With Whom Lies Responsibility

Luke Nelson writes about risk and how to manage it in the sport of trail running.

By on June 9, 2016 | Comments

I closed the door and my wife started to drive away from the trailhead. Thunder boomed through the forest. I chuckled, hit start on my watch, and began to run. Over the next four hours I would run through rain, hail, snow, wind, flashes of lightning, and thunder claps so loud it would cause me to jump. I was alone, far from anyone, particularly from a rescue, and I was completely comfortable with the idea. During long mountain runs you have plenty of time to get inside your own head and hash out the world’s problems. On this particular run I spent a lot of time thinking about responsibility in the mountains. Given recent events in the ultrarunning world, this had been weighing on my mind quite heavily. I was making a deliberate decision to accept a certain level of risk and exposing myself to inclement weather while pushing my body to cover many miles far removed from, well, everyone.

Over the weekend of April 15 and 16th, earlier this year, Arturo Hector Martinez Rueda passed away while participating in the Ultra Fiord race, held in Patagonia, Chile. Like many, I first learned of this through social media and over the following couple of days I watched a shit storm of commentary, opinions, and finger pointing unfold on several social-media platforms. I was bothered by the whole thing. What had happened, what were the events that led to this unfortunate outcome, and, maybe most importantly, what lessons could be learned? These were some of the questions that came to mind nearly every time I saw Arturo’s story come across my feeds.

I want to take a moment to be very blunt. I am not at all interested in pointing blame or defending anyone, especially when it relates to Arturo. I don’t see that as useful. I do think it is important to look at some of the facts of this instance and to try to apply them in a productive way. Most importantly, I want to answer the question of with whom lies responsibility for our actions in the mountains.

Here are a few things I know; Ultra Fiord is held in one of the wildest places on the planet. The terrain and the weather are notoriously fierce. Certain people are drawn to this wildness and the challenges it presents. I also know that the race has a very extensive mandatory equipment list. All runners are required to carry an extensive amount of clothing and equipment. It is one of the most elaborate mandatory kits I have seen. According to the event website, runners of the race were also supplied with the “Runner’s Kit,” which included maps and elevation profiles of the race, some type of runner ID, and a timing chip. The website has a lot of information about the course, the itinerary, and most of the standard fare for this type of event. The event organizers had to make last-minute changes to the course due to the weather. I do not know how this was disseminated to runners, but having experienced last-minute changes during a UTMB I was at a few years ago, I can tell you that it is very stressful for the runners involved and equally, if not more so, for the event organizers.

From an outside perspective, it looks like the race organizers did work to put on a good event. They discuss on the website the course marking, the aid stations, and what will be done for runners including a “mobile unit” that sounds like a group of sweepers to close the course after the last runner. I was not there and will not speculate on how this was implemented. There is a common saying, “Everything is okay, until it isn’t.” Any travel in the mountains is enjoyable when it goes to plan, but sometimes it simply doesn’t. From the uninvolved onlooker it is obvious that things did not go according to plan in Chile. The weather was bad. Really bad. It was very tough on the runners and so gnarly that many participants had serious trouble on the course.

One additional fact: a runner died.

This leaves us asking, who is responsible for this tragedy? I am going to go out on a limb and answer, all of us and none of us are responsible. Hang on. Before you scroll down to leave an angry comment, allow me to explain. This is a complex issue and as I have pondered the deaths of several friends who have died in the mountains, I have found a few concepts that hold true in the majority of these tragic events.

The first concept is that of an accident. The dictionary defines an accident as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.” I think we can mostly agree that, when someone dies in the mountains, this definition can be applied. Accidents are unintentional. We don’t plan on not coming home from the mountains when we leave a starting line or a trailhead and the race organizers certainly intend on all the runners getting back safely.

The next concept that can be applied is ignorance.

Ignorance can be a touchy subject, mostly because of the negative connotation that often accompanies it. Looking at the definition of ignorance can be quite helpful. “Ignorance is a lack of knowledge or information.” Looking back at an accident, we often have much more information than we had beforehand. After, we know what the weather was, we know what decisions were made, we know what was not done, etc. The lack of knowledge can lead to bad decisions and unfortunately bad outcomes. It is quite often the case that we rely on what we know as being prepared enough. For example, how many of us have been lost during a race because we ‘knew’ the course would be well marked? Who hasn’t been surprised that their favorite aid-station food was not supplied even though it is ‘standard’ at ultras?

A lack of knowledge or ignorance is also very closely tied to the last concept, complacency.

Complacency is defined as “self-satisfaction, especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual danger or deficiencies.” More specifically, it is our experience that shapes our decision making, and applied here, it could be a train of thought something like this, I have been in bad weather in the mountains before, and I was fine, so even though the forecast is bad, I will be fine again. To take a page from climbing, it could be, I have tied into my harness a thousand times, I don’t need to double check that I did it right. I haven’t done it incorrectly before. Do you see the flaw in logic? We let our guard down because we have gotten away with it and we have no reason to believe that anything negative will happen to us. Drew Hardesty, an avalanche forecaster and Grand Teton National Park climbing ranger, wrote a blog post for the Utah Avalanche Center titled, “Drift into Failure…or, Mathematics and a Few Thoughts on Risk” that points out how complacency can be our downfall. In the post he quotes Sidney Dekker on the following: “a series of small relaxations on safety standards can lead to catastrophic system failure. These systems drift and from inside the system, such drift isn’t visible until failure occurs.” Drew goes on to say, “Please read that sentence again–I had to.” The imperceptible drift, the relaxation of our actions, could eventually lead to complete breakdown of the entire system put into place to reduce risk.

