Is It Worth the Risk?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Spain
IT IS July 14, the eighth day of the annual festivities that celebrate Catholic Pamplona’s patron saint, San Fermín. Since before dawn groups of people have been occupying strategic places along the narrow streets of this ancient Spanish city. The early morning vigil passes swiftly with the help of occasional squirts from the wineskins that many carry.
Suddenly tension rises. The city clocks begin to strike seven. There is the startling sound of a rocket fired into the air. The explosion, heard all over the town, is greeted with excited shouts.
Down by the river Arga, corral gates are thrown open and out storm six wild Spanish bulls, led by a few steers as bait. Now there is tumult and commotion from the watching crowd behind the protective barriers and from the nervous participants awaiting their moment of glory down on the Cuesta (Hill) de Santo Domingo.
As the frightened animals gather speed up the hill, a strange sight meets them. Rushing down toward them is a group of excited young men (and some older), dressed mainly in their typical bull-running gear—white shirt and trousers, a red beret and a sash at the waist. Many carry a rolled-up newspaper with which to distract the bull in case of sudden danger. When only a few yards separate the two charging groups, the men suddenly turn on their heels and head back up the hill as fast as their legs will take them.
The horned beasts gain ground on them, and the tailenders snatch a quick glance behind to see which way the bulls are going to veer, if any. The more prudent rush to the nearest wall and flatten themselves against it, not moving a muscle so as not to attract the bulls’ attention.
As the bulls reach the brow of the hill, tragedy strikes. One bull, named Antioquío, gets separated from the bunch. It finds itself alone and under attack, provoked by the mob of men milling around, testing their manhood by their proximity to danger. The animal’s herd instinct is swiftly replaced by its self-defense reflex. It starts striking out viciously with its horns. One of the runners, 26-year-old José Antonio Sánchez, is gored and dragged along for several yards. Others try to help him, but in vain, for he dies three hours later in the hospital.
The bull finally recovers its direction and heads once again toward the disappearing herd and supposed liberty. In fact, it ends up in the bullring. The ring itself is full of men, mainly youths, trying to get in on the act, some taunting the bulls. Antioquío strikes again and 29-year-old Vicente Ladio Risco is gored and falls to his knees, clutching his stomach. A scream of horror rises from the spectators in the stands. They know they have witnessed yet another death in the “holy” festivities of San Fermín.
Was it worth the risk? Two young lives extinguished on a summer’s morning. And for what? What noble cause was furthered? Was it really worth the risk? Was personal pride or glory worth so much to their bereaved families and relatives? These reasonable questions can be applied to many optional human activities that involve a definite risk to life and take their tragic yearly toll.
For millenniums man has responded to the call of the mountains. For some they present a challenge, while for the majority they provide a magnificent setting for escape from city drudgery. Millions of enthusiasts walk and climb mountains around the world, deriving immense pleasure and satisfaction from this activity while incurring hardly any risk at all.
On the other hand, it has to be admitted that many mountaineers, both budding and experienced, lose their lives each year scaling the earth’s peaks. As an example, in November 1980 three young mountaineers tried to scale the almost vertical face of the San Jeronimo mountain in the Montserrat massif, near Barcelona, Spain. All three fell 260 m (853 feet) to their death. Maybe the reason was lack of experience. But was it worth the risk? How would their parents and families answer today?
Lack of experience is by no means the only reason for disasters in mountaineering. In October 1978 an expedition of veteran women climbers from the United States attempted to reach the summit of Annapurna I (8,078 m; 26,503 feet) in the Himalayas, using two separate teams for the assault. One team made it. The second did not. It is reported that Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, experienced climbers, were roped together on their way up the mountain when they fell to their death. Another member of the expedition, Arlene Blum, wrote in her diary of the events: “They must not have been able to stop themselves, and fell 1,500 feet [457 m] down a steep incline of snow and ice. It could happen to any climber, at any time. But why did it have to happen? I feel numb, and my thoughts go to their families. All that grief and pain—what mountain is worth it? . . . Of course, we all decided to take the risk when we came here. But their families and friends made no such decision.” (Italics ours)
A similar tragedy occurred more recently, in June of this year, in the northwestern United States. Sixteen climbers—eleven on Mount Rainier and five on Mount Hood—were killed on the mountain slopes.
Yes, what mountain or transient ambition is worth the risk? This question has to be weighed against the unique asset that is being put in jeopardy—LIFE! Whether one believes in God or not, life is a very precious gift that should not be put at risk at just any price. Life implies a responsibility—not only to oneself but also to one’s family (especially to a husband, wife or children) and, for the Christian, to God, the Giver of “every good gift and every perfect present.”—Jas. 1:17.
