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Avoid Danger, Prolong Life... At What Cost?

By Mark Davis

I just don't get why people need to climb mountains," an e-mailer wrote me this week as search teams recovered the body of Kelly James of Dallas.

Mr. James was one of three climbers who ascended Oregon's beautiful but treacherous Mount Hood a week and a half ago. His two friends are now also presumed dead.

Amid days of hourly updates on the search for them, a national discussion has spread over which risks are worth taking and which are not. Obviously, one can conclude that for anyone who dies, the risk was not worth it. But no one knows before heading up a mountain that death awaits. The great likelihood for any risky exploit is that those partaking will probably survive.

Probably isn't enough for most people. I can assure you that I will never die on a mountaintop, because I will never attempt to reach one. Similarly, I will not meet my end bungee-jumping from a skyscraper or racing a top fuel dragster. One cannot perish in an activity one does not undertake.

This doesn't mean I have led my life cowering under a bed. I have flown with the Blue Angels, ridden in hot-air balloons and spun across the sky in a tiny stunt plane. There is no doubt that the risk involved is a narcotic, igniting a thrill that no ordinary pursuit can equal.

But all of those were special occasions I've tasted only a few times. I join the large slice of Americans in wondering what is up with people who need that adrenaline boost on a regular basis.

At some point, I'd like to skydive. Once. Twice, if I like it. I won't be jumping out of a hundred planes. Then, there are a dozen things that are captivating to me conceptually, but I will stop short of actually doing them. My life will remain full and happy, and my chances of seeing my kids grow up will rise exponentially.

This is the part where we stop to make the realization that daily life brings all kinds of risks we have grown numb to. I was probably safer that day in a Navy F/A-18 Hornet at the speed of sound than I was this morning on the highways of the metroplex.

But we have to leave the house. We have to drive. We have to endure the risks of normal daily life. We do not have to climb Mount Hood, Mount Everest or Mount Anything.

But some people choose to, and I am hearing from them. As the tragedy of Kelly James, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke unfolded, I asked people what the motivation is for pursuing recreation that carries an appreciable death toll.

"It's not about cheating death," one veteran climber wrote me. "It's about expanding the human spirit to realms that are not supposed to be human territory. We're not supposed to be underwater, so scuba diving is a thrill. We're not inherently equipped to live beyond Earth, so space travel is a thrill. God made the mountaintops; he also made man. He may or may not have intended for us to try to get there, but if we can do it, it says something about us."

I wrote back that his beautifully crafted paragraph sounded like one of those schmaltzy motivational pictures hanging on the walls of generic corporate America. But it also made sense.

Some people just want to do things to test their limits and pit their resourcefulness against the odds of a hostile environment.

Kelly James felt closest to God while climbing mountains, his brother told reporters. Now that he and his partners have completed that trip, we are left to wonder what risks we would assume in our own situations. We can enjoy the promise of a longer life span if we shut down all risk-taking, but at what cost?

And we all get to make those decisions based on our own criteria. So I would not begrudge someone whose risk-taking bar is set differently than mine.

Judging from what we have come to know about Mr. James, Mr. Hall and Mr. Cooke, they led rich lives surrounded by people they loved who appreciated their passion. That passion helped shape the kind of men they were. If their loved ones are not cursing their decision to go up Mount Hood in the first place, I certainly won't.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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