks involved with real life have purpose and allow us to continue to grow and find meaning. The journey is truly the important part.

    1. I’m nodding my head, Deb. I thought that too. And I think I was sure it was going to happen by my 30’s. 🙂

      You’ve said it well – ” if we stay open and aware the risks involved with real life have purpose and allow us to continue to grow and find meaning. The journey is truly the important part.” Exactly. But it’s not easy!! Thanks for adding this to the discussion!

  3. Indeed, life has its peaks and valleys that we traverse. I like the way you highlight the intersection between the objective and subjective. It Phils in the gaps, if you’ll pardon the pun.

  4. This! This! …” the intimacy of my steps enveloped only in the circle of my headlamp was a way to be both big and small.” Poetic and profound…and the photos you’ve included? Wow.
    I love how you’ve addressed risk…especially as we look inward at our “goopy mix”. Nothing riskier than spelunking into ‘self’, I say. It’s a terrible comment 😉to share with you, the accomplished mountain climber, but as a non-hiker/mountaineer, I often find I need to lighten my pack…as I carry too much with me, for every eventuality in life. It feels like meaningful preparedness at first, but it all amounts to unnecessary baggage…
    xo, Wynne! ❤

    1. What an amazing point, Vicki! I totally agree that you can’t climb with unnecessary weight. My friend Doug is awesome at only bringing what’s necessary when we’ve climbed together and it’s an essential practice both in and out of the mountains!! <3 <3 <3

  5. I like the conclusion – There is no way to get to the summit, whatever our personal summit may be, without exposing ourselves to risk – it is absolutely true. If you want to progress with your life and to grow as an individual you shall accept taking some risks. Thank you for the beautiful post Wynne!

  6. Wow, wow, wow! Beautifully penned, Wynne.
    I like, ” There is no way to get to the summit, whatever our personal summit may be, without exposing ourselves to risk. But the view from the top and the learning from the trip change us forever.”
    I find exposing myself to risks easier than risk exposing my inner self to others.

    1. Thank you, Chaya! What an interesting distinction you make here. And I have to admit that it surprises me a bit because you seem to have such an open and warm heart. But I also think we all have our habits and affect that hide what is most vulnerable and it’s hard to change that, isn’t it?

  7. Great post, Wynnee. Lots to think about. Depending on the risk, one thing that’s important is to not be risk-adverse in life. Don’t take foolish risks, for sure, but don’t miss out on life for fear of the risk. Meeting a challenge is far more rewarding than avoiding it to be safe.

    1. Thank, Jane! I really like this comment, especially, “meeting a challenge is far more rewarding that avoiding it to be safe.” Because there really isn’t any true safety – or any way that we won’t be tested, is there?

  8. What a thought-provoking essay. Though I admit, while your descriptions of climbing inspire (and I’m a teensy bit jealous of your experiences), my heart clenched when you talk of traversing crevasses. I’m not scared of heights unless they’re high.

    The difference between objective and subjective risk is interesting. I’m a confusion of both. It depends on which one of my moons is rising. Eating disorders are about, among other things, creating safety. When it’s aggressively active, I’m risk averse. Perhaps because eating disorders are themselves objectively risky?

    I also think that sometimes people misinterpret risk, especially when it comes to deciding what the risk is an what it entails. My inside voice likes to tell me that all my fears are objective, but reality disagrees.

    1. I’m laughing, Michelle. “I’m not scared of heights unless they’re high.” That’s a good one! And by the way, I’m not really a fan of heights either. They don’t totally freak me out – but I definitely prefer to go over crevasses when its dark.

      Your comment is so fascinating. Maybe eating disorders are objectively risky. I can’t speak from experience but what you describe makes sense. But I also find your observation that your inside voice says that everything is an objective risk so be so insightful. Yes! When in the grip of fear, it absolutely does tell us that, doesn’t it?

  9. This is a most worthwhile post, Wynne. Thank you for it.

    As to “asking to be seen,” my experience is that one who receives the request either does or does not “see.” A good therapist sometimes provides “being seen” or “being known,” an experience his patient has never before had. No wonder patients sometimes fall in love with counselors.

    Many people are incapable of seeing beyond categories or unable to recognize who really lives in a world of shadows, but the beating heart wants to be seen and heard in all its fullness. If the ones who watch and don’t understanding lack this kind of X-ray vision, it takes a transformation into a new world of sightedness and understanding to develop it. Both courage and great effort are required.

    1. Wow, wow, wow – what a profound comment, Dr. Stein. “it takes a transformation into a new world of sightedness and understanding to develop it. Both courage and great effort are required.” Goodness – that has me by the throat.

      I can understand why people fall in love with therapists. You are right, the beating heart does want to be seen and heard in all its fullness. And bless those that understand that and help us walk towards that level of intimacy and openness. Thank you for this lovely addition to the conversation!

  10. I love both the imagery and the life meanings (the imagery is especially fun, given it’s as close as I’ll likely ever come to that kind of climbing 😃). Just so much great stuff in this, Wynne! The subjective versus the objective, the up and down (love the round-trip saying), the plodding, even when you’re tired. I look forward to your posts on W&S, and as always, enjoyed this one tremendously!

    1. Oh, thanks, Kendra! What a lovely compliment! But you better not encourage me too much because I’ve got a lot of climbing stories and metaphors I can carry on with… 🙂

  11. This is the perfect post for my granddaughter the AT hiker to read. If only she’d sit still long enough to do it. From a personal standpoint, my chicken-hearted self would much rather delve into the inner gooeyness than climb up an icy mountain at night—or any other time, for that matter! My hat’s off to all who brave the scary objective.

    1. Is your granddaughter still out on the trail? Or has she taken on the next challenge?

      I love that you’d prefer to face your inner gooeyness – that’s brave work and must be why you are so delightful, Julia!! <3 <3 <3

      1. She’s back safe and sound, thank God! Now she’s busily at work saving up for her next adventure—probably the Camino Real in Spain. 600 miles is a piece of cake compared to 2K+
        . I’ve stocked up on my supply of Goobegone because I still have some debunking left to do. Sigh. I don’t think it ever ends…..

      2. Ha, Julia. You’re right – I don’t think the need to take risks ever ends. But if you figure it out, be sure to let me know, right?

  12. This is wonderful as usual. And it does what you seem to always do so well: translate experience to metaphor, and metaphor to experience. Some would call that poetry.

    1. I’d call your comment music to my ears. Thank you, Jack. I have to spin something out of all that time and money I spent climbing. 🙂 Seriously though, I appreciate your kind words.

  13. Great post! I’m glad for the mountain climbing descriptions because that’s such a BA thing to do, and I don’t see myself ever attempting it.
    When I was teaching, the trend among students over the years was to risk less. It got to the point of the issue being a major topic of teacher training sessions. Kids seemed increasingly less willing to make mistakes or be wrong. I’m not sure we ever figured out why.

    1. Wow, that’s so interesting that kids seemed less willing to make mistakes or be wrong. Sheesh, I thought that was the definition of childhood. Thank goodness for educators who notice and try to reverse that trend. Thanks for the interesting comment, Todd!

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  15. Yes, climbing mountains can be dangerous due to various factors such as unpredictable weather conditions, steep terrain, and the risk of altitude sickness. Technical climbing also requires specialized gear and knowledge, which can put inexperienced climbers at risk. It’s important to properly prepare, have the right equipment, and be aware of the potential hazards before attempting to climb a mountain.

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