Danger and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. I think we focus so much on developing our control in the adventure sports that we often fail to understand the true dangers because we do not pay attention to the places where the river forgives us our mistakes. The focus on control leads us to frame everything in terms of our deliberate actions, and we don’t consider what is beyond them – in fact, we’re afraid of what is beyond them.
You can get an idea of what lives beyond our mistakes by looking at the cases where we did something wrong, yet came out okay. In kayaking there are literally hundreds of spectacular cases where somebody made some mistake that seemed like a disaster, yet came out just fine. If you look for it, you can see this in film after film, and I’d guess that it’s happened many many times to every one of us in the sport at a high level.
I’d apply the same reasoning to the extreme skier Jamie Pierre’s 250 foot headplant, skiing off a cliff for a “world record” height. You can watch it on YouTube – it seems unbelievable, but the fact he went off, lost control and landed on his head after falling 250 feet, spelunked deep into the powder – yet was dug out by his friends and skied away without injury – completely disproves the statement that “an error means death”. Yet, who in their right mind would assert it proves we can always throw ourselves off 250 foot cliffs, land on our heads, and be just fine?
The trick is understanding what details mean life and which mean death, and we still can’t do that very well in many situations. So when we focus on pure control and don’t face the issue of “forgiveness”,we’re in this peculiar place where we almost willfully blind ourselves to certain conclusions.
We are deeply cut when a friend dies on the river, but almost always it is in some strange place that didn’t seem threatening until we found out the opposite – that fact alone is enough to give you nightmares if you fixate on it. Yet, how many guys are hucking themselves off both cliffs and waterfalls, yardsaling, headposting or spelunking the landings, and everything is just fine? If “an error meant death” then every major kayaker in the world would be dead. But nearly all of them are alive and well. We all have made errors in what seemed like deathly situations, and very few of us die. How can we look at such things and not see there is massive forgiveness in many situations? But at the same time, how could you think that landing flat on your ass or right on your head from 80 feet wouldn’t put you in a wheelchair or worse?
We find it impossible to believe that such things are benign; that flying through the air and falling some huge distance isn’t insanely dangerous. As a general premise, that has to be right. But as certain things in the adventure sports prove day in and day out, our general beliefs about the world can be totally wrong. That’s one of the great values of the adventure sports. The next question is, are we able to make use of that and change ourselves toward a deeper understanding?