Choosing Risk, Choosing Passion

A few weeks ago I read The Grand Delusion by local adventure athlete, Will Gadd, where he seems to have had what I call a “mortality moment.” In Will’’s article he reflects on how many friends he’’s lost to accidents in the mountains. “As the list grows longer,” he says, “I have a harder and harder time understanding why I take the risks I do out there.””

I have a great deal of respect for Will and who he is as an athlete. And, while I am not the elite athlete that he is, I have gone through the stages of grief a number of times regarding life in the mountains and I’’d like to share my opinion of how that has affected my own motivation to get out there.

In his second paragraph Will describes a common statement offered by his friends: “”You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains.”” I have also heard this before and I may have even said it myself on occasion. Will, however, says this comment is “”a stinking pile of self-delusional excrement that does not smell any less foul with repeated exposure.”” Point taken.

But, I wonder: are we missing the point here? What if the statement is not so much about the statistical balance of dying on the way to the mountains or in the mountains, but rather about whether we have a choice? Maybe the sentence should be,“”We are all going to die someday. Would you rather it was in the car or up in the mountains?””

I spend time in the mountains and driving there, but my perspective on risk has also come from my work with a Fire Department. The department I work for is one of the busiest in Alberta and the high number of calls we receive every year is primarily from highway collisions and accidents. I see a lot of wrecks, a lot of death, and people who may be scarred for life. So I see the risks of being on the highway every day and know the risks of pushing my limits in the mountains.

Kurtis asks us to consider the choice we make in the face of fear. Photo courtesy Kurtis Kristianson.

Like Will, I have also lost friends in the mountains, but I have also lost them on the highway (and to drugs and alcohol). I came close to dying myself this last July when the stunt-plane I was a passenger in dropped 80 feet out of the sky just seconds after take-off. We flew only a few feet below a power line and missed a fence and road by inches before drilling in at 40 miles per hour. Only a month later I started peeling off one of the upper pitches of the East Face of Ha Ling, with my last piece of protection 50 feet below me. So, I have experienced real fear and understand that I have a choice: let it grip you and suffer the consequences, or let it drive you to fight for survival.

One of my best friends died about five years ago while working as a bush pilot on the west coast of British Columbia. Shawn lived passionately: he was the daredevil of our group and when we got together in the mountains he was the guy that took the most chances. He knew the risks, especially as a pilot, and it never stopped him or slowed him down at all. When I called my dad (also a bush pilot) the day Shawn died to let him know what happened, I was shocked to hear him say, ““If he died flying and that’s what he loved, then at least he died doing what he loved to do.””

I have ten-year-old twins that expect me to come back from my trips to the mountains. My two young children are the first things I think about when I am factoring my levels of risk for any given adventure. But, I also understand that we are never in full control of our future. None of us knows when the time will come, when our actions turn to pain, when our days give way to suffering, or when we learn just what happens when our time is up.

But as frightening as the potential for severe injury and death is, it should also be a motivator to live as fully as you can, while you can.You can live your life passionately in the mountains or you can just watch someone else or read about it from your couch.

Again it’s a choice, not a statistic. I love reading about these adventures, but I also like going on some of my own. And I want my kids to know that they have the freedom to push their limits and that they can achieve great things by doing so.

We can buckle with fear in the midst of danger or live passionately and inspire others to do the same.

Kurtis Kristianson

Kurtis Kristianson is an adventure lifestyle photographer based in Southern Alberta. Last year he found that his day job was cutting into his photography and play time so did the responsible thing and quit the day job. Kurtis can now be found photographing extreme people who are living out their passions in and around the Canadian Rockies.


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  1. Seems reasonable to me Kurtis. Quantifying experiences is difficult but necessary. If you’re comfortable with the up and down side of an activity then all good. But I don’t think many people are actually looking objectively at the “down” side of the equation in mountain sports. I too continue to enjoy the mountains, but I do so with a more full awareness of how close together life and death often are in the mountains.

    • Thanks for the reply Will. I appreciate what you had to say in your recent follow-up piece. You make a good point that people may not be looking at the “down” side of the equation. Maybe it only comes more often with experience. Personally I embrace that awareness as I feel it keeps my motivations in check and gives me the satisfaction of knowing I am living deeply. Thank you for continuing to push yourself and chase your passions, from one “crazy” to another.