I am the last in a line of kayaks to face the imposing rapid. I’ve waited what I estimate is long enough for the person in front of me to descend safely. As I slowly approach the precipice, the surge of water becomes deafening. I can’t see what awaits me until just before I rush over the edge—then it’s all a blur. I barrel down the first several chutes unscathed, exhilarated. Then a whirling current catches my boat, and I’m unable to set myself up for the next drop. I paddle as hard as I can, but still enter sideways. I’m immediately thrown out of my boat and tossed around like a ragdoll by the immensely powerful water. I frantically lash and kick in an attempt to stabilize myself, but I am absolutely helpless against the awful rush of the current. I choke on water. I gasp whenever my head breaks above the surface. Panic fills me. I’m thrashed against the rocks until knocked unconscious. I am pinned underwater by the force of the current, and by the time my friends start to worry, it is too late.
I’ve been climbing all day long in the blazing summer heat. When I reach the top of my last route, my entire body is drenched in sweat and every muscle in my arms is completely spent from the one-hundred-foot climb. I fix myself to the anchors, my belayer takes me off belay, and I prepare the rope to lower myself. The process is mechanical, and I do it without thought. I am so comfortable in the routine that when I make a grave error I don’t even notice. I’ve put the rope through the anchors, I’ve attached the belay device to my harness, but I don’t see that the rope isn’t actually in the carabiner connected to my harness. I take myself off the anchors, and as I lean back to rappel the rope pops out of the rigging and I feel my stomach drop. Every fiber in me is immediately, fully alert. My hands grasp at the air. Just when I realize what has happened I hit the ground, dead.
I'm hiking up to a snow-covered pass. The trail is hidden underneath a gleaming field of white, and the tracks of previous hikers have almost entirely melted in the afternoon sun. I climb slowly upward, my feet slipping a little with each step. The gradient becomes steeper and steeper. As I stand alone on the side of the mountain catching my breath, my feet suddenly give out from beneath me and I rocket down the mountain, consumed by the avalanche I've just triggered. I struggle to stay above the snow, but in an instant it all comes to a halt and I am buried. The snow sets around my body like concrete, and my chest has no room to expand. I try to remain calm as I inhale my last few shallow breaths.
I do things that kill people. I hike alone, I rock climb, I crawl around caves, and I kayak when I get the chance. I also hope to try bungee jumping, skiing, skydiving, canyoneering, and more serious mountaineering. All of these activities have some level of inherent risk, and I've considered them seriously. I've vividly imagined the possible accidents and potential consequences, yet I still choose to go out there. To me, the reward is worth the risk.
The fact is, we all do things that kill people. We drive cars, we fly, we eat poorly, we sit in chairs all day. Most of the things we do present some possibility of danger, even if it’s not obvious. So what changes when the possibility of danger is obvious? How do we understand risk, how do we evaluate it, and how do we respond to it?
The difference between outdoor sports and some of our daily activities is often no more than the perceived level of risk. There are many different factors that influence how risky an activity appears. A key aspect is familiarity; something seems more dangerous if it is unfamiliar. The average person is unacquainted with the risks of hiking in the mountains. They lack knowledge of the various available safety precautions. They don’t know how frequently accidents happen. They can’t recognize which factors the hiker can control and which they cannot, and this makes the whole affair appear much more dangerous.
What they can understand, however, is the consequence. If something goes wrong in the middle of nowhere on a mountain, it will go very wrong. It is important, however, to distinguish risk from consequence. The probability of something bad happening is different from the severity of that bad thing. Poor diet and inactivity are risky habits that greatly increase the likelihood of heart disease, but the consequences aren’t immediate, so over time it doesn’t seem that dangerous. On the other hand, a plane crash means almost certain death. The majority of people, however, can reason that the probability of this happening is extremely low.
Experienced practitioners of extreme sports are aware of factors that pose objective risk, and they can accurately evaluate danger. Thus they have a great deal of control over risks outdoors. They understand their own levels of conditioning, ability, and preparedness, and they can accordingly choose the difficulty of whatever obstacle they are facing. They know of the dangers posed by weather, and they plan accordingly. They estimate what equipment they’ll need, and they decide what to bring. They can even assess the accuracy of their assessments. Although it’s impossible to control everything outdoors, experts can identify and mitigate risk to a surprising extent. On the other hand, each time you get in a vehicle, you don’t have control over a drunk driver that may rocket across the median and hit you head on.
We will all die. So although I've evaluated the risks associated with my activities, and although I have no intention of dying anytime soon, I still know that it’s a possibility. I would be content, however, to die doing something I love. Someone once told me, “Don’t live the same year over and over again seventy times and call it a life.” I've tried to live as fully as possible, and I’ve had some incredible experiences and opportunities. I’ve seen a good chunk of the world for someone my age. I’ve spent countless nights falling asleep under the star-filled sky. I’ve experienced solitude and the sublime. I’ve pushed my body beyond what I thought were absolute limits of fatigue while paddling against headwinds. I’ve tasted mountaintop views that satiate like food to a starving man—views that can only be earned. I’ve consciously taken my life into my own hands, something most people never do, and come out more alive as a result. I’ve made mistakes and suffered the consequences in fatigue and hunger and headache. Along the way I’ve met some incredible people who share a love for adventure. I feel most at home in nature, and I’d be happier if I died out there than if I died choking on a burrito.
Again, I don't have a death wish, but the fact is that something could go wrong. Sometimes there are unforeseeable dangers. Sometimes accidents happen, or are amplified, due to poor judgment. Sometimes the best of us can get careless. If I die out there for some reason, that’s okay. Even in just two decades I’ve lived an incredible life, better than the vast majority of the estimated 107 billion people who have ever lived. How many of those people were fortunate enough to have any education whatsoever? How many lived unencumbered by the threats of disease and war and starvation? How many were able to travel across the world, and how many even knew that the world existed? How many people had even a fraction of the resources, information, and entertainment that the average American has at their fingertips?
The most humbling realization isn't that, when looking at the grand scope of humanity, I’ve won the quality-of-life lottery. From time to time I realize the profundity of a simpler fact—I'm alive. All of a sudden I remember that, against mind boggling odds, out of all of the people who were, will be, or could have been, I actually am—in this very moment. I am enjoying the exceedingly rare opportunity of life, in a spectacular universe, and the fact that I can grasp the weight of that for just one second makes my whole life worthwhile.