Risk Sports: The Grand Delusion

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, last August, that foundation was shattered with the sound of someone's spine breaking. I had launched my glider off Mount Lady MacDonald, north of Canmore, AB, 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's remained under medical supervision, trying hard to recover from what could be permanent 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.

Just one week before Stewart crashed, I had the best flight of my life, straight over the iconic granite spires of the Bugaboos in southeastern British Columbia. Pure joy is how I'd describe that flight. But I haven't flown since Stewart's accident; the thought honestly makes me nauseous. Why?

Strangely, Stewart's survival has affected me far more than if he had died. The difference with Stewart is that I can look into his eyes and see the damage. I can talk with Stewart and see the pain he is fighting through. While I admire the hell out of his courage and commitment to fight for every millimeter of progress, I also imagine not being able to hold my own children. Stewart's wounds don't fade into memory the way a fatality does—it's hard to "get over" something that's still staring you in the face. Some of Stewart's comments are beautiful even as they are heart-rending: "If I could just get one hand back it would make all the difference."

Some of my own anger probably comes from an ever-greater sense of mortality. I desperately love the fullness of life, and I desperately love mountain sports. I look at Stewart learning to eat again (he does have one arm back!) and feel true happiness that he is able to, but then I look at my glider in its bag and have to look away. I love sharing the mountains with people, but wonder how many of them will end up on my list. My world view is falling apart, and it's about as comfortable as getting scalded in the shower: I want to jump away, but there's nowhere to go.

No single day in the mountains is worth dying for, so it must be the sum of the days that is worth that risk. I tell myself that, but these days I have more empathy for the religious who have lost their faith. They, too, are often angry. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said there are five stages of grief. If so, I'm only on stage two, anger, and a hell of a long way from the final stage of acceptance. How will I ever "accept" this level of carnage, year after year?

Will Gadd is a world-renowned ice climber, mountaineer and paraglider pilot. Read more from him—and catch up on his latest exploits—at willgadd.com.

This essay first appeared on explore.