Death by Social Media…and the Dangers of Pushing the Boundaries Too Far
As someone who adores epic sports, and who continues to participate in many of them despite some equally-epic injuries, I have been noting with increasing discomfort the number of people who are dying almost daily as a result of the ego-driven need to outdo everyone else.
Look, I love to push my boundaries. However, given that I’m no elite athlete, not ever and never will be, my boundaries are sometimes strictly defined. That’s driven by a combination of my age, athletic ability, injury history and my willingness to both work out like a banshee and and suffer the cost of inevitable wipe-outs. As someone plenty of TBIs already, I can’t afford too many more conks to the coconut. That tempers my enthusiasm even as I get on yet another horse, climb in another kayak, head up another mountain.
None of these endeavors is driven by the need to prove myself better than someone’s selfie or Instagram post. I happen to love what I do. To be in the wild, ride a magnificent horse, kayak the open seas. Social media isn’t my motivation. My wild and untrammeled heart is.
So it is for those of us who throw ourselves into our sports of the love of it, not for the likes of it.
Just last night at the gym I ran into a huge man I’d not seen in a long time. As it turns out his mother, who is 67, is indeed an epic athlete. Susan is a triathlete, an international Ironman competitor.
My playgrounds are the mountains, oceans and wide open plains of the world by horseback, backpack and kayak. That’s not Susan’s cuppa any more than doing a marathon is mine. I don’t suffer from the knee-jerk compulsion to prove that I’m better, faster and more badass than Susan just because I found out about her. I want to meet her and celebrate who she is. What I really hope to do is inspire more of my silver sisters to push their own boundaries by telling her story.
As companies like Red Bull and others sponsor and promote events that show off even more extreme skills, more and more people are sucked into the deadly cycle of impressing others and dying while trying (https://www.redbull.com/int-en/projects/vr).
We want to be Internet sensations. We want to be the next IT celebrity. While on one hand that’s perfectly understandable, on the other, it’s deadly.
From 2007 to 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that rates of TBI-related emergency room visits increased by 47 percent in six years — this, while cars were getting safer.
In his excellent article about how social media is a major player in this trend, writer Marc Peruzzi notes that more and more folks are pushing their own limits so far that they either die or end up an awful statistic, above.
It seems that almost every day I hear yet another story about someone who insisted on skiing in marked avalanche areas. People sneak past the boundary markers and suddenly, six hours later they’re dragged out by rescue squads. At best you’ve got about 5 minutes. After 45, you have about a 20% chance.Two hours, it’s over. Six feet under, and you are, indeed, six feet under. It’s simply the difference between snow and soil.
I’ve had my share of concussions. Twenty-one to be exact since 2008. Horse riding, biking, you name it. It’s tough enough to prevent such injuries, and I train hard to do just that. I put in endless hours to enjoy being in the wild, deal with whatever lands my way (or whatever causes me to land on my coconut) and recover swiftly from same.
Even at 66, I am not immune to the attraction of pushing faster, harder, higher. As I age, that childish, ridiculous part of me that so desperately wishes to deny the reality of my aging self wants to head out and prove to the world that it ain’t so.
The problem is that the human body can only do so much.
While it’s true that many are rewriting what’s possible at any age, and science is constantly helping us change the game, that doesn’t justify the wholesale insanity of progression for two reasons.
First, those who do it often die, and those who try to emulate them, often without any training whatsoever, also end up dead or disabled.
DON’T Play it Safe
Everywhere you and I look there are exhortations to push our limits. That was a massive ad on a bus which I passed the other day. Limits are there for a reason. They shriek DANGER at us. It’s why the body telegraphs pain. The old saw “no pain, no gain” only applies up to a point. I see people terrified of turning forty or more pushing themselves so far past any reasonable limit that they end up severely damaging themselves.
That’s not badass. That’s bad judgment.
I used to do it myself until my body sidelined me as swiftly as a two by four to the noggin.
