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To the Summit—Mountaineering and actuarial science share several key attributes and skills

By Dan Wiedrich

I’ve always been interested in climbing mountains. The first peak I remember going up was Mount Evans, one of the 14ers in Colorado, when I was 5 years old. It was a short hike to the top from the parking lot near the summit. According to my dad, I went straight up the rocks, ignoring the obvious trail. (My dad and brothers took the trail instead.)

With regard to my actuarial career, I hadn’t heard about actuarial science until after I graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and had worked as an electrical engineer for three years.

Over the years I’ve noticed many similarities between mountaineering and actuarial science and related work, along with a few attributes that benefit both pursuits. These include:

  • Teamwork and group dynamics
  • Dealing with the unexpected
  • Being thorough and having tenacity
  • Solving problems, analytics
  • Being organized, planning
  • Laws and regulations

This article touches on each of the above aspects with examples from my mountaineering trips.

Teamwork and Group Dynamics

I’ve been fortunate in this arena when it comes to mountain climbing trips. My climbing companions have usually been close friends and family. Generally, we have gotten along rather well—although climbing with my brothers has sometimes created some drama. Discussions on various topics with them have become heated.

Teamwork, group dynamics, and interpersonal relationships often play a significant role with actuarial projects as well.

Mount Rainer, 14,410’, Washington, 1995

Mount Rainier is a glaciated volcano in Washington that you can see from Seattle. Most of my early climbs were considered at most class 3 rock with small sections of snow, which we carefully crossed. My buddies and I were interested in climbing something much more difficult that incorporated roped glacier travel. For us, Mount Rainier was an obvious goal.

Mt. Ranier. Washington
14,410′

We made a decent team, and there is safety in numbers when climbing mountains. Our successful climb of this peak was the culmination of a series of increasingly challenging peaks climbed over the prior eight years or so. All four of us made it to the top, unguided.

Chicago Basin, Colorado, 2009

This was a trip to a remote part of Colorado in which we climbed three of Colorado’s 14ers. During the first night of our backpacking trip, my brother Chuck and I discovered that neither of our backpacking stoves worked. We had the same model of stove, the MSR WhisperLite. Neither of us could believe that each of our stoves didn’t work; what are the odds of that? Fortunately, we were able to cobble together one functioning stove between our two. My buddies certainly witnessed some drama and problem-solving that evening; they also witnessed some real collaboration. (The nips of whiskey we drank that evening were much appreciated.)

Dealing With the Unexpected

“The unexpected” for mountain climbing includes injuries, altitude sickness, gastrointestinal issues, accidents, wildlife, horrible weather, lost or malfunctioning equipment, lousy rain gear, late flights, personality and/or group dynamics issues, etc.

Unexpected issues often affect well-laid actuarial plans as well. Often a plan B or plan C comes into play.

California 14ers, 2012

My daughter, Sam, age 15 at the time, and I attempted Mount Sill (14,162’) in California during August 2012. The weather was good but the route we tried as described in a guidebook failed to mention that ice axes and crampons may be needed to attempt Mount Sill via this route. It turned out we needed this equipment but we hadn’t brought it. so we turned around and headed back to our backcountry campsite.

While hiking back we pondered our options. We had a limited amount of time before our flight back to Houston, and we still wanted to try one of the California 14ers before heading back. We settled on White Mountain Peak, 14,246’, which is the easiest of the California 14ers. We thought that we had just enough time to squeeze it in.

We packed up and hiked back to our car at the trailhead. We got back in the dark and camped near the Sill trailhead.

We awoke the next morning and drove to the White Mountain Peak trailhead; we started hiking around 11 a.m. This hike involves taking a trail roundtrip for 14 miles. We made it to the top despite bad weather most of the time. It rained and hailed for hours with some lightning. White Mountain Peak is a high desert peak, and we felt confident that it received an entire year’s worth of rain on that one day.

We got back to the car late in the day and drove several hours to Los Angeles that evening. The next morning, we made our flight back to Houston.

Crestone Needle, 14,197’, Colorado, 2016

I had climbed Crestone Needle twice before this trip. It’s a challenging class 3 peak with excellent rock and awesome views.

Initially, things were going well for my buddy, Bill, and me. On our way up, we had crossed one of the trickiest sections. Then we waited for a father-and-son team that was coming down; they were crossing an exposed chute. The father lost his footing and slid about 150 feet down the chute. His son, about 20 years old, quickly scrambled down to his dad.

I left my daypack with Bill and got to them to see if there was anything I could do to help. The son, who was crying, had a cell phone. I suggested that I stay with his dad and he go to where he could get a signal on his phone and call the search-and-rescue (SAR) folks. His dad was alive but badly injured. He was coughing up blood and appeared to be in shock. His son had to climb back up to the top of the mountain in order to get cell reception.

