Risk Re-revisited

I didn't know Dean Potter. I've only been to Yosemite Valley a few times so I'm completely disconnected from the climbing culture and from the climbers who frequent the Valley. Dean Potter and Graham Hunt recently died BASE jumping (that's parachute jumping from Buildings, Antennas, Spans [bridges] and Earth [cliffs, promontories, etc.]). Specifically they were wing suit flying, which involves wearing an aerodynamic suit that generates significantly more lift than the human body alone. BASE jumping has a notoriety for being dangerous because often it involves short drop distances with little margin for error; if a chute fails to open in a timely fashion or if turbulence or wind is present, there may be little chance of avoiding an often fatal accident. The same goes for wing suit flying, where flyers often contour the landscape quite closely, sometimes threading through small gaps where the slightest miscalculation or unexpected event spells certain doom. The latter seems to be what befell Potter and Hunt when they jumped from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, although as always the details remain somewhat vague. Were their deaths accidents? Strictly speaking, yes. Miscalculations? Maybe. Tragic? Definitively, yes.

I've written about risk before and about how it relates to climbing. Dean Potter is well-known as a daredevil even by non-climbers. His innovations in climbing, slacklining, free-solo climbing and BASE are quite substantial. An example is his combination of BASE parachuting with both slacklining (walking a nylon webbing tightrope between features) and free-solo climbing. His exploits on the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland are well documented, where he climbs a difficult route substituting a parachute for a rope in case of a fall. As is always the case with someone on the fringe, both in terms of ability and level of risk taken, he attracted as much criticism as accolade. Internet threads about Potter are inundated with the classic jibes about him being a media hotshot and a suicidal idiot. Of course, the death of anyone who puts himself out there as thoroughly as Potter is a lightning rod for internet banter. As always I've found the responses in the aftermath both fascinating and repellent. The relative anonymity of the internet is fairly effective at disinhibiting behavior that would otherwise have real-life consequences. Threats generally have no teeth in online forums, so for better or worse people tend to be at their worst, the closest to psychopathy and sociopathy that they can get without becoming the CEO of a major company.

Or, it seems, an employee of the National Park System. This link (may not continue to work indefinitely, but I also downloaded the album just in case) shows screen grabs from an NPS employee discussion forum. These are the folks that, again, for better or worse, operate what are ostensibly 'our' National Parks. Now, Yosemite is notorious among the critical minded for a number of reasons. For one, the NPS allows and has allowed for many years a concessionaire to operate a number of commercial enterprises in the park. The NPS, of course, gets a cut of the action, but the corporation owns the concession makes far more still. The multinational Delaware North Company remains the concessionaire in the park. It operates two grocery stores, two hotels and a number of restaurants among other things. The commercial vibe of what is essentially the city of Yosemite (minus the official designation) contrasts sharply with what remains one of the most striking places on Earth: ensconced by soaring granite cliffs; containing hundreds of square miles of backcountry wilderness; and offering a pizza restaurant, bar, four star hotel and, previously, a jail. Add to this a contingent of law enforcement rangers who act and function as city police and a plethora of other employees and Yosemite feels more like Los Angeles than a National Park.

But I digress. The above link highlights what I think is a trend in our culture, which is to demonize and discredit anyone who stands out from the pack in ways considered taboo by consensus. What does this mean? In a society where personal responsibility has been supplanted with blame, anything perceived as an unnecessary risk is proscribed. A glance at the posts from the above link, which ostensibly were from real NPS employees, reveals a highly polarized, Manichean view of risk and risk takers. Critical responses range from the blandly disapproving to the outright vituperative, with at least one poster practically gloating over Potter's demise. I recommend taking a closer look, as it succinctly highlights a number of typical and cliche positions on risk and responsibility.

Unsurprisingly, the critics blame Potter for endangering others in the aftermath of his death. This banal assertion and its logical extension, that everyone should never risk themselves for fear of upsetting others, is often a first line response to accidental death. If Potter hadn't been doing the things he did, the critics bleat, this wouldn't have happened. His loved ones now have to live with the fallout, they continue. This, they conclude, makes him a selfish asshole. Another similar assertion, although even more problematic, is that Potter endangered the Search and Rescue employees that located and recovered his remains. Even another poster in the NPS thread took umbrage with this unabashed idiocy, countering with the obvious fact that those employed as searchers took the job with the explicit knowledge that this was most certainly among the types of tasks in which they would be paid to participate.