I believe in challenging myself, but I also know when to stop.
Sometimes shit happens anyway, but I have trained for those exigencies. And I am in the kind of shape that I survive even when things go sideways. As an elder athlete, if I don’t prepare, I die.
The sad thing is that many who are in better shape and barely a third my age die whether they prepare or not, simply because they have stepped into the no-man’s-land well past where they belong or what their body can handle.
We seem to be addicted to the lie that those on Instagram have it easy, are lucky, and that we should compete with them. Or, that because they make X look effortless, it must be. Hell, I can do that.
That’s a killer idea.
There is no glory in going out in flames. You become a statistic.
The problem is that folks of limited competence go out and push the limits with their GoPros in hand in a lethal attempt to impress people who do not care.
Peruzzi writes: After 20 years reporting on outdoor sports death and losing friends, all I can think is how short such careers and lives prove to be.
He has watched friends die, egged on by the pressure to out-epic the latest achievement. The latest speed record. I have, too. Problem is, those folks- especially now there are so many more of them, end up being nameless. When a big-name climber or athlete dies, that’s headline news at least in their communities. When you and I do, we barely rate a mention in our local rag. Immortality? Hardly. Just immense grief among those who loved us.
Outside Online breathlessly reports the newest speed ascent of this or that viciously-dangerous mountain (https://www.outsideonline.com/1805516/new-speed-record-set-manaslu). In the same breath it also reports on the latest deaths, but people don’t seem to register that news. We believe it can’t happen to us. Then it does.
This is the kind of story that can inspire folks to hit the ice: (https://rockandice.com/climbing-news/colin-haley-sets-new-speed-record-on-denalis-cassin-ridge/)
A ‘gram like this can induce idiots to riot. Haley is happy, and on his way to the top. However, he put in a lifetime of training to get there. The photos never show that. That is the tragedy.
Folks wanna be him. Get his likes. Get his accolades. Of course they do. And they die trying. Canadian ice climbing expert Margot Talbot refers to this compulsion to do what you aren’t trained to the “hubris of youth.”
Chances are very good that Haley knows his limits. He’s no beginner.
Rookies take chances most of those pros never would. All this to get in a record book. Impress our friends. Garner attention.
In all the years I’ve done epic sports like skydiving or paragliding, what I’ve noticed is that the hotshot mentality has largely taken over as those sports have gotten increasingly more challenging. When I’ve been at drop zones and on location where folks are leaping off cliffs to ride rising warm air, there are always and forever showoffs who endanger rookies and the rest of us who are out for a lark. A SAFE lark. It’s the nature of the beast that extreme sports attract adrenaline junkies. My hand is up here.
Egged on by their friends, these often very talented young people sometimes take chances that are visually impressive but are outside the performance boundaries of the equipment they’re using, including their own bodies.
FOMO drives a great deal of extreme attempts as well as the impatience with what it takes to get good at a new sport. Especially one that has inherent dangers, which is part of the attraction.
I fully understand the draw of hurtling headlong down the side of a mountain. Being highly competitive, I also understand the sweet succor gained from out-epic-ing the other guy. However, like Peruzzi, I have seen my sports kill or maim those who pushed too hard. Took stupid chances.
While scuba diving the Sardine Run in South Africa in 2002, I was with several film crews — professional divers and photographers from the BBC and NatGeo- when one of the men returned from the hospital up in Kwa Zulu Natal. On his left arm was a lengthy line of shiny steel staples holding together the edges of massive bite marks.
Against all very clear orders and against all common sense, this film maker had leapt into the middle of a massive bait ball (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bait_ball). The bull and hammerhead sharks, along with thousands of dolphins, chomp their way through the center. One of them shredded his arm. He was damned lucky to be alive.
As I watched, others gathered around to hear his heroic tale. He was sucking it all up as though he was a hero.
He wasn’t a hero.
