Jim Stiles

I’ve never been a fan of “extreme sports.” Many years ago, as a ranger at Arches, we often pulled stranded climbers out of dangerous situations; the experience jaded me. Nowadays my anti-adrenalin rants get me in trouble with my under-30 friends. One young climber complained recently, “It’s this geriatric community of do-nothings that wants to sit by and look at rock that is getting butthurt.”

Extreme sports is an industry, with a myriad of ways to risk life and limb. Once the realm of the few, now it’s a sub-culture. Tragedy has followed closely on its heels.

The 2013 Grand County Search and Rescue statistics are mind-numbing. But the most unbearable number is the growing fatality list. By mid-2013, five young recreationists had died in climbing mishaps—from miscalculations and unchecked faulty gear. More were on the way.

Later in the summer, a BASE jumper, Ammon McNeeley, snapped a leg in half when his chute failed to deploy properly. One of the first to offer help was a fellow BASE enthusiast, Daniel Moore. A month later, Moore would be dead from another BASE jump gone terribly wrong.

Moore died in front of his friend Andy “Sketchy Andy” Lewis. Lewis is an iconic, almost mythic, figure to extreme recreationists everywhere. He is a drawing card for Moab’s exploding extreme sports economy. But on the evening of Moore’s death, a devastated Lewis shared his feelings with his 5000 facebook followers:

“Daniel Moore, I cried for you over your lifeless body last night. Gasping through tears in the beautiful fresh snow…I can’t believe how much I loved you, how much you inspired me…As the car with your crying parents and absolutely crushed girlfriend rolled away at 7 a.m. this morning… I am only left with one question. Is this really worth it?”

“Is this really worth it?”

Lewis himself posed the question. Others grappled with the loss. Friends and lovers and mothers and brothers sought comfort in assuring themselves that they died, “doing what they loved.” That their deaths exemplified their “free spirits.” That to live more cautiously would deny “who they really were.”

Support for Lewis was heartfelt but diverse. One mourner wrote, “It was one f–king hell of an exit brudda! Footage can attest…His legend lives and loves on.” Others believed, “he’d want us all to keep living life to the fullest.”

But one father urged Lewis to heed his own warning: “This breaks my heart. Andy, keep asking yourself the question, ‘is it worth it?’ Chasing adrenaline highs has the potential to lead us here. I fear daily that I’ll get a call about my son needing to be picked up from the bottom of a canyon or from the morgue. Nothing, nothing will break a parent’s heart more than the loss of a child.”

Finally, someone said simply, “We are all here on borrowed time. Each moment is precious.”

Exactly. Just how precious? Let me tell a story.

When I was 20, I had no sense of my own mortality. Death was an abstraction. Then I quit school, bought a motorcycle and headed West. I’d even found a red Bell helmet, not for safety, but because I looked so damn cool. Four weeks later, driving northbound through Santa Maria, Calif., a southbound car turned left, in front of me.

I struck his right front fender, sailed over the handlebars, hit something hard, then spun through the air, staring straight up at the sky. I came down hard, eighty feet from my bike. Within minutes I heard the sirens. A cop pushed his way through the crowd of gawkers and stopped in his tracks.

He shook his head, “Damn kid. Thank god for that helmet. You shattered his windshield with your head….You should be a DOA right now.”

I ended up in surgery with a shattered leg. But alive. And only because of a red helmet that I thought might impress girls. Dumb luck. I got an undeserved second chance.

Decades later, wandering a remote cemetery, a gravestone caught my eye. Chiseled on it was the name of a young man; we shared the same birthday—same day, month and year. He had died at 23, not long after my own near-miss. The grave looked neglected. Other lives had moved on, memories had faded. The connection was lost, as it must be, if we are to survive these tragedies.

And it made me reflect on that moment so long ago. I thought of the future I almost missed, of friendships never made and heartbreaks never endured and memories never created. I thought of sunsets never seen and journeys never traveled. And I thought of soul mates and kindred spirits never found.

So, is it ‘worth it?’ To throw away the ‘greatest adventure’ of all? This thing called ‘life?’

Your choice…your call. But for me, I’m grateful I got to stick around.

“By mid-2013, five young recreationists had died in climbing mishaps—from miscalculations and unchecked faulty gear.”