Last week, TriStar Pictures released The Walk, a biopic starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, the funambulist who, in 1974, walked between the World Trade Center towers on a high wire. The new film is a glossier companion to the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, in which Petit himself provided plenty of retrospective narration. Decades after his WTC feat, on screen the Frenchman still radiates the kind of joie de vivre one might expect from someone who gets his kicks by reclining on a tightrope 1,300 feet above a New York City sidewalk. "I must be a castaway on the desert island of my dreams," Petit says. Also: "If I die, what a beautiful death. To die in the exercise of your passion."
The day after The Walk hit theaters, 23-year-old Johnny Strange, a thrillseeker like Petit and the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits, died in a BASE jumping accident in Switzerland. Predictably, the news of Strange's death sparked a divided response. The Los Angeles Times quoted model Gigi Hadid, who went to high school with Strange: "He lived more in 23 years than many do their whole life," she said via Twitter. Many in the comment section of the LA Times story were less gracious: "To risk becoming a smear on some granite and throwing your family's precious love away for a thrill is not 'living,'" wrote one commentator.
If Petit's high wire act in 1974 had ended in calamity, would Hollywood be glorifying his life with a film like The Walk today? The reactions to recent high-profile deaths in the world of extreme sports like BASE jumping are a reminder of our uneasy relationship with those who put their life on the line while engaged in recreational pursuits. That Dean Potter, a multifaceted extreme sportsman, "died in the exercise of his passion" when he lost his life in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park last May might have offered a tenuous solace for some. At the other end of the spectrum, however, were those eager to dismiss Potter as a reckless maniac. Such was the viciousness of some of these attacks that climber Alex Honnold, who's known for his high stakes free solo ascents, felt compelled to write an article in defense of his fallen hero.
Honnold pointed out that the "Dark Wizard," as Potter was known, was a meticulous professional, that no one was more aware of the risks than he was. "No one spends twenty years at the cutting edge of their sport by being an adrenaline junkie all the time," he said.
Journalist Sebastian Junger addressed the issue of risk-taking in extreme sports in his essay Colter's Way, which was published in 1999. He cited the example of Dan Osman, a professional rock climber who gained notoriety by leaping from cliffs with climbing rope tethered to his harness—bungee jumping without the bungee. After many successful jumps, Osman's line snapped during an attempt in Yosemite. He was dead at 35.
Junger argued that, while Osman's feats—which, like Potter's, included free solo climbing speed records—were courageous and physically impressive, there was nothing intrinsically heroic about them because they were needless. This, Junger suggests, separates the extreme athletes from those who risk their lives on the job or in the line of duty. "A roughneck who gets crushed tripping pipe or a firefighter who dies in a burning building has, in some ways, died a heroic death," he wrote. "But Dan Osman did not; he died because he voluntarily gambled with his life and lost. That makes him brave—unspeakably brave—but nothing more. Was his life worth the last jump? Undoubtedly not. Was his life worth living without those jumps? Apparently not. The task of every person alive is to pick a course between those two extremes. "
"I think the high-risk athletes get celebrated up until they get themselves killed and then everyone shakes their heads for a while," Junger said recently in an email after I asked him about the recent BASE jumping deaths. "The English aviators in WW II ran probably the same odds as BASE jumpers, but they were defending their country . . . Because they were doing something necessary and altruistic no one shook their heads."
A few weeks after Potter's death in May, the Internet was once again abuzz over footage of a highly dangerous wingsuit BASE jump. This time, it was Uli Emanuele's thread-the-needle flight, in which he soars through a two-meter-wide cave while plummeting to earth. As one of the over four million YouTube viewers commented, "This stunt is stupid and insane, but astonishingly well done, and too remarkable to miss."
Wire-walker Nik Wallenda—whose live televised stunts have included walks above Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and, most recently, a blindfolded crossing between Chicago's Marina Towers—believes there's a darker aspect to our inability to look away. A certain percentage of his audience, he said, probably tunes in precisely because there's a chance he might fall to his death.
"Who wants to say that they were watching, say, Animal Planet while Nik Wallenda was walking the wire if, God forbid, something happened to him?" Wallenda told me. "Of course everyone would want to say, 'I was tuned in. I was watching that live.' There's a fascination with that."
That fascination isn't limited to the insular world of extreme sports. "People watch NASCAR to see the accidents, not the checkered flag," Wallenda said. However, because the sport is so ensconced in popular culture, NASCAR drivers, like NFL players, are accepted as having just another dangerous profession. Sponsored BASE jumpers aren't afforded the same privilege. These young men—and it is almost always young men—are criticized for engaging in a highly dangerous pursuit that is viewed as ultimately unnecessary.
Like Philippe Petit, Potter had a tendency to talk about his acts of aerial derring-do not so much with chest-thumping bravado as with the sincerity of an artist: "Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite," he once observed. "I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive."
"He died in pursuit of his passion" is often coupled with the idea that to live a life of risk-taking is to be more intensely alive. That sentiment, however, is easier for us to accept when articulated by one who is still among the living.