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Life, Death, and the Outdoors

September 8, 2012

By Matt Artz

“Without the possibility of death,
adventure is not possible.”

—Reinhold Messner, Mountaineer

Quotes like this one from Reinhold Messner feed the stereotype that extreme outdoor adventurers have some sort of sick death wish.  And while not a direct quote, I can paraphrase what I’ve heard a lot of rock climbers, mountaineers, and other outdoor adventurers say by the following statement:

The closer you get to death without dying, the more you feel alive. 

In my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, mountaineering, rock climbing, mountain biking, or doing almost anything else in the outdoors truly can make you feel alive—and you can also die in the pursuit of such “extreme” activities.  But look at the statistics.  You’re much more likely to die doing something mundane.  Like driving.  Or walking.


While researching Eastern Sierra paddling spots on the Internet, I ran across a sobering story about Klondike Lake.

Klondike Lake is nondescript little body of water right off the side of Highway 395 in California.  It’s kind of hard to see from the highway, even though the landscape is flat and barren, with vegetation no more than waist high throughout. You would probably never notice it was there unless somebody told you about it.

In January 2006, a 30-year-old kayaker named Gilbert Freewald was found dead on the southern shore of Klondike Lake.  Apparently he had exited his vehicle and slipped on the ice on the shore, falling head first into the lake, knocking him unconscious.  He drowned, by himself, before he even had a chance to remove the kayak strapped to the roof of his car.


The last time I saw my friend and co-worker Phil alive was when he, Tom, and I went rock climbing on some easy to moderate face and crack climbs up at Deep Creek Narrows.

Phil was crazy.  We would climb to the top of the rock, and when it came time to belay us down, Phil would let us drop almost in a free-fall, and then just a few feet before hitting the ground he would quickly “catch” us with the rope.  Tom and I were a little shaken up by this, but Phil just laughed.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  His expert command of the ropes came from his many years of both rock climbing and working with the search-and-rescue crew.

A few years later, two teenagers drugged up on Jimson weed were reported missing in Joshua Tree National Park.  On the drive out there early one morning to help in the search for the young men, Phil died in a tragic traffic accident—a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver.


Remember the mountain biker who died in Southern California in a mountain lion attack back in 2004?  It was all over the news.  A grand total of 6 people have died of mountain lion attacks in California since 1890.   Meanwhile, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people die of influenza in the United States each year, but you don’t hear a whole lot about that epidemic.  And nearly 100 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States each day, but there is little interest in this tragedy. What you do hear about is the small handful of people who die as a result of outdoor activities.

When someone you knows dies of a heart attack attributable to a poor diet, 20 years later do you re-tell that story to every person you see eating a cheeseburger and fries?  No.  Then why is it that if someone hears about someone dying in some sort of spectacular outdoor accident, it dominates our interest?  It seems that we give all of our attention to what is rare and spectacular, while what is constant and widespread becomes mundane and thus completely ignored.

I’m not trying to say that there is not a high level of risk associated with some outdoor activities.  What I’m trying to say is that as a society, the amount of attention we expend on each of these is totally out of proportion with reality.


In my life, I’ve know a lot of people, and I’ve known a fair number who have died.  Most have died in the most mundane, commonplace ways, while very few have died while pursuing what they loved most.  And each death is a tragedy in itself, no matter what the cause.

The outdoor lifestyle is not a death wish.  It’s a love affair with life.

By Matt Artz

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 19, 2012 7:14 am

    Amen – the cost benefit of various life choices – thanks for the perspective

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