This is, for many, their favorite time of the year.

Photo: Chris Whiton. Source: White Mountain Images. Used by permission.

Sunny days and crisp nights make autumn a lovely season. In New England, even rainy days in the valleys can lead to snowy summits set above vibrant fall colors. Our sugar maples turn a bright gold, which as you go higher transitions to the deep green spruce-fir forests, and finally gives way to alpine tundra, which often has a thin coat of snow and rime ice.

The mountains are popular this time of year. In September Pam and I hiked Mt. Lafayette, where we encountered hundreds of other hikers along the ridge. The weather was perfect – just warm enough to be pleasant, but cool enough so the air was clear. We could easily see 50 miles, or more, from the summit.

But warm weather in the valleys can lure unsuspecting hikers into more unfamiliar territory. Last year, we wanted to get a closer view of our snowy mountains, so we headed up one of New Hampshire’s higher peaks in late October, shortly after a storm. We weren’t disappointed. The moss, grass, and rocks were glazed with frozen fog, and the sign marking the top was coated in blown snow. On a hike like this, safety dictated that we bring along more than just sound boots and comfortable clothes. Parkas, fleece, micro-spikes, first aid materials, and emergency supplies were required in case anything went wrong.

Summit of Mt. Moosilauke. Photo: Doug Tengdin

When up in the mountains, it’s easy to underestimate the risks. The weather can deteriorate, trail conditions can be icy or muddy, sources of water or shade or shelter may not be available. Just because we’ve been somewhere before doesn’t mean it will be the same as it was last time; and our own condition – and knees, hips, and back – may be less tolerant of the adventure we’ve planned.

Mountain guides use the acronym “FACETS” to evaluate risky behaviors. Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Expertise, Tracks, and Social proof. We tend to take more risks when we think we are Familiar with the terrain; when we want to be Accepted by our peers; when we try to be Consistent and not back away; when an informal Expert tells us everything’s fine; when we try to make Tracks before an opportunity goes away; and when we see other Social groups succeeding. These are ways that we pressure ourselves to keep moving forward, even when our conscience tells us to slow down, reevaluate, and maybe turn back.

We use these shortcuts – often unconsciously – in our thinking because they’re fast, convenient, and most of the time they work. By contrast, applying knowledge-based decision-making tools is slower, tedious, and can yield ambiguous results. Should we keep going, even when the wind picks up, the clouds roll in and it’s getting colder? Maybe it will clear off, maybe not. There are lots of factors to consider.

Photo: Doug Tengdin.

It’s the same with investing. People can talk themselves into using a new investment instrument or a novel technique or an innovative platform because it seems familiar or their neighbor recommended it or they don’t want to be obstructive or it’s only available for a limited time. These FACETS of risk management will push us forward, often against our better judgment. When we find ourselves pressured, either from someone else or from our own expectations, it’s almost always a good idea to slow down.

Managing investments means, especially, managing risk. And managing risk means most of all knowing and managing ourselves. The mountains look beautiful this time of year. Getting there and returning safely depend on thoughtful planning, careful execution, and a clear-headed review of the situation when circumstances change.

With investing, like hiking, getting to the top is optional. Getting home is mandatory.