Because others had to endanger themselves to get him out of the water, which was full of enormous, hungry predators.
And this guy’s blood.
And, because now his peers, who were clearly a bit jealous of the attention he had garnered, would be more likely to try to something even more dangerous. Which would endanger more people who needed to pull them, bleeding, out of a bait ball full of hungry sharks.
Let’s be clear: these guys were professional journalists and film makers. As a fellow journalist, I find this need to BE the story appalling. We already are the story in the novels of our own lives. Among our friends. What’s scary is when that is simply not enough.
In much the same way that I no longer read about mass shootings because I can’t stomach the puerile right-wing arguments, I have an equally hard time reading about the latest death on Denali. There are many, as the world’s best climbers pit themselves against the increasingly impossible n(https://mpora.com/mountaineering-expeditions/highest-mountain-in-the-world-everest#30sAyOaS8zZfgXK4.97). Part of that is climate change, for we can no longer forecast what is already wickedly hard to anticipate: mountain weather.
Mountain weather is already nearly impossible to anticipate. In today’s changing world, it can be a swift and brutal death sentence.
The true pros are those that always come back. They train hard, they prepare, they push themselves. But they come back. They are informed of where their limits lie, and they push past those limits in ways that allow them to try again. They know when to stop. That kind of example informs our kids and those of us who want people to look up to, someone who risks responsibly.
For the most part these professionals are not are addicted to perceived approval by social media. In the quiet cathedrals of their inner worlds, they know who they are. Their motivations for achievement aren’t informed by a Twitter feed. They most assuredly don’t live by them.
And they most certainly don’t die by them.
Even the pros die. It’s a sad fact in the high country that too many avalanche pros die by avalanches because they assume they know enough to anticipate, and survive, those disasters. They become overconfident. The same kinds of fatalities happen to skydivers. Those with tens of thousands of jumps are likely to die because they’ve become too comfortable. They lose their respect for the elements.
The best climbers in the world can be taken out by extreme weather or a single misstep. Regularly. The quest for immortality (and sponsorships and other sources of revenue) is too powerful a lure. There is intense competition among the elites. Not only does it lead to deaths by terrorists in some of the world’s great ranges (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Nanga_Parbat_massacre), it also means they are more willing to take higher risks on harder mountains simply to be the best. However, the elites know what they’re doing, they balance the risks.
Finally, from Peruzzi’s article:
Most recently, this past August, 17-year-old Carter Christensen fell to his death on Boulder’s First Flatiron. By all accounts Christensen, who grew up in nearby Longmont before his family relocated to Minnesota, loved the outdoors. He aspired to be a Navy Seal. Moments before he fell he posted a selfie to Instagram. The caption: “Free climbed 1st flatiron.”
That selfie likely cost Christensen his life. You cannot be distracted while free-climbing. It takes other-worldly concentration to be an Alex Honnold.
And yet. Every day I expect to see a story about Honnold’s taking a header down a three-thousand-foot cliff. I sincerely hope not. But in these days of progression, of pushing the limits, I won’t be surprised if I do.
But as Honnold’s film Free Solo just won an Oscar for Best Documentary, my concern is that more will try to leapfrog the preparation and put themselves on El Cap or similar. (https://www.planetmountain.com/en/news/climbing/oscars-free-solo-featuring-alex-honnold-climbing-el-capitan-wins-best-documentary.html).
In every way I want folks to play hard. I sure do. But a lot of sports have taught me some tough lessons.
As I have found, there are two kinds of cyclists. Those who have come off their bikes, and those who will. Two kinds of riders. Those who have come off their horses, and those who will. You skydive enough, and you will lose your main parachute. That’s happened to me twice. It goes with the territory of all sports like this.
The point is to come home again.
I hope you push yourself. I truly do. More so, I want you to be able to go out and play again, raise your kids, enjoy your life, and celebrate everything worth having. Fleeting Internet attention is hardly worth a hearse.