I hope that my thoughts are starting to come together. When people we love die in the mountains it is hard. We want to place blame, but with whom lies the responsibility? The deaths are accidents, unintended consequences of action. The lack of knowledge or ignorance of what will happen under a certain set of decisions and the clarity that hindsight brings after the accident occurs add to the sting. The imperceptible shift in acceptance of additional risk that complacency brings can result in the collapse of the house of cards. Instead of focusing on who to blame, I think that we need to strive to do better. We need to learn from past events and try to not repeat them.

A few years ago while out on a training run, I ran past a piece of trash on the trail. A few steps later, the question of, If not you, who?, came into my mind. I stopped, turned around, and picked up the trash. Since that moment, this mantra has been very useful in many aspects of life and I think it can apply here. Ultimately, only we can be responsible for our actions in the mountains. Applying the mantra, if you are not responsible for what you are doing in the mountains, who is? Wilderness medicine often teaches to “look out for number one.” Who is number one? It’s me. It’s you. I have to look out for me, just like you have to look out for you. No one knows what I need better than I do and the same applies to you.

The sport of trail running is growing and it is growing fast. There are more and more people venturing into the mountains to train and race. New events put on by new race directors are popping up at a surprising rate. What should be done to reduce the risk of something unfortunate happening to one of us? I would propose that we as a community ask ourselves a few questions. Do I know about the area I am running in? Do I have the appropriate skills to take care of myself if I get lost or injured? Am I adequately prepared for the weather and environment? What will I do if things go wrong? Race directors or event organizers should be asking those questions to their participants and should be asking themselves if they have the systems in place to handle changes during the event. What is our emergency plan to deal with injured or lost runners, bad weather, or the unexpected? What is our backup method of communication with volunteers and participants? The list of questions can and should go on and on.

Recently, Jared Campbell made the following observation regarding the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathons, “By creating a non-obvious application process, intentionally limiting course information, and letting participants decide for themselves what gear they should bring, the result appears to be participants who arrive well prepared, having done their homework, and equipped for all conditions. A pretty distinct difference from the usual ‘just show up, put your head down, and follow the markers’ mentality. Essentially everyone is capable of self-extraction and they understand that is standard protocol.” It continues, “The result of this lack of infrastructure, interestingly, is exactly what events with lots of infrastructure desire, knowing that every runner will be okay and give it everything they’ve got.” Having well-prepared participants does not eliminate the possibility of an accident, but I believe it lessens the chance of them happening. Considering this mentality are event directors increasing complacency but providing too much for runners? Are we getting lazy as runners, just expecting the race directors to provide everything we need? There are other events that have very experienced runners, that tend to be very well prepared. Does anyone remember Hardrock a few years ago? There was a very experienced mountain runner, Adam Campbell, who had a close call with lightning that could have very easily resulted in his death. I know that this runner was well prepared for the weather, and had the knowledge of what to do, but simply being where he was, when he was put him at a high exposure to risk, and he was lucky. There was a social-media fire storm after that incident too, but it many ways it sensationalized the experience and in my opinion, perpetuated an attitude of complacency.

During the run I mentioned in the beginning of the article, I made the decision to continue running despite the risks associated with it. I had just enough clothing and know-how to come home safely so long as things went according to plan. Thankfully, they did. But what would I have done if things hadn’t gone well? I thought about this a lot during the time I was on the trail. I realized that I had made the decision to accept a certain level of risk and to proceed. There was a level of complacency and certainly some ignorance, but there was no accident.

Going into the mountains is inherently risky. No matter the form of travel, as you leave the trailhead there is risk. It is our job as runners, race directors, and friends or family to those in the mountains to ask how much is too much. Ego is a hard master and we often accept risk because of the risk that others are accepting. But the acceptance of risk should be my decision. It should be your decision. No one can or should make that decision for me. No one can or should make that decision for you. Which, I think, means that we, as individuals, are also responsible for the risk we accept. There are times we may need to speak up, let others know that the collective acceptance of risk is too high. Let us not be afraid to face risk and have the courage to make good decisions regarding our actions.

As a community it is time that we have this discussion, and I expect it to be a spirited discussion. Modern society often takes the easy road and blames others for shortcomings and failure. Our community, a community of people who do hard things for fun, does not pick the easy road. We need to fight ignorance and complacency. Tragedy cannot always be avoided, particularly in the mountains, and it would be a tragedy to not take a moment to reflect and to learn from the experience, mistakes, and shortcomings of the past.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

A note from the iRunFar editors, we sincerely ask for a constructive discussion in the comments section. Luke uses two real-life anecdotes, one from his own life and Arturo’s death at Ultra Fiord, as launch points for a bigger discussion. We wish to host a discussion in this article’s comments about how our community can learn to be smarter, more aware adventurers and not a discussion which places blame in Arturo’s story or any other story about which we do not have all the facts. Thank you.

  • Have you ever unintentionally taken on more risk than you would have liked to on an adventure? Can you explain what happened and how you navigated the situation?
  • What actions do you take to keep risk within an acceptable range when you play in the backcountry?
  • Do you ever turn around or stop an outing when conditions change and more risk than you are comfortable with develops?
  • What can our community as a whole actively do to help keep the sport of trail running collectively within the risk limits of its members?
Luke Nelson
Luke Nelson spent his childhood wandering the mountains. These days, his time in the wild is spent running. Not wanting to be confined by the rules of racing, he prefers meandering lesser-known routes and rowdy mountain linkups as a way to stay connected to nature. Being connected with the outdoors on a daily basis has inspired him to be an activist and to speak up for the planet. He proudly works with Patagonia, Gu Energy Labs, Zeal Optics, Jaybird, La Sportiva, and Kahtoola as a professional athlete. He strives to maximize each hour by balancing his time as an activist, physician assistant, race director, husband and father. Join his adventures on Instagram.