Do outdoor sports really matter?

A friend climbing in Moab. This day didn't change the world, but it made ours a little better. Photo: Johnie Gall

A friend climbing in Moab, Utah. This day didn’t change the world, but it made ours a little better. Photo: Johnie Gall

"Did you hear Dean Potter died?"

I wasn't expecting the weight of the text message to hit me so hard. When I'd heard the familiar chime of my phone, I figured it was my friend following up about weekend plans, maybe a notification from my bank. Instead it was the shocking news that would, within hours, rattle the outdoor community.

It would rattle me.

I'd learn later that legendary rock climber, BASE jumper and highliner Dean Potter had passed away after a failed attempt at BASE jumping in California's Yosemite Valley. His longtime friend and jump partner Graham Hunt had died too. The duo had illegally launched from the rock feature Taft Point near El Capitan.

I didn't know Dean. I'd never crossed paths with him at a trade show or climbing gym, but I knew him — at least, I knew what he did. He was controversial, yes, but he was also a pioneer who redefined the limits of a sport that feels so increasingly limited. His name had become so closely intertwined with the phrase "cheats death" that the two were practically synonymous.

I guess you can cheat only so many times before you get caught.

Later that night, as I drove to the movie theater with my father, I talked about the news. "Seems so silly, doesn't it?" he mused. "To risk your life just for a sport. How does that help anyone? How does that change the world?"

Dean Potter's death has been heavily editorialized. Alex Honnold told TIME, "[Dean] knew the risks in life, and he was still willing to pursue his dreams." Photo: Courtesy of DeanSPotter.com

Dean Potter’s death has been heavily editorialized. Fellow professional climber Alex Honnold told TIME, “[Dean] knew the risks in life, and he was still willing to pursue his dreams.” Photo: Courtesy of DeanSPotter.com

I stayed up late that night toying with what my dad had said. I knew there was merit there; outdoor sports are inherently selfish. We tend to do them because of what they give us, not the other way around. There are people out there actually working to make the world a better place, devoting their lives to feeding the hungry and eradicating disease, yet we glorify the accomplishments of a guy who climbed rocks and jumped off them.

My mom has a funny way of lamenting our obsession with sports every time she meets a surgeon: "Doesn't it make you mad that someone who throws a ball through a hoop makes millions of dollars a year when you're over here helping people walk again?"

There's been a lot of editorializing about Potter's death, most of it radically divided. Some people are convinced he was a selfish man with a blatant disrespect for the law, after cheap thrills at the expense of his family and friends. Others recognize him as an artist, someone who devoted his life to exploring the science and psychology of his sport the same way a painter devotes his life to the canvas and an actor to the script.

Alex Honnold, a climbing legend in his own right and a friend of Potter's, posed an elegant argument in a recent TIME article: "Some argued that it was immoral to risk his life, yet many Americans risk their health every day through largely avoidable diet and lifestyle choices. No matter the risks we take, we always consider the end to be too soon, even though in life more than anything else quality should be more important than quantity."

Outdoor sports may be inherently selfish, but does something need to be selfless to also be worthwhile? Outdoor sports are a gateway to the joys of being in nature, of pushing past your limits. They are a place to explore, escape and exceed. They provide community. They may not change the world, but for a fleeting moment they make each of ours a little better — and maybe that's the point.

I'm not sure asking "Do outdoor sports matter?" is the right question, because in the wide scheme of things, they probably don't. I think a better question to ask is "Why do outdoor sports matter to us?"

"[Dean] knew the risks in life, and he was still willing to pursue his dreams," writes Honnold. "How many of us live with that kind of intention?"

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