Monday, June 08, 2009

Another one down.

Sometime in the last few weeks Johnny Copp died in an avalanche in China, likely along with Micah Dash and Wade Johnson. Johnny had spent some time in the basement Hilton at our house, and I'd known him for a bunch of years. I'd only met Micah a few times and didn't know Wade, but I'm sorry to hear that all three are permanently out of the great game of life. They added to it in a hugely positive way.

Every spring I involuntarily think of the springs of 2005 and 2006; during those two springs seven friends died in clusters only a few months apart. None of them died of old age. The older I get the less sure I am of the glib responses and justifications I've always used for living a risky life. I still believe that for me it's the only path I can ride, but the odds become more and more obvious as I age. I recently wrote about the odds of dying while climbing in Explore magazine (can't find a direct link to that story on-line, will look later). My conclusion was that climbing and most mountain sports are a lot riskier than we like to think they are. Sport climbing on good rock is probably the only form of climbing one can expect to do for a lifetime and actually die from something other than climbing in the end. And even in the controlled "sport" environment almost every long-term sport climber I know has hit the ground at least once, always in a "fluke" accident. As I read the on-line forums about accidents and death I keep hearing the words "Fluke" and "Tragedy." Both these words are nonsense when applied to accidents in mountain sports.

For me I'm never going to use the word "tragedy" in reference to a climbing or mountain sports accident again. A tragedy is when a whole family gets killed by a drunk driver. A tragedy is when a little kid gets abused. A tragedy is when a 30-year old mother of two young kids gets cancer and dies. Dying while climbing, kayaking, paragliding, BASE jumping or any other form of outdoor recreation isn't a fucking tragedy, it's a clearly predictable result of doing the activity. If I or anyone goes out while doing our sports with a clear understanding of the game we're playing then let's have a drink, cheer for the life lived, and move on as best we can. I know it's not that simple as death leaves huge craters in life, but I think that's the only sane response I can give to the continued and voluntary mountain carnage I keep seeing year in and year out. To celebrate the rewards without clearly understanding the risks is not only bad math but blatant self-deception.

So here's to all my friends who went out with their boots on. And to my two friends currently in the hospital, you're goddamn lucky, and I'm glad you were.


Keith MacCullough said...

Amen to that

John said...

Well said Will.

Anonymous said...

I've long thought that killing oneself in the mountains while enjoying high-risk activities isn't necessarily a tragedy--at least not for the one who dies. In the face of deep tragedies, such as genocide, it's hard to feel too sorry for the privileged climber who dies while enjoying a life of voluntary hedonistic outdoor pleasure. Playing with gravity is perhaps the most fun and rewarding thing that many of us do, but it has zero social benefit. When one of us dies, it doesn't advance an important social cause, or help save someone else's life, etc. We aren't heroes because we don't really do anything useful, and it seems rather grandiose for any of us to define our own useless deaths as tragedies.

That said, a climber doesn't usually die in isolation. We leave behind parents, siblings, children, spouses, friends, colleagues, etc. For them, a climbing death is often a tragedy. A real one. If you were to die tomorrow, Will, it would absolutely be a tragedy for your young daughter. She didn't choose to have you as a father, so she can't say that she knew what she was getting into. Yes, it is a "fucking tragedy" when kids lose parents--whether to cancer or rockfall.

Most of us don't stop playing outside due to personal risk or the threat of destroying the lives of those who love us. Probably stupid, selfish, and greedy. But most of us try damn hard to stay safe--and I think that your post certainly helps by making those who read it stop and think for a moment.

Tim said...

Great post Will. We may make the decisions we do even after considering the issues you pose - but those of us that assess and reassess the risk/reward ratio don't take the decision lightly.

As the years go by the 'reward' side of the equation often is eclipsed by the rewards of family, safety, and comfort. I've tussled with these issues and find your thoughts insightful.

Will Gadd said...

Anon--Generally yes to what you wrote, thanks.

Tim: Thanks, and here's to getting older. It is, as I think Twain said, better than the alternative.

I wrote this post with a lot of anger. Maybe one day I'll be evolved enough to let all things flow by with peace, but for now I'm not. Good people dying bothers me, even if they died doing what they loved, even if I know it's a statistical fact of life, even, even, even... It's also vicious to really think the odds through on a personal level....

Kim Graves said...

Recommend Dave Robert's book, "On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined". Climbing is selfish - and great fun.

Nat West said...

Not to pick nits, but I should add that bouldering is lower in the "possible death" category of outdoor sports.

That being said, I used to backcountry snowboard, mountaineer, trad climb, sport climb, whitewater kayak, etc. When my daughter was born, I sold all my gear and now I'm only bouldering and running/backpacking.

I still can't understand the terrible irresponsibility of Rob Hall's time spent on Everest. Maybe he swore that one would be the last before his daughter was born, but we'll never know.

IMHO, continuing "extreme" outdoor sports with a family is the height of selfish hedonism.

Will Gadd said...

Hi Nat,

I can understand Rob Hall's efforts on Everest, or at least I think I can. I don't condone his path, but I can see it. Basically, some people aren't happy if they aren't doing something they feel is deeply important. For Rob, I suspect, guiding Everest was that one thing. I've known more than a few people who, I suspect, had a lot of Rob in 'em. If they don't go outside and climb, ski, kayak, whatever, they turn into complete assholes if they're male and bitches if they're female. So, would you rather be married to an unhappy, irritable, annoying, SOB spouse or have them risk it all regularly? I don't think I understand that decision for anyone, but I know how it works for me.

Not getting on you, just offering a view. and nice work on the garden!


CH said...

It's not the size of the candle, it's the brilliance if its flame.

Chad Jukes said...

Great opinion... Its the way I like to think about my own life and the risks I take. In climbing, but also when I was in the military. I often thought about the risk when I served in Iraq, and I always hoped nobody would feel sorry for the loss of my life if I were to die, or blame anyone else, because it was, in the end, my decision to be there and do what I was doing.
In climbing as well... We put ourselves in life threatening situations with FULL understanding of the risks involved.
This being said, its still really hard to deal with the death of a friend, no matter what the circumstances, but I still manage to raise a glass to each one.