Inverted Mountains: Beware

Jim Naviaux
6 min readDec 4, 2019

Mental Models of the Grand Canyon

Source: IsoRepublic

There are many analogues of the Grand Canyon in our lives. Situations which are deceivingly easy to get ourselves into, and in some cases impossible to get out of.

I often marvel at the thoughtless decisions I see people make which change the entire trajectory of their lives as well as the lives of others. These are typically flash decisions made in the blink of an eye. The Grand Canyon is very interesting in that it amplifies the choices of this sort and rapidly delivers the consequences.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite books: “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon” by Michael P Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. The Grand Canyon inspires many forms of folly. Out of the many cases of misjudgment detailed in this book come extremely useful mental models with broad applications for everyday life.

I was apprehensive when looking this book over before giving it a read for the first time. Is this not some strange, morbid form of entertainment? Why should I read about death accounts at the Grand Canyon? The authors address this concern at the very beginning of the text, this is powerful:

“We are now convinced that very few people have died in the Grand Canyon due to causes that can honestly be assigned merely to bad luck or an unforeseeable act of God. Instead, nearly all of the violent and/ or traumatic fatalities known within the Canyon have resulted from a series of decisions by the victims and/ or by those responsible for the victims’ safety.”

The study of these “series of decisions” so captivated me that I’ve read this book twice over the last year.

The Grand Canyon is a unique place that amplifies and accelerates the consequences of its visitor’s decisions — the very nature of the place makes the margin for error razor thin. Some of the victims surprised me: Boy Scout leaders, well meaning dads, even healthy and fit young people.

To the casual observer, the Grand Canyon readily reveals only one of its many dangers — the obvious risk of falling. But, there is a whole litany of people, who despite this easily observable hazard, flirt with physics and end up plummeting upwards of one-thousand feet to their untimely deaths.

Reading about these tragedies reveals that many fall victims disregard physical barriers that were erected to protect them. It’s disheartening to see how many folks can’t say no to the temptation of climbing over a barricade to get right up to the edge of the Canyon to pose for that perfect photo. There is an easy mental model here that we will start with:

Respect Fences

Whenever a fence is encountered in life, take the time to consider why someone went to the expense and hassle of placing the barrier. Find out what the range of consequences are before making the decision to override the safety measure. Is the risk worth the reward? — a photograph that will get a couple likes on social media > early death? No.

Other no-brainers in this category: wear your seat belt, put on the ugly helmet before riding your bike or motorcycle, sport your safety glasses with confidence, stop for the red light, read the user manual and safety precautions that came with that new tool you purchased. Many times these are flash decisions. Slow down, take the extra moment to consider your actions.

Besides the risk of falling, other primary but lesser-known risks of the Grand Canyon include: environmental, the ice-cold and ripping-fast Colorado River, and flash floods.

I knew that rafting trips down the Colorado River were a common activity, but I never appreciated how spectacularly dangerous the Colorado really is. The book recounts several fatal incidents where a ‘strong swimmer’ decides to go for a quick swim without a life jacket and then simply disappears. The victims of the Colorado were uninformed regarding the temperature of the water and the strength of the current. Furthermore, these victims were often alone.

The victims sometimes knew the danger and ended up falling into the water anyway — they poo pooed the risk. Don’t get too close! The edge of the river should be treated with the same level of caution as the upper rim of the canyon. The mental model here:

Always Overestimate Potential Danger — The Calm Water is Racing Below the Surface

It is better to be too cautious than to commit an error from which one cannot recover. If you find that your safety measures are overdone, carefully scale them back until comfortable and still safe. Keep the odds on your side, use your safety apparatus, and don’t approach high-risk environments where your senses are obstructed or where you can easily lose control.

No-brainers here: Don’t take road trips through snow storms, don’t drive in fog unless necessary, keep your radio at a reasonable level when driving and DO NOT look at your phone until safely parked, keep a winter weather safety kit in your vehicle, don’t approach wild animals, etc. Please share your examples in the comments.

The Inverted Mountain

My favorite Mental Model I found in the book comes from a creative description from the author explaining what the Grand Canyon really is — a mountain that’s been pulled inside out — an inverted mountain:

A hard lesson here is: Canyoneering is emphatically not mountaineering. In any group of mountaineers, the number of potential summiteers shrinks as the mountain lets people know just how hard it really is to gain altitude solely via one’s own power. In other words, mountains often weed out the unfit so early in the game that, once they realize they have bitten of more than they can chew, they can often return fairly easily downhill to their staging zone. In complete contrast, canyons do the opposite. While descending most canyon trails, the ease and coolness of the decent are seductive. It’s a breeze even for the unfit or the unprepared. Until the time comes to hike back up. Then, when it’s all to often a hot, dry, hard, agonizing, and often tortuous physiological contrast to the descent, the unfit get weeded out late in the game and get weeded out brutally. Sometime fatally.

There are many inverted mountains in life — situations that lure you in and don’t appear dangerous until it’s very difficult or impossible to get out:

  • Addictions
  • Debt
  • Toxic Relationships
  • Overeating
  • What examples can you think of? Let me know in the comments below

The Remedy:

Because many of life’s most severe risks are not blatantly obvious, it is crucial that one approach the unknown/ unfamiliar through the following process:

  1. Assume Ignorance Always -“What are the obvious risks? What am I missing, what are my blind spots?” Once you begin developing some knowledge, be your own biggest skeptic and continue poking holes in what you know until some confidence develops, then poke and prod some more. Descend with extreme caution, if at all.
  2. Become Informed-Read up and take your time, consult experts, look to others who have gone before you. Get down to the details — they will save your life! It’s not enough to ‘bring water’ on your Grand Canyon hike, bring reasonably more than you need, be precise.
  3. Go Prepared: Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Include a margin of safety, have a plan B and C.
  4. Proceed Conservatively- Assume self-rescue, don’t bite of more than you can chew, be reasonable. Never take rescue for granted or your situation could turn into a search and rescue.

Do yourself a favor and read “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon” by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, you won’t regret it!