Helping the next generation understand extreme risk

Words by Tim Hauserman • Photos courtesy of Go Bigger Coalition


“We are sick of going to funerals,” said John Walsh, a lifelong Tahoe local and former ski racer, lamenting the steady stream of Tahoe based athletes and adventurers (including his nephew) who died in recent years while pushing the envelope in dangerous sports. Action sports filmmaker Steven Siig adds, “You never want to make that phone call that a friend has died.” He knows, he has made the call.

Walsh and Siig are part of a group of Tahoe locals who, fed up with the pain of losing a steady stream of great athletes and friends, have formed the Go Bigger Coalition. The group is attempting to discredit the prevailing wisdom that flying through the air 200 feet on skis is a worthy goal no matter what the risks, and emphasize the importance of being alive at 70 and enjoying the simple beauty of skiing every day.

In outdoor recreation oriented communities like Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe, children grow up surrounded by risk takers. “We tend to normalize and glamorize certain high risk behaviors. We say this is who we are,” says Robb Gaffney, a psychiatrist specializing in risk behavior, and author of the iconic book Squallywood.

There are a lot of factors pushing up the risk meter says Gaffney, one of the prime movers behind the Go Bigger Coalition. Biologically for many people it begins with dopamine, that part of the brain which lights up when the risk lover feels the risk. When you feel the pleasure of the dopamine high, you want to get that feeling again whether it is sex, drugs, gambling or going bigger in action sports.

Add to the biological pressure the financial and social incentives: Go big or go home is not just a slogan. It is an approach to life and marketing. Sponsors such as Red Bull and others create events where those who take the biggest risks also take home the most money and glory. There is also social media pressure. What garners the most likes and accolades on Facebook in a mountain town? It’s the guy who skis off the cliff.

The sociology factor of a small community of like minded individuals is another issue. The closer you are to someone who is a risk taker, the more likely you are to do something unsafe yourself. While this is true of skiing and other adventure sports, it is certainly also the case with a group of fraternity brothers on a college campus, or gang members in an inner city. Kids and young adults want to be part of a group that makes them popular, and in outdoor recreation communities, often it is the envelope pushers who are the most admired.

Gaffney says, “The key is to find the right friends. From the parents’ perspective, you need to get your kids away from high risk individuals.” But sometimes parents get swept up in the love of adventure as well. They watch the same videos, and develop similar visions of glory for their kids. Or themselves.

“First, be aware that the decisions you are making are often automatic. You need to step back to develop an awareness of what your needs are at your current age,” says Gaffney.

Recently local adventurer Erik Roner died while skydiving as part of a presentation at an event in Squaw Valley. He crashed hard into a tree and died in front of many witnesses including Tahoe resident Renee Koijane.

“That was the final straw,” Koijane said. “We have lost so many people. I have compassion for the families who are left behind. We are trying to preserve the future generation. How do we break the cycle? My son is an amazing skier. I had to make the conscious decision to pretty much remove him from the sport until the culture shifted.”

Gaffney has been working on the issue for a long time. Five years ago I interviewed him about this topic while writing a story for Moonshine Ink. It was shortly after Squaw Valley daredevil Shane McConkey died tragically while base jumping in the Dolomites. Gaffney created a website with the following goals: “We believe that athletic careers can span decades if approached the right way. We believe that experiencing our sports from the different perspectives across those decades creates a rich sense of fulfillment that is worth shooting for. We will march forward using all avenues possible to help create a cultural shift toward sustainability in sports. Our mission is to stimulate grass roots discussions and academic research to help us promote our goals. We partner with legendary athletes, experts in various fields, researchers, physicians, and companies who believe in our vision. We use all forms of media to project our findings to a worldwide audience so that today’s athletes as well as the next generation will benefit from long, healthy athletic careers.”

Realizing he could be of service, Koijane reached out to Gaffney after the high profile death of Roner. They formed the group and held a presentation on December 14, 2015 at Steven Siig’s Tahoe Art Haus and Cinema in Tahoe City called Why the Huck?

The presentation focused on the psychology of daring and adventure, and how people get caught up doing what is not in their best interest. After the event, coalition members were encouraged when several teenagers approached them and said they were concerned with the road they were on, and wondered how to get off it.

The Go Bigger Coalition is fine tuning their presentation for 8-12th graders, and is taking it to the local schools. They are also developing a group of child ambassadors, to pass on the word that you can have your fun and still stay alive. They are hoping to do a Ted X conference focused on the issue sometime in 2016. And they are trying to get the issue in the minds of as many people as possible via the website and through all forms of media.

Here in the Sierra when someone in our little community dies doing an adventure sport, we say that they died doing what they loved. That they were a hero. We say this because we want to support the family left behind and honor the memory of fallen friends. But there is a part of us that sees the tragic futility of it all. A true hero is the person with gray hair and sore muscles who on his 75th birthday is hiking to see that amazing sunrise over Lake Tahoe from the top of Rubicon Peak.

“When I think about the outdoors it’s about celebrating and respecting nature. And becoming a part of nature. Sports I think is about setting goals and learning values about life. How to be on a team, how to handle disappointment. How to handle winning and learning how to be humble. Something is really being lost today,” says Koijane. “We want our kids to live a long life.”

kids-DSC04427 Kids-rockclimbing_boy_steve_gaffney_0