Explorer David Breashears on economic risk

The main Rongbuk glacier in the Himalayas.

David Breashears.

We're at the Belly Up, the premiere music club here in Aspen, along with about 150 of our closest friends. This is gonna be a slightly different kind of Marketplace. We're gonna talk about the economy, like we always do. But of the zillions of problems the American economy faces right now, maybe the biggest is the one least understood.

I'm talking about risk. When to take, when not to and what to do when your best laid plans let you down.

On the show today, we spoke with a guy who knows a little something about risk, in the 'get it wrong and you might die' sense of the word. David Breashears is a filmmaker, explorer and mountaineer. He's executive director and founder of GlacierWorks, a nonprofit highlighting changes to Himalayan glaciers through art, science and adventure. He's also the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest twice.

So like I said, risk is no stranger. Listen to the interview in the audio player above. Plus, explore our interactive before-and-after images of a Himalayan glacier to see how much has changed over the last decade. The photos were provided by GlacierWorks.

Click through to view an interactive version of the image above illustrating nearly a century's worth of changes to the Kyetrak Glacier in the Himalaya.

Click through to view an interactive version of the image above illustrating nearly a century's worth of changes to the Rongbuk Glacier in the Himalaya.

Kai Ryssdal: We're at the Belly Up, the premiere music club here in Aspen, along with about 150 of our closest friends. This is gonna be, as I said, a slightly different kind of Marketplace. We're gonna talk about the economy, like we always do. Of the zillions of problems the American economy faces right now, though, maybe the biggest is the one least understood.

I'm talking about risk. When to take, when not to and what to do when your best laid plans let you down. Coming up in a little bit, Heidi Moore and John Carney for our Weekly Wrap. Fashion designer Tori Burch and the risks of entrepreneurship.

First, though, a guy who knows a little something about risk, in the 'get it wrong and you might die' sense of the word. David Brashears is a filmaker, explorer and mountaineer. He's executive director and founder of GlacierWorks, a nonprofit highlighting changes to Himalayan glaciers through art, science and adventure. He's also the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest not once, but twice.

So like I said, risk is no stranger to him. David, it's good to have you with us.

David Breashears: Great to be here, man.

Ryssdal: So let me see if I can do it this way, you ready? Just riffing off Michael Douglas and "Wall Street": 'Risk is good.' How about that? You like that?

Breashears: Risk -- well-managed risk -- is good. Risk full of lots of good information and scenario planning is even better. And being here with you and the fact that our staff in Boston drives home listening to you every night has made me into a really, really cool person.

Ryssdal: If only all my friends thought that.

Breashears: They said this was best thing I could possibly do at the Aspen Institute, so thanks man.

Ryssdal: Anytime, anytime. Autographed pictures coming later.

Breashears: That's great.

Ryssdal: Talk to me for a minute about how you -- in your line of work, in the mountaineering you do -- assess risk. Do you have rules?

Breashears: We have Wall Street rules -- we just throw caution to the wind.

Ryssdal: I was just going to say, they have no rules on risk!.Have you heard of Jamie Dimon, do you know JPMorgan Chase?

Breashears: 'So let's just ignore all the inputs that say what we're doing won't work and put on blinders, we call that kind of a cognitive bias to say throw out the negative information that says we won't care what we want, where we want to be and at the end of the day, we're just all in a bunch of smoking ashes. But we got what we wanted and nobody else did.'

But on a mountain, that's not the way it works. People don't make money off of other people's losses. People die when things don't go right. So the way we look out into our world is first of all, to manage risk, you really need to know your world -- well. You just need to know every little bit of it that you can. So you surround yourself with experts, you bring in all the very best information you can get your hands on, and then you say, 'That's the very best information we can get our hands on, but that's what we know about. Let's find out the really big stuff that can really hurt us -- the stuff we don't know.'

Ryssdal: Can you have collective risk management, or does that have to be individualized for it to be effective?

Breashears: Oh I think it has to be collective risk management -- lots and lots of people with lots of good information. And once you look at all of this information, you say in your scenario planning: 'What are the bad outcomes that will hurt us, or kill people? And then how do we prepare -- are we ready for those outcomes? -- or how do we decide we're not going to go down that path because it's not manageable?'

Ryssdal: Do you know risk when you see it?

