Editor’s Note: Uncomfortably Numb

 The high cost of no risk

By Matt Niswonger

Photo: Fred Pompermayer

Photo: Fred Pompermayer

Savage Arena is an autobiography about the life of an extreme athlete who embraces a lifestyle of risk. The author, Joe Tasker, was training to be a priest when he discovered climbing in his twenties and never looked back. After groundbreaking ascents in both the Alps and the Himalayas, Tasker lost his life in 1982 while attempting a new line on Mt. Everest.

The book is an unforgettable look into the realities of extreme sports. What’s powerful about Savage Arena is that Tasker knows he is taking huge risks and heading down a path that will probably get him killed, and yet at the same time is completely comfortable with the choices he is making. Joe Tasker discovers his own true potential through extreme mountaineering, and while dealing with the suffering and fear of hardcore climbing comes to appreciate his own life as a precious gift worth fighting for. In the process, Tasker presents a convincing argument that it’s the quality of life that matters most, not the quantity.

In the pages of Savage Arena (and in his other book Everest the Cruel Way), Tasker describes in detail the path of the extreme athlete, a concept that didn’t even exist when both books were published in the early 1980s. What’s compelling is that Tasker is not advocating risk for the sake of risk, but for the passion and joy that becomes available to those who willingly put themselves in the “savage arena,” a place where survival itself is not a given.

For Tasker, living life as if survival were not a given is the path to experiencing the sheer joy of being alive in the first place. The insights that Tasker shares in his books make it clear that he was decades ahead of his time. The savage arena now exists as a highly visible part of surfing, rock climbing, skydiving, kayaking, skiing and many more outdoor sports where extreme athletes are featured every day on the internet. For just about every category of outdoor activity there is now an extreme version where elite athletes push the envelope and stare down death on a regular basis. One thinks of Jay Moriarity, Mark Foo, Dan Osman, Shane McConkey, Dean Potter, Graham Hunt, and most recently Alexander Polli as high-profile extreme athletes who died while pushing the boundaries of their sport.

For Joe Tasker the choice was easy. Living a “safe” life in a state of numb ambivalence was not preferable to living an inspired life fighting for survival in the savage arena. As he says in the book, “I could never again maintain that I was caught up in this game unwillingly. I knew now what I wanted to do. I would accept the hardship and fear, the discipline and the sacrifices, if only I could be given back the chance to climb that mountain.”

In Savage Arena we are asked to confront the lack of passion, joy and risk in our everyday lives. Yes, we wake up every day and go to school or work with a high degree of safety but are we truly alive or are we just numb and ambivalent and going through the motions?

In Issue #92 I wrote about a close call I had while climbing with my two sons in Yosemite. Like any parent I want nothing more than to keep my children safe and so I wrestled with the idea of quitting rock climbing with my kids. Ultimately I realized that this would be a mistake.

At the end of the day, what I learned from this experience is that besides safety there is something else I want for our children very much: to live a happy life filled with excitement and passion. Clearly dying young while climbing, BASE jumping or surfing is tragic. However, in Savage Arena, Tasker makes the case that it is possibly even more tragic to grow old after a lifetime spent feeling depressed, numb, and unfulfilled.

As a parent, I can’t possibly justify the risks taken by Joe Tasker that led to his death on Everest, or the risks taken by top wingsuit flyers like Alexander Polli and Uli Emanuele, who died this summer while pursuing their passion. But I do not dismiss these athletes as silly adrenaline addicts with a death wish either. Just the opposite, they loved life so much that they were unwilling to accept anything less than the most inspiring life possible.

There is a popular saying among surfers that challenges people to, “Live Like Jay.” Just about everyone knows that Jay was a hard charging Santa Cruz surfer who died at age twenty-two while free diving. Jay showed people how to live life as if every day counts, and that’s why he remains a hero to this day. His short life was a gift to a world filled with uninspired, apathetic people who are living the very life that Joe Tasker rejected when he embraced the savage arena.

As parents we are full of advice like “work hard” and “study your math” but what are we really telling our kids? That money and security is all that matters? Why not challenge our kids to chase their dreams and live heroically? This is the lasting legacy of heroes like Joe Tasker, Jay Moriarity, and Shane McConkey. They refused to take their lives for granted and we shouldn’t either. Life is precious and every day is a gift.

What do you do to stay passionate about your life? Have you found a way to experience the sheer joy of being alive without assuming the risks that top extreme athletes face on a regular basis? Drop me a line and let’s keep this conversation going.

Matt Niswonger

1 Comment

  1. Fear is a very powerful drug. Addictive, often debilitating, it can drive one to make some of the best, or worst decisions of their life. In the action sports arena fear, failure, and fear of failure are dominant and necessary characteristics.
    Not doing, or bailing off of something purely out of fear is a very sharp double edged sword. While it guarantees survival, at what cost? It can be very demoralizing, leaving one feeling useless, cowardly and can really screw up your mental progression as an athlete. My close friend, employer and inspiring guide, the late, great Randall Grandstaff used to say “you could put cottoballs in your ears, put on a helmet and crawl into bed. You might never die” But at what cost? A long boring life is not a life worth living. I have lost many friends in the pursuit of our passions and I don’t consider it tragic. Randall, McKonkey, Osman, Potter, Pereyra, the list goes on. If you could ask any of them if they would reconsider with the knowledge that it would eventually kill them, I can say with some certainty that all of them would carry on with the pursuit. Tragic is pro snowboarder Jeff Anderson bonking his head in a hotel lobby, tragic is my close friend Lindsay Brooks dying in a car accident a few months ago, tragic is the guy who works his whole life and all he has to show for it is money.
    So as I sit here, with my badly sprained ankle on ice from a fall on El Cap last week, which resulted in me spending two days getting down and literally crawling back to the car, I ponder my lost friends, my many close calls, and my future as a 43 year old skier and climber. The future is exactly that, the future. It’s unknown, it’s scary and exciting. But if there is one thing that I absolutely, 100% know for certain, it’s the comforting fact that in two months, I’ll be back out there with as much passion, drive, and fear as I have ever had, and I can’t wait.
    I’m glad to hear that you didn’t quit climbing Matt, it is the right decision.

    I wrote this on my phone so please pardon any irregularities do to my chubby knuckles.


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