One of the reasons I became a respected reporter on exercise and health was because someone told me you could make a lot of money without actually doing any exercising. I also thought girls wanted to date writers, which turned out to be as accurate as the idea that I would make a lot of money.O
But one actual perk is that typing won’t kill me, unless I type something bad about Scientologists, Mohammed or Mexican drug cartels.
So I’m always impressed with risk takers–those who climb Eldorado Canyon, ski off the tops of Fourteeners, skydive, kayak, and refuse to vaccinate their children. A large number of these kinds of people live in Boulder County. This adds to Boulder’s continued rankings as one of the most adventurous, outdoorsy places to live.
But this risky behavior can lead to an uncomfortable outcome, at least as uncomfortable as actually going to the dentist, which, as a respected reporter on exercise and health, I recommend you never do. It hurts! Just sit in the waiting room, read the magazines, and leave.
No, the uncomfortable outcome of these risky outdoors activities is death. By the end of the summer, 46 people had died in the Colorado backcountry this year, according to a story in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. This appeared to be an increase over the previous year. The story included some worrisome facts, one of which is that you don’t have to be doing daring stuff to get killed: most ski deaths are on intermediate slopes; lightning kills three people a year, each of whom literally never saw it coming; one guy from Kalamazoo died in the Rio Grande National Forest while taking a photo from atop a pretty waterfall–he fell off.
“Death is nothing to us,” Epicurus said. But that’s stupid; death will, at the very least, destroy your golf game. Besides, what did Epicurus know? He’s dead.
In an effort to gain perspective on death, I called a few practitioners of some of the generally-agreed-up Top Ten most death-defying sports. My basic question for them was: are you freaking insane? Of course, I didn’t say that. I said: how insane are you, as ranked on the International Crazy Scale, which goes from bat-guano to Gary Busey.
Joe Shults runs one of the state’s two heli-skiing operations, Telluride Helitrax, giving him three excellent ways to die: crashes, avalanches and throwing 25-pound bombs out a helicopter’s open door. He said that he doesn’t think about death. To the whole death problem, he has a simple solution. “One of our policies is that nobody’s allowed to get killed,” he said. The company’s done a good job. In 33 seasons, only one person has died heliskiing, and that was by drowning. Really. A woman fell into a creek, got her helmet caught between two rocks, and drowned.
Boulder’s Timmy O’Neill is a renowned mountain climber who has, among many other Gary Busey things, climbed a Williams Village tower without a rope, nearly froze on a ledge of a mountain in Patagonia, and, recently, kayaked the Grand Canyon with two blind dudes. (Which seems like a bit of waste of time and effort. Couldn’t you just send them down Boulder Creek, put a heat lamp on them from time to time and tell them they’re in Arizona?) O’Neill, by contrast, thinks about death all the time; it’s a kind of mindfulness. “If you’re edging close to the end of your own existence, of being snuffed, if you’re walking the line between life and death, things are going to come into focus,” he said. “You get a deeper perspective about the fragility of life.” He thinks it will help him deal with the deaths that are inevitable–his parents’, for example.
This is good advice which, like most good advice, I will probably never take. Those who do extreme sports understand the risks as well as the rest of us. But the risks don’t ward them off. The risks draw them in.
I am not too much of a pansy to read, though. A new book called “The Norm Chronicles” does an excellent job sorting out what is actually risky and how we perceive that risk; what is healthy and what isn’t.
Going BASE jumping, for example, is less risky than it seems, the book says. If you add up all the risks of living an average life for ten days–getting hit by a bus, getting food poisoning, dying of a heart attack–that’s about the level of risk many participants engage in in a weekend.
As we keep hearing, it’s all the little, unnoticed, accumulated risks that are likely to scythe us. Having an extra inch on your waistline costs you a half hour of life every day you have it. Every burger you chew is like swallowing a pill that makes you die 30 minutes early. Alcohol is our most dangerous drug, far surpassing heroin. One glass of wine might help your heart, but drinking two pints of strong beer knocks 30 minutes off your life expectancy, the book says. One pill of the drug Ecstasy, meanwhile, according to the book, is as dangerous as going for a horseback ride (i.e., not very). And smoking marijuana for a year is as deadly as eating six burgers. Of course, smoking marijuana often leads to eating burgers, so it’s a vicious cycle.
“What scares people is not what kills people; if you’re just eating all day every year you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of choking to death,” said Dr. John Paling, a former biology professor at Oxford and the creator of the Paling Perspective Scale, a measurement of risk perception. “But if you sit on your ass you’re going to die anyway; and there’s a greater lethality if you don’t exercise than if you exercise dangerously. All these boring things that don’t seem very threatening actually put us at the greatest risk.” Typing is, in fact, deadly, if that’s all you do.
The first twenty minutes of exercise, on the other hand, according to “The Norm Chronicles,” adds one hour to your life. But only about 5 percent of people get this much exercise per day. Which means that, while people like Timmy O’Neill put themselves at risk of dying quickly, all the rest of us are dying slowly. Have a Merry Christmas.