When does a man’s need for adventure cross a line?
It’s been a deadly year up on the slopes.
Skiing has always been an inherently dangerous sport, but this year seems worse than normal. A recent New Yorker article covers a number of skiing tragedies, from an avalanche that killed three backcountry skiers in Washington last week, to the death of a 43 yr-old father of two, to a Dutch prince lying in a coma in Austria. Some attribute the increased avalanches to inconsistent weather. Whatever the reason, it strikes a chilling chord for me.
I grew as a ski racer in New England, so I’ve always known the sport to be a lethal mistress. For over a decade, I skied 100 days a year. When you’re flinging yourself down on a race course all season long, crashing was something you could often count on doing at least once a day. Sometimes at speeds of 75 mph, sliding across the ice into the nets. I amassed 2 knee reconstructions, 5 broken fingers and 15 stiches in my face as souvenirs. And I got off easy. A number of people I knew had spinal injuries, or worse. By the time I quit racing I’d known 15 kids who’d died over 10 years. Many of my friends have gone on to enjoy careers on the World Cup, and others have become extreme skiers shooting films in Alaska or Chamonix and whenever I hear of another death, I fear it’ll be someone I know. Unfortunately, I’ve known perhaps 20 who’ve died since then, many in accidents like the ones in the article—some professional skiers, but other simply enthusiasts who were pushing their luck on a weekend trip.
The most famous was Shane McConkey—a guy I ski raced against as a teenager. While he was a really good racer, he was arguably the best in the world as an extreme skier in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. And he paid the ultimate price for love of thrill-seeking when he died at age 39 while doing a BASE-jumping ski stunt in Italy, leaving behind a wife and a 3 yr-old daughter.
It’s a risky way of life. But that’s the thrill. You get into skiing because you love the adrenaline rush, challenging yourself, seeing exactly how far you can push it.
And if you make it a career, as have many of my old skiing buds have, you court that danger a lot more frequently. Not too many people hassle a 22 yr-old for pursuing a daredevil sport. But at what point do your growing familial obligations take precedence over your love for the thrill? When does the pursuit of a dangerous hobby cross over into sheer recklessness if you’re a family man? Or is a life without adventure a life not worth living?
A lot of people questioned Shane’s decision to keep living such a risky life once he had a wife and kids—especially since his legend was already cemented. But he couldn’t stop. It was the only way he knew to live—right on the edge. But you could say that the same person who would sensibly stop at some point would have also been too practical to ever embark on such a daring life in the first place, and the world would have missed out on a man who was most of the most charismatic and inspiring athletes in the history of skiing. He inspired an entire generation of extreme skiers, and you could argue that he lived more in his 39 years than a dozen other people’s entire lives combined. When he died, he’d amassed over 700 BASE-jumps. Guess he had enough reason to survive a couple hundred more. But he ran out of luck.
In the evolving discussion of what it is to be a man, where is the balancing point between boldly pursuing a life of adventure and challenge, vs being “safe” enough to make sure you’re still around for those who are depending on you?
Photo courtesy of Skistar Trysil