I hung out with his dad for about 45 minutes while he got ahold of SAR. By the time his son got back, his dad was doing a little better. He was able to answer basic questions with one-word responses. There were other climbers in the area and eventually a few of them with some medical training came to help.

We were in a tough spot, and it took SAR a couple of hours to arrive. After another hour or so, Bill and I started down the mountain, forgoing our attempt at the peak. We didn’t want to continue up because we could have easily dislodged some rocks that would have rained down on the injured climber.

On the way down we bumped into some search-and-rescue personnel and told them what we knew about the accident. Later, a helicopter with equipment and more rescuers landed in a flat area about a mile away. The injured climber spent the night in or near the chute and was moved down to the flat area the next morning, and a helicopter took him to a hospital. The climber, who had several broken bones, survived after enduring multiple surgeries.

Cerro Tuzgle, 17,999’, Andes, 2017

This was a mountain that Sam and I attempted in Argentina. It’s located in the Atacama Desert of Chile and Argentina.

I had set my sights on a peak or two that straddled the border with Chile. Unfortunately, we had to turn back at a border checkpoint approximately 5 miles from the border. We didn’t have the proper paperwork with our rental car that would allow us to go beyond the checkpoint.

We quickly shifted gears to find an alternate peak—i.e., a Plan B peak.

It took us a couple of hours to find this peak by researching mountains on the internet (coverage was quite spotty) and a guidebook that I had brought along. The next day we started about 10:30 a.m. (a late start) for our day hike of Cerro Tuzgle.

The trailhead was very high, at about 14,500’. I made it to the summit, but Sam stopped short at about 17,700’. The last two hours of our hike down took place in the dark with no moon. Of course, neither of us brought a head lamp or flashlight.

Fortunately, the trail was an old dirt road. While hiking in the dark, we kept on the trail using a combination of three of our senses: vision, hearing, and touch. Our vision provided roughly 50%, while hearing the crunch of our boots hitting the ground provided 25%; the remaining 25% was provided by the feel of our boots. When we veered off the trail the sound and feel of our footsteps were much different than when we were on the trail.

We climbed this peak on May 16; it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, so this translates to Nov. 16 here in the north—in other words, the days were short and winter was approaching.

Being Thorough and Having Tenacity

Needless to say, successfully passing all of the actuarial exams takes a lot of tenacity and perseverance—and so did these mountaineering treks.

Longs Peak, 14,255’, Colorado, 1978

This was the first significant peak that I attempted. My buddy Tom and I had little to no experience or knowledge to go on. We spent very little time preparing for this trip.

A year or two earlier I asked a ranger about climbing Longs Peak. He mentioned that it was relatively easy via the keyhole route for a rookie such as myself. So, in 1978, Tom and I went with my parents on a vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park.

En route from Illinois to Colorado we borrowed a pup tent from my Uncle Danny, who lived in southwestern Nebraska. (Growing up, family vacations often involved stopping to visit my mom’s side of the family in Nebraska.) Tom and I used the tent for this portion of the trip. We needed something for spending the night at Boulderfield, a backcountry campsite at 12,760’ and 6 miles from the Longs Peak trailhead.

A few days after leaving Nebraska, and after pulling a few things together, my parents dropped us off at the trailhead. We didn’t put much into our backpacks, because we didn’t have much to bring in the first place. For instance, we had no map, compass, rain gear, sleeping pads, stove, or water purification tablets with us. I lashed my Dad’s duffel bag from World War II onto my back as a backpack. The duffel bag had one strap that worked well as a shoulder strap; the other shoulder strap I fashioned out of some rope and a towel (for padding). Tom carried a day pack. I wore Earth Shoes; at the time I thought wearing sneakers was inappropriate for this sort of thing.

During our night at Boulderfield, my parents said many prayers. The final mile and a half of this climb is generally considered class 3 rock. The route is marked by painted spots on rocks every so often. Without these spots we could have easily gotten off route and into sections of rock that would be too challenging for us. Fortunately, the next morning we made it to the top and hiked back to the trailhead in the late afternoon, where my parents met us.

We got lucky for our first mountain—there was no precipitation, we didn’t get sick from the altitude, nor from the food we ate or the water we drank, which included untreated water from a creek or two. It was a beautiful climb, and we were hooked.

Howard Mountain, 12,810’, Colorado, 1979, 1980, & 2016

The next year, Tom and I headed to Colorado on our own. This was our first trip to Colorado without my parents. We had purchased some equipment since our ’78 trip and felt much more prepared. We had high hopes of climbing many peaks during this trip.

Based on some topographical maps and our eyesight, we attempted several peaks but made it to the top of very few. Our first attempt on Howard Mountain was during this 1979 trip.

