The grand delusion
We need to stop telling ourselves lies about the risks of mountain sports
I recently attended a rare event: a memorial for someone who didn’t die in the mountains. This particular high-achieving friend died of alcoholism, but was his addiction really so different than my own devotion to mountain sports? He knew alcohol would kill him, but chose to drink. And I am increasingly certain that if anyone spends enough time in the mountains, he or she will die there.
I often hear friends make statistically insane comments such as, “You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains.” That statement, for the record, is a stinking pile of self-delusional excrement that does not smell any less foul with repeated exposure. The ignorance behind those words makes me seethe internally—because I once believed exactly the same thing.
I do a lot of presentations about mountain sports, and sometimes share a list of dead friends to remind myself and the audience that the hidden price for the stunning photographs is all-too-regularly life itself. There are 27 names on my list. Not one of those friends died while driving to the mountains. Not one died on a commercial airline flight. To equate the risks of mountain sports to everyday activities like driving or even the chance of death from cancer is completely idiotic. Every friend on my list drove to the mountains a lot, and some even wrecked vehicles and spent time in the hospital from those crashes. But they died doing mountain sports.
As the list grows longer, I have a harder and harder time understanding why I take the risks I do out there. Yes, I’m careful; yes, I use good gear; yes, I run away a lot in the face of peril—but there are always elevated dangers in sports such as climbing, whitewater kayaking and paragliding. Each friend’s death has been a crack in my mental foundation of “managed risk.” And then, two months ago, that foundation was shattered with the sound of someone’s spine breaking. I had launched my glider off Mount Lady MacDonald, north of Canmore, and was 500 feet above my friend Stewart when he plummeted into the rocks shortly after takeoff.
I almost puked in the air as I watched and heard him hit. I didn’t think anyone could survive the impact he took, and the spinning fall down the scree that followed. Thanks to prompt first aid from some great people who happened to be hiking in the area, and to a helicopter rescue team from Canmore, Stewart was in a good hospital only two hours after his accident. He remains there, with hopefully temporary spinal damage. I was thrilled when I heard that he had survived—unlike the dead, he would have the opportunity to say what he needed to his friends and family. He might even recover fully.
This article was originally published on December 5, 2011
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