1 Oct 2014

The harsh realities of a vicarious thrill

A disclosure. I’m the guy with the Youtube addiction seeking my own escapism and thrills from the latest action sports film.

Skiing, base jumping, climbing, surfing – it doesn’t matter what. I just can’t get enough of someone else’s death defying adrenaline binge.

But it is all vicarious pleasure. And the trouble is these exploits are all by definition dangerous. Not broken leg or concussion dangerous. But mortally so. Athletes pushing the limits in extreme sports court death at every turn.

So where does that leave me – us – the viewer? Surely culpable in some small way when there’s an accident? For even if I was good enough, I don’t think that level of risk would ever be for me.

So why on earth do ‘they’ do it?

Overnight confirmation arrived that two of the world’s leading extreme skiers – Swede Andreas Fransson and Canadian JP Auclair – were killed by an avalanche while filming in Patagonia.¬†Filming the kind of feature designed for the likes of me.

Here’s another disclosure.

I met Andreas a few years ago at the Kendal Mountain Festival – which bills itself as the “main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK”.

Andreas was about as far removed from the image of a gonzo adrenaline nut as you could imagine. Clad in the de rigeur down jacket of an outdoorsman, he was polite, softly spoken and slightly balding. He was in Kendal to discuss his latest film – a philosophical treatise on risk called Tempting Fear.

Take the time to watch it and draw your own conclusions. One of the chapters is titled simply Mortality.

And then consider this: at the time, Fransson had only recently recovered from an accident that killed his friend. A year in rehab with a broken neck but still the pull of the mountains was his calling.

On Fransson’s website you’ll find an essay he penned called The End.

“I have so many of my friends who have taken their quests to the end that society calls death, that I sometimes have a hard time appreciating the value of ‘taking something to its end’ and to give it the right proportions,” he said.

“I’m not even sure I believe in the normal concepts of life and death any more. What’s what, and which is which, and which is that?”

Now consider this: Fransson was a meticulous planner. As skilled and experienced a ski mountaineer as you could find. And although it may not look it to the casual eye, cautious and conservative to a tee.

By his own estimation his success rate for first descents was as little as 25 per cent. In other words, three times out of four he’d abandon the challenge when it’s something that’s never been done before.

Even on familiar terrain, given the implications of an accident, on average, he’d call it a day on every other attempt.

Watch him and the skier he died with JP Auclair discussing exactly this in a film they made in Andreas’ adopted home of Chamonix – scroll to five minutes 20 seconds.

Does that change things for the viewer? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

Would athletes like this do what they do if there weren’t any YouTube addicts like me to watch them do it? Quite possibly. For ultimately to understand and analyse the risks – and still go through with it – they have to want to do it for themselves.

But it doesn’t change this – what we are left with is another two dead skiers.

But also a body of work that is as much “art” as it is “sport”. And the results, when captured on film, are otherworldly.

Pushing the boundaries in Patagonia – climbing and then skiing down impossibly exposed terrain. Like the Whillans ramp of Aguja Poincenot – even the name is intimidating.

Andreas and I kept in touch over the years to swap anecdotes, ambitions, adventures. His always rather more ambitious and awe inspiring than mine.

Is it any solace that he died doing what he loved? Not really.

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