Even worse are those who cite monetary concerns relevant to rescue and body recovery. Just to placate these insufferable idiots, if they're going to cry foul about spending money rescuing people, they need to focus on hikers, who year after year require far, far more rescues than climbers or other Y(osemite) N(ational) P(ark) users. We tend, however, to view a hiker who has an accident differently than a climber or BASE jumper who has an accident. The reason is simple: hiking is more widely accepted as safe or without risk, so anyone who has an accident hiking is a victim as opposed to someone participating in a more 'extreme' activity, until proven otherwise. Yes, BASE jumping is far more dangerous than either hiking or rock climbing, generally speaking; however, those participating are also, in general, far more calculating and focused on their jump. It's highly possible to casually hike or climb without much fallout but in my perspective, a casual wing suit flight is probably not a common occurrence. As for the money for rescue issue: there is a SAR group in Yosemite; everyone who enters the park can call for a rescue if they need it; everyone is subject to similar remuneration rules. Fact: SAR exists to rescue people; people sometimes need rescue.

I'm going to be blunt: one does not generally have explicit responsibility for what others feel or do in the event of one's death. Being selfish to some extent is, well, necessary. One could argue that in choosing activities that carry more inherent risk, a person like Potter had a responsibility to make his intentions clear to those who cared. I find it hard to believe, however, that anyone who knew Potter closely would ever have any doubt about the possibility of such an occurrence. This goes for any and all people who participate in activities that carry enhanced risk. But, one could just as easily argue that anyone choosing to associate themselves with said person is also responsible for that choice. Those with inherent relationships such as parents or siblings make the choice whether or not to try to understand said person's actions. Even if they can't understand, they still have to carry their own responsibility for their grief response as opposed to blaming someone or something else. Caring carries its own set of woes, does it not? But we do it because it's worthwhile to us in some way. The one modifier to this line of reasoning? Kids: if someone has dependents it seems highly irresponsible to take intentional risks without a thorough discussion of expectations and contingency plans. Single parents probably shouldn't BASE jump. But there are plenty of examples of families where someone in the family, either via a job or other activity, takes significant risks and balances them with caring for children and spouse. Personal responsibility is the key to mitigating any potential fallout from an accident and an agreed upon contingency plan in the event of a worst case scenario is necessary.

If footage of Potter steeped in the activity and philosophy of his life is any indication, he was no reckless idiot; his endeavors allowed him a space to reflect and to learn in his unique way. But you know what? There's plenty of room for reckless idiocy too. Each of us lives and breathes idiosyncrasy. Some of us live and breathe activities that carry added risk and feel enriched by and through them. The apparent collective view of so-called extreme sports and high risk endeavors is merely an indication of collective fear and the ensuing resentment. Death is an absolute guarantee; our society forgets this immutable fact, or chooses to conveniently ignore it until the fact makes itself indubitable. Death becomes taboo in a society that fears it above all else and will stop at nothing to obfuscate its influence for as long as humanly possible, which is to say until someone is on the very brink of death. Literally every last second of every fucking day we risk certain death whether we know it or not. More apropos, almost every day we intentionally participate in activities proven to carry a high risk of bloody and violent death. Drive much? I'm willing to beat that dead horse into a meaty pulp; driving might be an unfortunate necessity, but in essence how does it differ from intentionally choosing an activity that carries risk? For someone who lives in the United States, the lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 100. Per year, it varies from 1 in 4000 to 1 in 8000. Accidental injury? 1 in 36. Heart attacks? Cancer? WAYYYYY higher: 1 in 5 and 1 in 7, respectively. Some of these are 'preventable', but how realistic is it to say we can prevent any and all accidents?

What does that prove? Well, everything and nothing. The bulk of humans apparently "just want to live safe lives", but think on this: every day you take risks whether you cop to it or not. People who participate in so-called extreme sports are often taking calculated risks. A 5.13 climber climbing a 5.10 without a rope has a relatively low risk of accident. Zero risk? Of course not: not possible. Does it help to calculate odds? Apparently not: humans don't respond well to cold statistics. That's pretty much proven by all the current science denying and the plethora of historical mistakes that we have constantly been revisiting as a race. But rest assured, every single day you take a risk and either tacitly or explicitly accept it. The benefit to the latter approach is that you have some idea of your exposure and can deal with it intelligently instead of simply hoping nothing goes wrong. When something goes wrong, if you survive you ycan own up to it. For all the would-be observers, playing the blame game is pointless: it simply reveals the level of denial of the accusers about their own relationship to mortality.

So in my purview, everyone has a right to risk. Selfishness at some level is an absolute necessity. There are more responsible ways of dealing with risk, especially with regards to people that we care about. We can communicate the personal worth of the things we do and the ways in which we weigh them against other concerns like their potential effects on the people that care about us. Ultimately we all carry the responsibility for what happens to us all the time. That doesn't mean we're always in control: not at all. But it does mean that the more objective among us don't lash out incoherently at people for doing what they love and suffering for it. Their loved ones, I would surmise, most often understand what they're doing and why. Death is natural for us. It can happen any time, although sometimes we edge a little closer to destroying our bodies. Grief is natural as well, but assigning blame and guilt is absolutely not natural: it's an extension of our collective unwillingness to deal with the reality of being human.