We started late in the day and turned around after two to three hours. We encountered a lot of loose rock and ran out of time. I lost my wallet—including all of my cash and travelers’ checks—shortly before we turned around. We were truly humbled by the size and difficulty of these mountains. They looked easier on the topographical maps. We were both young and there was a steep learning curve; I was only 17 at the time.

Our second attempt on Howard came the following year. This time we carved out an entire day for our attempt. We started from the same backcountry campsite. We had an early start but were eventually confronted with some tough sections of rock that we didn’t think we could climb. The rock was class 3 to class 4 with no painted spots to follow like on Longs Peak. So, we turned around.

We had very limited information about attempting this peak in 1979 and 1980. We had no guidebooks, and the internet didn’t exist then. We only used a topographic map and compass.

Our third attempt, which was successful, took place during 2016. By then we had some guidebooks. Based on their route descriptions, we found a relatively easy route from a completely different direction. As Howard Mountain is not a popular mountain, there is little information on the internet—but we kept at it and eventually summited.

Colorado 14ers and California 14ers

I completed my final of the Colorado 14ers in 2011. It took me 33 years to complete these peaks … far longer than it took me to finish the actuarial exams. I hope to complete the California 14ers one of these years. So far, I have never used a guide for any of my climbs.

Solving Problems, Analytics

Both actuarial science and mountain climbing involve basic analytic and problem-solving skills.

Maroon Peak, 14,156’, Colorado, 2004

Maroon Peak is the higher of the two Maroon Bells. These peaks are near Aspen and are very photogenic; they may be the most photographed mountains in the U.S.

Maroon Peak, Colorado
14,156′

I set out for this peak on my own, in the dark. I needed a tremendous amount of route-finding to keep the climb to class 3 rock, which I’m comfortable with. There were many class 4 and class 5 sections of rock nearby that I was trying to avoid. So, significant time was taken up with route-finding—i.e., analyzing how I could get through various sections of the climb.

Near the top, I worked my way through some tough stretches of steep, loose rock with snow and ice, which exceeded class 3 rock. I knew that I was off the route that I was trying to follow, so I turned around and started heading down. On the way down I had to go back up and over a ridge. Once on the ridge I noticed a much more promising route, essentially following the ridge up to the top.

I made it to the top! It took about 15 hours to go 10 miles roundtrip. I was on a trail the first and last 3 miles, which went smoothly. The middle 4 miles, which was mostly class 3 rock, took 13 hours, due to backtracking and route-finding. I was quite physically and mentally exhausted by the end of this day hike.

Dry Mountain, 8,674’, Death Valley, California, 2014

As the name implies, there was no water on or near this peak. We brought 4.5 gallons of water with us and drank almost of it during our one-night backpack to Dry Mountain. We took a different way down, a “scenic route” that involved some route-finding.

During the way down, my buddy Carl noticed that I would stop every so often to see where we were heading and make course corrections, to avoid getting into areas that were too difficult for us. He was concerned that we would have to turn around and head back up and go down a different route.

Being Organized, Planning

An immense amount of preparation and planning often takes place before attempting to climb a mountain. The amount of preparation depends on a number of factors such as the location of the mountain, how difficult the mountain is, potential weather, time of year, amount of experience, and level of ability of the climbing party. Some preparation simply involves organizing equipment to bring with you for climbing a peak.

The preparation aspects for a serious climb can be comparable to the early steps of product development or in staging a sophisticated actuarial model. Much time is often spent getting things ready to develop and price a new product or “simply” model a piece of business. Also, a healthy amount of skepticism can be handy—whether you’re reading a trip report on the internet or reviewing output from an actuarial model.

As I’ve gotten older, part of preparing to climb a mountain involves getting in shape. For me, getting in shape wasn’t on my radar until I was in my 30s. I’m now in my 50s and consider being in shape a necessity for an enjoyable mountaineering experience.

Keeping in shape for climbing mountains reminds me of the continuing education requirement for credentialed actuaries.

In the new millennium, using the internet to research potential mountains to climb is often indispensable. That said, one needs to keep in mind how fast your climbing party can hike and climb and compare that to trip reports and other information found on the internet. Descriptions on the internet can be misleading and may omit important things—such as whether the trip reporter was actually running during portions of the hike.

During one climb in 2016 with Sam, we bumped into some hikers in their 20s. They appeared to be in good shape and were energetic and enthusiastic. They told us they were attempting two of the California 14ers as a day hike. We ran into them early on our second day of our backpack trip going up. We told them our plan was to camp that night relatively close to Mount Tyndall, then attempt it the following day.

Mount Tyndall was the easier of the two peaks they were planning on climbing that day. They passed us, but not quickly enough to have a chance to climb either of the peaks that day. An hour or two later we caught up with them at a section of the trail that had been washed out. They chose to turn around at that point and head back to the trailhead.

