Climbing, Car Accidents, Motorcycles, Risk, and Danger: What’s Worth It?

Since March 15th, two good friends of mine have been in car accidents that could have killed them. My friend Mick blacked out on the freeway because of a still-undiagnosed heart condition last week, unconsciously swerving across two lanes of traffic on I-25 and slamming into a guardrail. He woke up when he hit the guardrail, and miraculously no one hit his truck.

My friend Aaron, having survived a long Spring Break weekend mountain biking in Moab with nothing more than the usual scratches, was merging onto I-70 on a Tuesday night when a driver rammed into the back of his FJ Cruiser at 110 mph, and then drove off, presumably to avoid her third drunk driving arrest. Aaron’s truck skidded 180 feet, until one of the wheels ripped off, and then the truck rolled multiple times, coming to rest 480 feet later. Thankfully, several motorists saw the accident and pulled over to help Aaron. He was helicoptered to the hospital in Grand Junction, and escaped with fairly minor injuries, despite coughing up blood after the accident and being told that he might lose an eye. He should be mountain biking again in a few weeks. I’m very thankful that he’s still alive.

Aaron and I have had a couple conversations since that accident, in which he’s told me he believes he’d be dead if he wasn’t in a newer-model truck like his FJ cruiser, with the army of air bags that deployed while he was rolling across the pavement on I-70. I remember saying to him, “You do all this mountain biking without so much as spraining a wrist falling, even on all these exposed trails, and then you get on the highway to go home and you get hit by a drunk driver going 110 mph.”

I’m careful. I wear a helmet every time I climb (even sport climbing), every time I get on my bicycle (even if it’s only 6 blocks), and every time I ski (even in the backcountry — you would too if you were as bad a skier as I am). I double-check my gear when climbing and I don’t go into the backcountry without a beacon, shovel and probe, and a morning-of check on avalanche conditions. I wear sunscreen 365 days a year. Does any of this matter?

Mick is an arborist, climbing high up into trees with a chainsaw hanging from his harness, often “topping” trees with a crane. He’s never fallen, and despite years of work with all kinds of implements of destruction, still has all his fingers. Aaron races motorcycles at the track in Fort Collins, at speeds over 100 mph. And they both came this close to not being here anymore, when they weren’t expecting it at all.

Aaron and I have plenty of things we agree to disagree about, including eating meat,  carrying guns, and whether or not winter camping is actually “fun.” But maybe the thing that interests me most is that I think he’s nuts to want to ride a motorcycle anywhere in America, even if it’s on a track, and that he thinks I’m nuts to climb trad and alpine routes. We both believe the other’s activity is “too dangerous.” I mean, what are you, crazy? Getting out there on a motorcycle, with nothing to protect you besides a helmet, with all these teenagers texting and people not paying attention, not seeing you on your bike in traffic? No way.

Well, are you crazy? It’s just about every other week we read about another climbing accident in the Boulder Daily Camera or the Denver Post, isn’t it? Seems like people are constantly pulling huge blocks off at Eldorado Canyon. Rocks break. Geologic time includes now. Gear pops. People rappel off the end of their ropes all the time.

We both have our rationalizations, Aaron and I. He knows why a motorcycle is safer than rock climbing, and I know why rock climbing is way safer than riding a motorcycle. Completely nonscientific reasoning that allows us to say, “I’m not worried about it.”

What we’re really saying to each other is, “It’s worth it, to me.” Aaron knows it’s worth the risk of crashing if he can feel what it’s like to ride 100+ mph every once in a while. And I know it’s worth the risk of betting on geology, and cams and nuts and ropes and carabiners, if I can get that feeling of pushing my limits somewhere high every few weeks or days. And that’s fine. People are different. I love my friends, even if sometimes I don’t understand them.

I’m just not sure what the moral of the story is here. Life is fragile, so give it some thought before you engage in “dangerous” activities? Or go out and do what you love, even if it’s dangerous, because you never know when some idiot is going to rear-end you at 110 mph?


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8 replies on “Climbing, Car Accidents, Motorcycles, Risk, and Danger: What’s Worth It?”
  1. says: Jill

    Interstates and freeways scare the crap out of me. Half the people are drunk and the other half are zoning out and paying zero attention.

    I quit riding motorcycles about ten years ago when Alaskan roads got too aggressive and dangerous. I would like to ride again, but not in any place where there is a lot of traffic and certainly not an interstate. I feel that way because, well, I like myself healthy and whole!

    To me, climbing and sports don’t feel as risky because essentially I have control every everything that happens. If I mess up, I mess up, but at least some drunk banker didn’t take me out going the wrong way on the freeway with no lights, or what have you.

  2. says: J

    I was also recently in a serious car accident. It was my own fault having tried to drive through the night and falling asleep around 4:30. Luckily myself and my passenger made it out alright, but it could have been much worse. I think the moral from my story is that I took unnecessary risk. I tried to mitigate the risk by drinking coffee, listening to music, rolling the window down so wind blew on me, etc. But the risk was too great to properly mitigate with any amount of precaution. The same thoughts can be translated to climbing, which I like to think I do a better job of managing risk.

