Risk and Mitigation

When I first mentioned my plan to one member of my family, the response was this: “Why would you risk losing your life, wife, kids, and job for such a trip?” You don’t hear those concerns every day – so I considered this sentiment very seriously, asking myself questions like these:

  • What are the risks on this trip?
  • How can they be mitigated?
  • Are the rewards outweighing the risks?
  • Here are some thoughts on the nature of the risks:

      Environmental: This category includes weather hazard, animals (like bears in Alaska and Canada), cold, high altitude, glacier and crevasses, sun-burn, etc. Most of these risks can be mitigated by proper preparation (physical training, mental preparedness, emergency and medical kits, etc.), equipment (clothing, climbing gear, roped glacier travel, bear spray, etc.) and sensible behavior (adapting plan to weather conditions, precautions with food, avalanche avoidance, etc.)

      Crime: This category includes petty theft, robbery, violence, etc., especially in toursim areas. Of course, a biker stands out and is a relatively easy target for criminals in cars or on motorcycles. That said, there are plenty of biker trip reports online and in book form, and I have yet to come across a single one where such a risk materialized with serious personal consequences. Mitigation: Sensible behavior and precautions against theft, avoid crowded tourist spots, learn from books and locals which areas to avoid.

      Political: This category of risk includes kidnapping and murder by politically motivated extremists (such as FARC in Columbia), terrorists or drug- and gang-related violence (recently very severe in Mexico). This may be the most difficult risk to assess from the outside. Mitigation: Anonymity and low key appearance, avoid areas which are considered too risky. For example, the Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia is avoided by most. Another example is Pico Cristobal Colon in Columbia, which is considered inaccessible due to local Indians and drug-cartels, neither of which are welcoming to any outside intruders, especially not tourists. No peak or project is worth dying for! It may be good to consult with experts like Robert Young Pelton who specialize in traveling to dangerous places.

      Traffic: This includes all risk from cars, trucks, motorcycles etc. I consider this the biggest risk on this trip, due to the length of the trip (~25.000km) as well as the varying and presumably often sub-standard road conditions (no shoulder, lots of traffic, etc.) Mitigation: Riding in daylight only, visible jersey colors and flag-pole, avoid big cities, passive riding, bike helmet, anticipate that others don’t see you, etc. In 40 years of bike riding I haven’t been run over by a car or truck, so there is hope!

      Medical: Disease, Food or Water Poisoning, Insect or other animal bites etc. Mitigation: Immunization, Water Purification, general precaution in the wilderness…

      Much of the above can be further mitigated through travel insurance and other paperwork. Just in case, I also did set up a will (I used legalzoom.com and can highly recommend it).

      Of course, there is the risk (or rather the certainty) of losing my job. Hardly any employer will grant a 1 year leave of absence, so I had prepared to resign and make do without income for 1 year. As it turns out, I was let go at my last employer in February, so I had a little extra time for preparation – timing was on my side in this case! The question is what kind of re-integration into the job-market will await me in mid 2010; hopefully the economy will have bottomed out before then and on its way to recovery…

      Other aspects have to do with personal relations and family life. This is something everyone has to reconcile with his/her own situation, and I can’t generalize much on this point. I do believe that frequent communication with loved ones makes a big difference. The world is small, both for telecommunication and also for travel. For example, I am planning to bring iPhone, wireless computer (email, Skype, Blog, etc.), and GPS, which will allow frequent communication and also tracking of my location from most places. I also plan to fly home a few times while on the trip so as to not be away from loved ones for too many months at a time. Hopefully this will mitigate the risk of alienation and relieve stress in personal relationships originating from the fact that I physically won’t be home for a while.

      Now as for the rewards aspect, I may have to contemplate that in a separate post another time…

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