Breashears: You know it when there's an avalanche coming down from the mountain, you know it when a rock this big is falling down.

Ryssdal: But by then it's too late, right? I knew we had risk when Lehman Brothers went under, come on.

Breashears: You know what? You know you have risk when there's a lot of hubris involved. That's a fundamental, big element of risk.

Ryssdal: So you've been to Wall Street, then?

Breashears: Yeah. Yeah, arrogance and hubris. the other big element when you know there's risk is when there's tremendous ambition and it's not matched by experience.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that's a really good point.

Breashears: And those are big things that we look at when people have huge ambitions for what they want to do in the mountains, and then you start looking at their ability to know what they're getting into, and how to get out of difficult situations, and you realize, 'You have no experience. You don't even know how to plan for the simplest bad scenario.'

Ryssdal: How do you teach risk planning?

Breashears: Well we ask people, and I do some teaching on this, to be very open-minded and to really take in, again, this information, but also to accept the fact that fundamentally, they're going to have a cognitive bias to looking to risk in certain areas and they're going to be able to probably manage those areas. But it's the risk you don't really plan for or the stuff that you don't think enough about, to know about -- that that's where the real harm comes from.

Ryssdal: Once you get burned in a risky situation, once you've had something go really, really bad -- and I'm going to open this up to a question here in a minute -- but once you had something go bad, how hard is it to get back up on the horse?

Breashears: Well, a lot went bad in 1996.

Ryssdal: Right, the very famous Into Thin Air.

Breashears: Yeah, they weren't on our expedition, but it was a fairly traumatic thing. What you do is we fundamentally got back to the base camp. When something goes wrong, you do an assessment. You take it apart, and then you look at all the components and all the pieces and you say, 'What were the failure points? What worked?' You really focus on what went wrong, and you go back to the table and you come up with a better plan. And you come up also, if you have to, with a better team. But you don't go back down that path again.

Ryssdal: Right, right. Let me open it up to a question. Yes ma'am, in the back.

Audience member: Hi, Gail Amsterdam. Even if you have experience and you throw caution to the wind, how do you deal with risk and the anxiety that always precedes it?

Ryssdal: Oh, risk and anxiety. How do you deal with that?

Breashears: Well, I've been at this game so long that anxiety part --

Ryssdal: Do you not get nervous anymore?

Breashears: No.

Ryssdal: Come on.

Breashears: You know, because it's just too tiring. Anxiety takes too much energy. I need the energy for the mountain.

Ryssdal: But isn't there an adrenaline in anxiety? I mean, I had a little right before the show today -- it's a live audience, you know.

Breashears: Oh I had a bigger anxiety because I was going to be sitting here next to you. That's a form of risk management for me to not just flub everything. No, to answer your question. OK, anxiety makes our senses more acute and more focused. So to have a sense of fear, create a sense of anxiety for your failure, fear of embarassment, fear of shame, humiliation -- those things cause us to want to perform and get performance from the people around us. So of course wanting not to die, and the idea of dying, creates some anxiety. So then we incorporate that into our outlook on the world. And it is what I said: getting the best information you can find, find people who give you more information than you can find and then make good decisions.

Ryssdal: Very quickly, about your current work: GlacierWorks, the Himalyan glaciers and how important glaciers are for us as a society and a people. It seems to me that your work now comes at a point when not that we can manage the risk anymore -- we are already at risk. What do you do once you've cross that threshold into being in risky land?

Breashears: You don't say the situation's hopeless -- which a lot of doom-and-gloomers do about climate change -- and then people won't take action. Here's the thing: We're going to continue to put a lot more carbon into the air. The reason we study the glaciers, the glaciers tell us about what climate change is affecting the Tibetan plateau, the source of all these big rivers in Asia, which go to all those billions of people, right? They're important. So if we're going to continue to put carbon into the air at the rate we are, we're going to have a warmer planet. So then let's look at those outcomes: What's this warmer planet going to look like? Which outcomes do we need to worry about? And then how do we mitigate them, adapt to them and manage that risk caused by climate change?

Ryssdal: And get people pay attention, right?

Breashears: That's the hard part.

Ryssdal: You bet. David Breashears -- I'm a huge fan, by the way, so right back atcha. Thank you very much, David.

Breashears: Thanks.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

David Breashears.

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