Perhaps they had read a trip report on the internet describing someone day-hiking these two peaks and thought that they could do it. It took Sam and me about 12 hours the next day to climb Mount Tyndall from our high camp. The following day we hiked down all 11 miles or so back to the trailhead.

Sam and I were realistic in our abilities and succeeded while the other hikers significantly underestimated the difficulty of these mountains and failed their attempt.

Pik Uchitel, 14,973’, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

Sam moved to Kyrgyzstan in late 2017. She was teaching English as a second language in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. My wife wanted me to check on her to make sure she was OK.

I soon realized that a major mountain range was on the south side of Bishkek. I made arrangements to visit her in July. Not wanting to travel alone, I enlisted my son Nick, age 19.

Sam was doing well when we arrived for our visit. Kyrgyzstan is a country in central Asia that had been part of the former Soviet Union. Russian and Kyrgyz are the main languages spoken there. Sam, who speaks English and German, was learning Russian.

Pik Uchitel, Kyrgyzstan
14,973′

Most of my mountain research centered on trip reports for peaks near Bishkek. There are many challenging peaks in the area. Pik Uchitel appeared easy enough for the three of us to attempt. Most of the information I found on the peak was in Russian or other non-English languages. Based on information on the internet, I found crampons and ice axes may be needed depending on conditions. Otherwise, the peak was class 2. Our plan was to spend two nights partway up the peak, thus breaking up the climb into parts of three days.

Nick and I were in Kyrgyzstan for only one full week. During our visit we ate many interesting things including horse meat, yak meat, and fermented horse milk. First, we stayed at a yurt for two nights near Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake. On the way back to Bishkek we stopped at a roadside convenience store and bought some lunch. I came down with food poisoning later that day. (Fortunately, Nick and Sam had picked different sandwiches than I.)

My ailment pushed our attempt on the mountain back one day while the bad food had a chance to get out of my system. The following day we headed for the trailhead. We took two different marshrutkas to get there. (Marshrutkas are minibuses that are independently run. They are a popular form of transportation in parts of the former Soviet Union.)

Once at the trailhead we began our hike up to a camping area next to the Ratsek Hut. This hike turned out to be popular. We bumped into all sorts of people from various countries, but no one from the Western Hemisphere. Once we had our tent set up, Sam immediately started visiting with some of our new neighbors. We hung out with a group of guys from Belgium. They shared some chocolate with us, and we shared some of our whiskey with them. Around this point I started feeling much better than I had in days.

The next day, we got an early start and made it to the top around noon. I was thrilled; this was the first 14er that I had done together with Sam and Nick. Clouds started to roll in during the late morning and built up for several hours in the afternoon. We were lucky there was no rain, but it was foggy at times on the way down to camp. After spending a second night in our tent, we got up the following morning and hiked down to the trailhead. That evening we celebrated in Bishkek at a restaurant with one of Sam’s roommates. The next day we flew back to Houston.

For successful actuarial projects, many things often need to come together well—much like a successful mountaineering trip.

Laws and Regulations

As we all know, there are many laws and regulations governing many of the products that actuaries are involved with. At times, climbing of specific mountains is regulated. Often these regulations involve limiting the number of people allowed to climb at any one time. Also, most national parks regulate the number of people climbing or camping in their backcountry areas. These regulations are part of an effort to preserve the beauty of fragile or popular areas.

Mount Whitney, California

Mount Whitney, California
14,505′

I have made it to the top of Mount Whitney twice. Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48. It is also extremely popular—so popular that a lottery system has been implemented limiting the number of people entering this area each day.

Mount Williamson, California

Most of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range has a quota system. There are limits on the number of people allowed to enter each day per trailhead. Also, an area on the northwestern side of Mount Williamson is off limits during specific parts of the year (this proscription is related to Bighorn sheep).

Humphreys Peak, 12,633’, Arizona, 2010

This is the highest peak in Arizona. Sam and I made it the top of this peak when she was 13. Although there aren’t many official regulations to climb this peak, it is considered sacred by nearby Native American tribes. To my knowledge, we were supposed to avoid particular parts of the peak.

Ayers Rock, Australia

I’ve read that due to aboriginal sensitivities, a ban on climbing Ayers Rock was instituted during 2019.

~~~

As described above, there are several attributes that benefit both mountain climbing and actuarial science. There are also many similarities that continue to evolve over time. For instance, each has benefited from improved equipment—for mountain climbing, lighter and more waterproof clothing; for actuarial science, faster computers and improved software. There will always be challenging mountains to climb and many new actuarial problems to solve. Both have an exciting future.     

(L-R): Dan Wiedrich, Bill Bey, Chuck Wiedrich, and Robert Bloom

DAN WIEDRICH, MAAA, FSA, is an actuary living in Kingwood, Texas.

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