Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Extreme Sports

I sympathize with Dave's lack of sympathy for the guys who died climbing Mt. Hood in the winter. Dave calls these sports, "pointless, anti-social, ego-driven gestures." He was criticized in comments for that and while I don't think he meant it quite that harshly, I hear what he is saying. While perhaps the pointless part is subjective, in many ways these are anti-social activities and they are certainly ego-driven.

What has always disturbed me about the people who climb mountains, do extreme running, rock climb, etc., is that they don't seem to care about the nature they are playing in. It's never about the cool view from the top of the rock; rather, it is about the equipment they used to get there, how tough they are, and what extremes they went through. I've always found that offputting. While people may rockclimb or mountain climb together, they often have contempt for the rest of the world who doesn't do what they do. Thus, it becomes a sort of group anti-social behavior.

Now I don't do extreme sports. To me, camping is leaving the window open at night. So maybe I'm not the person to comment on these matters. But I think the increase in extreme sports reflects important changes in society, particularly people turning nature into a consumer product that satisfies personal, individual needs. At least since the rise of the industrial city, urban dwellers have entered nature for these reasons but over last 30-40 years, this has taken on a more extreme consumerist face, privileging extreme accomplishments, life-endangering stunts, and high-end equipment. No doubt part of the appeal for these climbers was that they could tell their friends how they climbed this crazy mountain in winter, awing their Texas and New York friends who could only imagine what it was like.

All of this makes me think back to Thoreau, who understood that a person could gain as much from sitting in his backyard as climbing the highest mountains. These are lessons I have learned. What is the point of hiking 20 miles when you could go 1 mile and just sit and watch what happens. It's only then that you notice the moss growing on trees, the odd little plants covering the ground, the worms and ants. And your chance of seeing a big mammal are usually higher if you are still than if you are moving. The joy of Walden comes through Thoreau's observations of how amazing everyday woodland is. He tried the more conventional ways of experiencing the outdoors when he climbed Maine's Mount Katahdin, chronciled with deep fear in The Maine Woods. Thoreau rightfully feared the world's places that could kill. Today's outdoors enthusiast has forgotten fear, often to his or her peril.