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A DISCLAIMER ABOUT DEATH

"I guess I need to give you the right metaphor," says Jesse King, program director of Denver's Outward Bound School, who can't answer a question like "How safe is rock climbing?" without resorting to a metaphor. "Skiing comes close," he decides. "You can ski slow and safely and not push...
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"I guess I need to give you the right metaphor," says Jesse King, program director of Denver's Outward Bound School, who can't answer a question like "How safe is rock climbing?" without resorting to a metaphor.

"Skiing comes close," he decides. "You can ski slow and safely and not push the envelope, and you're never going to get hurt. You can also ski pretty radically and fast at high rates of speed over very difficult terrain, and you can get killed. That's how it is with climbing. It's not a contradiction; it's more of a spectrum. You can push it. You can stretch out the protection. Then the risks become much more serious, but I have great respect for people who push the envelope. They're the ones who are inspiring to me."

But King says that kind of inspiration has no place in Outward Bound programs, period. Parents entrust him to teach their kids to climb, perhaps even provide the thrill of danger without the reality. "We have very few climbing accidents," he says. "To tell you the truth, a lot more kids get hurt using pocket knives or spraining their ankle while carrying a backpack."

King also climbs on his own time, although he admits he's more careful since he's had kids. "I don't see it as different than any other sport," he says. "There's potential for minor injury and major death. But you see these people Rollerblading without their helmets? I would rather rock climb. Far less dangerous."

Peter Taytay, at the climbing department of Littleton's REI store, has an instant grasp of the climbing question: perfectly safe hobby or death wish? "We consider it safe if the equipment is used properly," he says. "Outside of that, it's dangerous. That's why we use ropes and protection around here."

"As long as you've been trained, you're safe," agrees manager Greg Mellinger, "but the bottom line is still: You're climbing a cliff. There's gonna be danger. However, we totally promote the sport. We promote climbing classes, too."

"I've always thought it was safe, not at all a thrillseeker sport," says Dudley Chelton, an Oregon oceanographer who climbed in Boulder during the golden age and has since switched to windsurfing. "My view is not shared by the general public. But if you're in control and know your limitations, it's very safe."

Yet Chelton does not deny the existence of an edge. "It's adrenaline, which is like a rush," he explains. "It comes not from risking your life, but from accomplishing something difficult. As a scientist, when I solve a problem and find an elegant solution, I find the same adrenaline rush as I do on a blank rock. The same.

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