Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Only Angels Have Wings




Last Monday, the death of Dean Potter was announced in the international press. Best  known as a rock climber and an "extreme sports" participant and advocate, Potter died with a partner, Graham Hunt, while engaged in a "BASE-jump" in Yosemite National Park. They were wearing wing suits that enables experienced users to virtually fly as they break their fall with a suit resembling the skin flaps of a flying squirrel. They were also equipped with parachutes (in French "para" [stop] "chute" [fall]) but they were never deployed. It must've been an astonishing ride, all the way down - until, of course, the very last terrifying moment.

The "BASE" in BASE-jumping stands for the structures from which a jump might be attempted: Building Antenna Span Earth (i.e., cliff).

According to the Los Angeles Times, the two men jumped at nightfall on Saturday from Taft Point and were trying to clear a "notch" on a mountain between their jump site and Yosemite Valley. Their bodies were found Sunday on the rock face. According to a Yosemite spokesman, Potter had already jumped twenty times from the same point. Because of its particular hazards, however, BASE-jumping has been banned in Yosemite Park.

Potter had pursued rock climbing, slack lining (walking across chasms on a length of nylon rope [see above]), and BASE-jumping as "a form of art." On his blog, he wrote of BASE-jumping: "Though my body is warm inside the nylon suit I start to shiver and wonder if what we're doing is right. Wingsuit BASE-jumping feels safe to me but 25 wingsuit-fliers have lost their lives, this year alone. There must be some flaw in our system, a lethal secret beyond my comprehension."

Potter sometimes took his dog, Whisper, along with him on his jumps until he admitted that "It wasn't until I started having to think through the likelihood of something happening to Whisper that I finally got it. This is really serious stuff that we do." Whisper wasn't with Potter on Saturday.

These so-called sports are nothing but death-defying, daredevil stunts. Exactly why people engage in such activities would require a closer psychological approach that brings into question the value of individual lives and the thrill of ever-approaching death. I first broached this subject in my review of the film Touching the Void, which dramatizes (fantastically) the near-death experiences of two British mountain climbers in the Andes. Mountain-climbing is also commonly mistaken for a sport. While it requires great skill and knowledge - and expensive equipment - it is, at best, a questionable sport. For one thing: in what way is it competitive? I suppose that the winners are the men and women who manage to survive the climb? Or, perhaps more revealingly, the winners are the ones who die trying.

What is it about these pursuits that attracts increasing numbers of people to take part? To call it simply a death wish is insufficient. When I leave my house and take a drive into town, probably the last thing on my mind is the idea that I might die on the way. People do sometimes die in their driveways or within a mile or so of their homes - many more than one might think. But I don't walk out my front door with the thought of possibly dying in the back of my mind. The chances of dying while simply living a normal life are extremely slim - while the chances of dying while BASE-jumping or mountain climbing are considerably greater. So, why is the vast majority of people perfectly happy, theoretically at least, living their normal lives when some people aren't happy unless they are pushing the envelope - deliberately risking their own necks jumping off a cliff in a wing suit?

I think there is a physiological explanation that either isn't yet known or isn't being publicized.  I think there must be a chemical deficiency in the brains of extreme sport practitioners that prevents them from finding fulfillment in simple daily activities. In order to feel alive - as alive as I feel at home sitting in my underwear watching television -they have to feel the proximity of death, to bring themselves as physically close to death as they can get, short of simply jumping off a tall building (without a wing suit) or throwing themselves in front of a bus. Isn't it possible to "live life to the fullest" - the very words that friends of Dean Potter used to describe him - while not practically trying to kill oneself? How many more people will be attracted to BASE-jumping by of the deaths of Potter and Graham?

I remember a creative writing class I took in college in which a fellow student submitted a clever story about a man who is obsessed with a recurring nightmare. He consults a psychologist who tells him to describe the dream. In the dream the man is standing still on a country road at night when a pair of approaching headlights appears in the distance. The man stands somehow rooted to the spot as the car gets closer and closer until he is hit by the car and he awakes in terror. The doctor decides to re-enact the dream and takes the man to a secluded road after dark. He drops him off and tells him to stand in the middle of the road and not to move, no matter what. The doctor then drives his car down the road out of sight, turns around and heads back toward his patient. The man sees the approaching headlights and, just like in the dream, he finds that he can't move. Just as the doctor is about to hit his patient with his car, he turns the wheel to avoid hitting him and slams on the brakes. The doctor jumps out of the car and yells to his patient, "Well?" The man tells him, "That's not how it happened. "

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