    You try to stack all the cards in your favor, but you should realize when danger is staring you in the face. Being awake for 24 hours and on the road for 9 feeling like I’m nodding asleep is obvious danger. So would be climbing into unknown terrain with a storm coming in 40ft past your last protection. You’ve just got to weigh your chances and make a judgement call. And hopefully be conservative. But you’ve got to get out there and pursue your passion, just hopefully in the best of conditions.

  3. says: Will

    Important component to mention, in my mind, one must be a master, or seek to master whatever dangerous activity they want to engage in. I’m a pretty good swimmer, so I rarely follow the “never swim alone” rule, even in what would normally be considered treacherous conditions.

    The same is true for anything, consider the lathe or the router, both of which can kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing, but if you are a master at them, you can spend hours a day at it safely.

    I guess the lesson is, if you really enjoy and want to do an activity, it’s your obligation to master it and do it safely. Counter example: Scuba Diving, it’s a wonderful sport, but highly dangerous (relative), and people constantly take it up with the bare minimum of training and little to no appreciation of the danger. It’s no surprise, then, that statistically it’s more dangerous than sky diving.

  4. says: Katie

    I think the risk-reward balance is different for everyone, at least in the activities we voluntarily engage in. My risk/reward balance in climbing is relatively low; I don’t have much interest in trad and though sport is in my skills repertoire, I’d much rather avoid the risk and boulder. But to some, bouldering is more risky; there’s no rope!

    Regarding things like driving, it’s hard to stomach the fact that everyday activities might statistically more dangerous than things like climbing. I have the argument with my mother all the time 🙂 so, perhaps it’s the perception of risk that helps us decide what to do and not to do, even though those perceptions might not be entirely grounded.

  5. says: James

    It all comes down to an individual’s evaulation of the objective hazards. I commute on a motorcyle in LA traffic daily. I work boulder problems and sport routes in the desert and mountains. A majority of my time climbing is solo. And most of my friends think I’m either crazy or an adrenaline junkie.

    For me, I understand the risks and work hard to mitigate them to the extent possible by wearing full riding gear all the time, checking and double checking my harness, helmet and the bolt before I clip it, and carrying a cell phone, a radio and a SPOT when in the backcountry.

    Could a snoozer in cage cage take me out? Sure. Could a block break free and a bolt pull out? Absolutely. Could I be caught in an avalanche or rockfall and not be missed for a few hours? I hate to think so, but yes.

    Will I ever jump out of a perfectly good airplane? No way. Why? I just don’t feel that I can manage the objective hazard.

  6. says: Aaron

    After reading all the posts above it seems like the underlying theme is; if it’s worth it to you, then do it because if you don’t you’ll always wish you had. And, what you consider risky is ONLY your opinion.

    I told my grandmother one time, “Yeah, gram, I’m going to try running a marathon”, and her reply was “Well, why would you want to run that far? That’s just doesn’t seem healthy!”. She’s 91 years old, lives on a 6 acre farmstead, rents out 380 acres of grade-A Iowa farm land, and lived there her whole life. Shit, mowing the lawn without a shirt on or riding my bike to work everyday probably seems risky to her. But that’s the point isn’t it? It’s what you’re used to, what you want out of life, and what you can be content with or without. I don’t want to be 80 years old sitting around wishing I had done all the things I’ll be dreaming of. I want to sit around remembering all things I did and make a toast to living a good life……..then crap my pants because I’ll have lost all bowel control by then 😛

    Cheers to living people!

  7. says: SuzRocks

    Wow- that FJ was completely totaled. Being a nurse and taking care of people after crazy accidents where they hit a tree skiing, went over their handlebars biking, blew out 5 pieces of gear climbing, rode their motorcycle, etc, it makes me think that I shouldn’t be doing ANY of that.

    But then I also have taken care of people who got hit by lightening on a golf course, got hit by a car crossing the street, got hit by a car getting out of the car, etc… and I realize that I’d have to live in a bubble to completely protect myself…and even then- I could get cancer!

    So, I will continue to take risks, but like as you said- I always wear my helmet (and I always make my husband wear his, even when he’s climbing something ‘easy’)

  8. says: KatieSue

    Yeah so I was showshoing alone one day and wondered how long till someone found me if got hurt. 15 minutes later 2 backcountry skiiers went by. So, 15 minutes? The next day I fell down the stairs in my own home. I live alone. I layed on the ground wondering how long before someone found me if I’d broken my neck. It was Friday night, I had no weekend plans, I don’t work Mondays, I’m always late to work…so over 3 days. I was safer in the backcountry in winter than in my own home!!! I take a lot more risks outdoors since that experience. When people ask why I take them I tell them I’m trying to beat the skin cancer I know will kill me if I don’t do it on accident first.

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