Matt Niswonger

A hard look at risk

By Matt Niswonger

Lukas finishing his knot at the base of Sunnyside Bench Regular Route (Cathy Claesson).

Lukas finishing his knot at the base of Sunnyside Bench Regular Route (Cathy Claesson).

Walking back to the car after leaving a restaurant I attempted to hold hands with my 12-year-old son Lukas. He held my hand for just a brief second and then yanked it away. Nothing personal, he’s just not that into holding hands with his dad in public. “It’s weird, dad,” he explained. I laughed.

I find myself needing lots of affection from Lukas lately. About a month ago, while descending from a multi-pitch climb in Yosemite, Lukas almost fell off a cliff and died. I can’t get it out of my mind. So I just keep hugging him and reaching out for affection.

Our chosen Yosemite adventure was the Sunnyside Bench Regular Route, a classic three-pitch 5.4 climb that is the easiest way to ascend into “Middle Earth,” a climbers-only hiking area perched between lower and upper Yosemite Falls about 150 feet above the valley floor.

The climb went well and after we finished the route I coiled the rope and we organized our gear. Both of my sons – Nils (15) and Lukas – did a great job on the climb and we were all happy to head back down to the valley floor and spend the afternoon lounging by the river.

As we hiked east along a series of narrow ledges I noticed that our descent trail traversed along the top of a big cliff and narrowed from about two feet to about six inches wide in places.

Overall the trail was only moderately exposed by Yosemite standards, and I was happy to see that both boys appeared confident and secure.

Leading the way I was just about to warn the boys to be careful when I heard a shriek that could only mean one thing. One of my precious children had just inexplicably lost his footing in a place where the cliff edge is particularly close to the trail.

Looking back I saw Lukas sliding feet first on his belly towards the cliff edge while desperately clawing at the sandy slope to slow himself down before he sailed off the hundred-foot cliff. I knew I had to act fast because unfortunately this situation was all too familiar.

Twenty years ago, while descending from a climb in a different part of Yosemite, my partner Dave Bedell slipped in a similar way. Like Lukas, when he first lost his footing he was sliding only very slowly and I thought he would stop himself rather quickly. Initially he was close enough to where I could have lunged and possibly grabbed him. Instead, wearing a heavy pack and unsure of my footing, I hesitated.

To my horror Dave was unable to arrest his slide and while picking up speed his heavy pack caused him to flip onto his back. As he slid off the cliff and into the void I looked at his face. I’ll never forget the look of fear in his eyes. It was the look of someone who knows he is about to die.

Twenty years later my own son was in the same situation and this time I would not hesitate. Even if it meant we both would fall off the cliff together, I was going to save my son or die trying. In a move that my hyperaware brain had already determined would succeed, I jumped feet-first and belly-flopped in a cloud of dust right next to Lukas, already self arresting the instant I landed on my stomach. Now sliding next to Lukas towards the edge I grabbed his shirt with one hand and attempted to slow our descent with the other. At first we didn’t stop sliding but my fingers stabbed into the sandy slope with fierce determination until my fingernails were clawing the granite rock underneath. We came to a stop.

Overloaded on adrenaline I yelled “Lukas get back on the trail!” as if he made a poor choice and needed to be reprimanded. Eyes wide he scrambled back to the trail and once safe he immediately burst into tears. After a few minutes to recover our emotions we started hiking again and made our way to the safety of the valley floor.

As I process this experience I definitely blame myself. Anytime the terrain is questionable I should rope up and this goes double while hiking with kids. So I blew it. Period.

Beyond this I am left with, “Should I quit climbing with my kids?” I haven’t made up my mind yet, but there is a problem with this reasoning. It’s impossible to eliminate risk from the lives of my children and climbing is an activity we love.

What I’m left with is that we are utterly vulnerable to the people we love and especially our children. It’s a condition of being human. And it sucks. Outside of searching for easy answers I arrive at a different conclusion: adventure sports like climbing, surfing and mountain biking are for high performers who are vigilant about safety. This goes double for parents who are blessed with kids who like outdoor sports and enjoy playing in the great outdoors.

So moving forward I resolve to adopt the mindset of a high performing athlete who is hyper-focused on safety whenever I participate in outdoor sports and I encourage you to do the same.

Welcome to issue #92. In our feature article legendary climbing author Doug Robinson examines the history of bouldering in the Buttermilk and wonders if the sport should move away from highball ascents and a culture of extreme risk. We certainly hope so. One broken ankle is one broken ankle too many, and there have been countless fractures and worse in the last ten years in the Buttermilk area.

We are in a conversation about risk. How much is too much? Is bouldering still as inspiring if we eliminate most of the risk and the sharp focus that dancing over the deadly void creates? Is surfing just as inspiring without Titans of Mavericks? Is mountain biking still just as credible without the Red Bull Rampage?

In a way these questions are missing the point. The answer is not to regulate the risk out of these activities and tell people how to live their lives. In my opinion the answer is to look where Doug Robinson is pointing: there is a ton of value to be had while just having a great workout while having fun in the great outdoors. What are we trying to prove anyway? That adventure sports are only relevant if they take place in the context of extreme risk? Are we really that insecure?

As for me I am going to be a better leader and a strong voice for caution. After twenty-five years in the outdoors I have too many memories that make me shudder.

Extreme is not worth it.

Post Script: Dave Bedell, my climbing partner who slipped off the cliff twenty years ago did not die. He fell forty feet onto a ledge and by some miracle landed on his backpack. He remained conscious until emergency rescue personnel reached him about four hours later. He was transported via helicopter to Merced Hospital where he was treated for a broken back. He eventually made a full recovery. Doctors called it a miracle. Many, many other outdoor athletes are not so lucky.

To learn more about the athletes who are not so lucky visit highfivesfoundation.org.

Your thoughts about risk? Email me at matt@adventuresportsjournal.com. Or comment after the article when we post this online. Thanks for reading.

Matt Niswonger