Obviously not all mountain deaths are attributable to mountaineers. Occasionally, ill-prepared hikers have died of exposure. As one Spanish authority commented: “Anyone who climbs the mountains on a Sunday will see them crawling with people looking for adventure, the majority without adequate equipment and knowledge of the region. The real miracle is that more do not get killed.” Therefore, if you go to the mountains, the wise course is to be sure that you are in fit physical condition and equipped with suitable clothing and adequate provisions. If you are accompanied by an experienced hiker or mountaineer, that is even better.
The facts speak for themselves. In a recent survey published by El País, a Madrid daily, mountaineering topped the list of sports deaths in Spain for the five-year period 1975-79, with a total of 137. The next most dangerous sports were hunting and underwater activities, both of which claimed 42 lives over the same period. Then came aerial sports, with 39 deaths.
Who has not envied the soaring, effortless flight of the eagle or the albatross? From time immemorial man has dreamed of being free to fly and soar like the birds. Thus how appropriate the rhetorical question in the Bible book of Job: “Is it owing to your understanding that the falcon soars up, that it spreads its wings to the south wind?”—Job 39:26.
In recent decades such free-flight aerial sports as gliding, parachuting, ballooning and hang gliding have gained in popularity. With good training and adequate equipment, the danger level in the majority of these sports can be kept to a minimum, especially if the person is not foolhardy. Without a doubt, noiseless flight, with only the wind as a fellow traveler, is a unique and exciting experience for man.
However, the aerial sport with the most inherent risk right now is probably hang gliding. In this respect the Encyclopædia Britannica 1976 Book of the Year commented: “Despite numerous accidents and some fatalities, resulting from the inherent instability of the craft when upset by sudden gusts of wind, hang gliding acquired new respectability during the year, with international competitions held in the U.S. and Austria.” (Italics ours) Expert hang-glider Rudiger Flender stated: “There are spectacular hang glider pilots, and old hang glider pilots. But very few spectacular and old.”
The technical reasons for hang-gliding accidents have been listed as mechanical failure in flight (which can happen despite care in assembly and maintenance), sudden changes in wind direction and powerful gusts, particularly strong downcurrents that can bring disaster to the most experienced hang glider.
In June 1979 Patrick Depailler, the famous Formula I racing car driver, was seriously injured while hang gliding in his native France. A sudden gust of wind sent him crashing to the earth. He lived to tell the tale but had to undergo operations for the injuries received.
Less fortunate was a young Christian in the United States. In an accident suffered while hang gliding, he fractured his neck. When he recovered, he went back to gliding. One day, shortly after takeoff, a sudden gust of wind flipped him over and he lost control of his wing. He slammed into the side of a mountain and was killed. Again we ask, Was it worth the risk? When we consider the terrible loss suffered by the widow and parents, it is also reasonable to ask, Is there a trace of selfishness in the desire to practice a sport that has so little margin of safety? This is a factor that a Christian must take into account since he is dutybound to love his neighbor as himself.—Matt. 22:39.
In spite of his gliding accident, Patrick Depailler returned to automobile racing. On August 1, 1980, he died in a crash while training on the Hockenheim circuit in Germany.
What motivates men to take such risks? One authority states: “Racing drivers are motivated by competitive spirit, and the promise of wealth, fame and glory.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, Macropædia, Volume 12, pages 569-70) But it also has to be recognized that such motivation has left behind it a trail of dead persons, both famous and little known. As the same encyclopedia goes on to say: “Over the years, hundreds of drivers and spectators have been killed in racing. The risks are implicit in the nature of racing. . . . They will continue to happen. The problem is to protect the drivers and spectators when they do occur.”
Perhaps the key question here is, Are “wealth, fame and glory” the maximum values in life? Is it worth risking life itself just to see your name in a soon-forgotten list of world champions?
There are many activities in life that involve some minimal risk or possibility of injury or even death. Just to travel by plane or to take a car ride downtown, or simply to cross the road, can result in an accident. However, such remote possibilities do not prevent us from carrying on a normal everyday life.
On the other hand, there are activities that are not obligatory or essential to life and yet involve a higher degree of risk to life and limb. In such cases each one must personally face up to the question and its implicit responsibility, Is it worth the risk? In this respect a Christian especially will think twice before putting in danger his God-given gift—life itself.