My granddad just turned 83 a few days ago. And as a former cop, he didn’t get there by being a dummy. He has always taken care of himself, paid attention to risks around him, avoided alcohol, and kept himself busy. I’ll never forget seeing him clearing downed trees in his driveway despite being in his 70s. But one thing that has always stood out to me was how he refused to fly on planes. He had helped clean up a plane crash with the bodies of 74 corpses of young soldiers just outside of Richmond in 1961. But despite improvements on air travel and being told about the safety of flying, he decided he would never accept the risk of it, and there was no changing his mind.
Yesterday I ran into someone who had witnessed me free solo rock climbing in Richmond last summer. Free soloing means climbing without a rope or anything to catch a fall. She accused me of not following best practice and frustratedly said she didn’t want to do CPR on me if I fell. She was more angered than I was aware of at the time, so somewhat sarcastically I responded that climbing isn’t much best practice, that she’d be much safer staying on the ground.
But the frustration I had with her and the inappropriateness of her attack is still with me, especially after a similar incident with a couple friends at the New River Gorge over the summer. In that situation, I stood at the top of a cliff and reached down to grab a couple pieces of gear which hung below the edge. It made them nervous and they made it known that they didn’t approve for the next couple hours. So I’ve had to step back and think about why these attacks continue to frustrate me and whether their attacks are justified or inappropriate. And I’m trying to piece together how others play a part in this. Should someone having to do CPR on my corpse play a role in my decisions?
The reality is, there is a serious acceptance of risk when you step foot off the ground. Rock climbing is inherently a dangerous sport with some risk and very high consequences for mistakes. There aren’t very many recreational sports which have an annual publication of the national accidents that get athletes. injured or killed. But even without rock climbing, all of us, from the wildest adventurers to the tamest desk workers, accept risk and consequences every day in our lives. There’s no way to escape it, and constantly there are subtle, unconscious acceptances we make. Most of us choose to drive or ride as passengers in a vehicle. Nearly everyone I know has at some point travelled at over 500 mph in a tube in the sky and almost daily in a small box to race at 60+ mph. And none of us follow “best practice” for those activities. We’d be safer wearing helmets and four point harnesses while driving, but none of us do that.
When we step back for a second, we realize that every single one of us is an independent human being with our own assessment of risk and how much of it we’re willing to assume. No one is better capable of weighing the risks and consequences in our own lives than us. We are welcome to admire or cringe at anyone else’s actions but we cannot ever imagine it from their perspective and because of that have no place reprimanding people for their decisions.
A motorcyclist driving down an empty road doing a wheelie at 80 mph seems wild to me, but for someone who knows the road, knows their bike, and knows their ability, that sort of maneuver may be as safe as a parent driving his kids to school. Just as my granddad refused to accept the risk of flying on a plane, and I have no right to judge him for that, no one has any right to judge me for my assumption of risk.
I’ve paddled a kayak across miles of open ocean alone. I’ve done first solo ascents of couloirs in Colorado and summited twenty 14,000 foot peaks alone in winter last winter. I have camped in a privy to keep from freezing to death alone in the woods. And yeah, sometimes I climb without a rope. I don’t do any of this out of necessity, but when I’m out there, focused and fully aware, I feel alive. And the consequences helps me reach that state. It may be a dangerous game, but it’s one that I enjoy and one that I constantly stop to assess. No one can know all the thought and preparation that goes into each and every one of my adventures and this blog is only a small demonstration of it.
Soloing is inherently an autonomous action and in that, the last burden of the risk and consequences fall on the individual. I’m always open to hear about potentially unseen risks that I may not have accounted for. I understand we’re all on this planet together, and I’ll never wholly discount anyone’s views, but at the end of the day, the decision, and the bulk of the consequences, are mine.
Now that I have two doggos things are different because the consequences are not completely weighted on me. And in roped climbing, you depend on your partner to agree with you on the level of risk you both are willing to take. But part of the beauty of solo adventures is exactly the autonomy to assume risk independently.