Where is the line between ambition and madness when it comes to risk?


“A few weeks after my 60th birthday, I got into two barrels, back to back,” writes William Finnegan, in his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life”. “To be adjacent to so much beauty – more than adjacent; immersed in it, pierced by it, that was the goal. Physical hazards were footnotes.

Teenage Connor Herson attempts a pilgrimage (5.14b) to Hurricave in southwest Utah in February 2020 (Chris Weidner / Courtesy Photo)

In my last column I detailed Pawel Szafruga and his incredible streak of the Colorado Fourteeners solo, self-sufficient and on foot in 43 days. Among other things, Szafruga aimed to find out how much his mind and body could endure. In this he succeeded. More than a month later, he is still recovering from the enormous effort he considers his “magnum opus”.

In response to the article, I received stimulating reviews from several readers. One of them sent an email: “I just want to hug these athletes (like Szafruga) and tell them that they don’t have to risk their lives or their bodies to be worthy of our love.”

Another wrote: “I urge you to think about the effect of glorifying those who participate in … extreme sports, as I can only think of parents who will mourn them for the rest of their lives – as well as the negative influence you may have. for those who read your articles that glorify those who risk their lives for… what?

Josh Wharton of Estes Park on his new Environmental Totalitarianism route (5.14a) in Crazy Woman, Wyo., Last fall. (Chris Weidner / Courtesy photo)

The “what” is an essential question to ask yourself, and it probably evokes a different answer from everyone.

David Roberts, who died of cancer in August, was a Boulder native, renowned author and prolific Alaskan mountaineer. In his memoir “On the Ridge Between Life and Death”, he writes: “For me, climbing has always been a matter of transcendence. In the spell that risk and fear, barely tamed by skill and courage, cast on me, I found a happy escape from the petty rhythm of normal life.

For many climbers and athletes, the inherent danger is precisely what elevates an experience from mundane to meaningful. For others, the risk is not physical, it is social, emotional, romantic, political, financial or otherwise. Either way, something has to be at stake to make what we do feel important.

Roberts himself struggled with climbing risk, having lost several friends in the mountains. He clearly believed that some risks were worth taking, while many were not. There is a line between ambition and madness, but where is it?

Perhaps this line can be defined, in part, by a person’s state of mind when engaging in a particular risk.

Personally, I know what it’s like trying to climb a mountain under a shroud of depression, motivated by avoiding emotional pain at home, willing to risk it all for a chance at the top. I also know what it’s like to try to climb that same mountain three years later with a healthier, more careful mindset. While the mountain’s objective danger has remained the same over the two years, I think, in hindsight, that my first foray had crossed that line in a stupid way; my second had not. The crucial difference was my state of mind.

But it can be as close to an answer as possible. Because when it comes to taking risks, there is rarely one good or one bad that benefits everyone. Too much depends on who takes the risk of drawing a perfect line. Having said that, I think it’s essential to question what we do, why we do it, and how our actions can affect others.

American mountaineer and outdoor educator Willi Unsoeld was once asked by a frightened mother if he could keep her son safe on a trip to the outdoors. “No,” he replied, adding, “If we could guarantee its safety, the program would not be worth running.”

If there is anything I wanted to glorify in my article on Szafruga – and in this column in general – it is not risk taking, but rather the human spirit. The commitment, will and determination that it takes to set a goal and achieve it, despite the low odds, despite the discomfort, and yes, despite the risk, in my opinion is absolutely worth it. to be celebrated.

“Calculated risk taking is necessary to live a full life,” Scottish professional climber Dave MacLeod recently said on “The Nugget Climbing Podcast”. “And while you may blow it up someday and suffer the consequences, I think the consequences of being too conservative are even greater.”

Contact Chris Weidner at [email protected] Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @ cweidner8.


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