A physical risk is any threat to one’s bodily wellbeing and existence. Physical risks can cause severe stress on the body, irreparable physical harm, or death. Confronting physical risk can reframe one’s sense of vulnerability in day-to-day life and change our relationship to the constructed environments we inhabit every day.
The risk on a wilderness trip is physical. “The big risk is dying,” says wilderness guide Leslie Appling with a hardy chuckle. “That’s the biggie! Or coming home mangled or not good.” Confronting that risk means taking personal responsibility for one’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of the group so everyone can get through the challenges that the wild environment poses.
Initially, the group of strangers that gather together for Leslie’s trips is on their best behavior. “As people get a little more settled in, they are more willing to express their personal perspective even if it will cause conflict,” Leslie observes. “At that point, a group can either work that conflict productively and move onto a higher level of performing, or they can avoid it and stay stagnant, they can stay stuck in conflict indefinitely, or they can just stay at a low level performance.” Stagnation or coasting at low performance levels has consequences in any aspect of life, but when the group dynamics dictate the ability to confront the real physical risks posed by the wild, low performance can be deadly.
Closely related to physical risk is the risk of annihilation that can come from any situation where the challenges to be confronted are significant and uncontrollable. Situations of group leadership in business and activism could pose such risks, where the members of the group failing to work together well will sabotage everyone’s efforts.