by Dean Burke

I started rock climbing in my early 20’s. The sport was still pretty young back then. Not Yvon-young, but climbing gyms were still rare and those that did exist were among the first to open. Shows like MTV Sports glorified extreme climbers. Mainstream brands were just starting to go for the image.

One day I was hanging around a local crag when I saw some very new climbers eyeing a popular beginner’s route. This was probably one of their first times to rope up together and test whatever they had learned in a class. You could see the nervous and serious focus in their eyes. They struggled to see their entire route. The top anchors were over a slight roll and just out of sight. Top to bottom, the climb was probably only about 35 feet.

As I was walking past them on the trail I stopped to point a finger toward their target. But they were still not seeing it and getting nervous about climbing and getting off-route.

What happened next seemed like nothing at the time. I dropped my pack on the ground, and with my trail running shoes I jumped onto the rock and free-soloed right up to the top. No ropes. No gear. No protection of any kind. Not even proper climbing shoes. “Here it is!” I shouted to them, pointing right at the top anchor. Then I down climbed, grabbed my pack and continued down the trail. I was neither trying to show-off, be a hero or anything of the sort. I genuinely thought nothing of it.

Some years later I was hiking past that spot and looked at that route. The climb itself was easy enough, but I had given little attention to the fact that one side of it slopped off to a 200+ foot drop off a canyon wall deep into a ravine. I was older this time and I paused, and that’s when a certain sickness washed over my entire body. What kind of risk I had so carelessly taken that day? What the hell was I thinking? It’s like I was operating on half a brain or something. How could I be so brazenly confident in my own abilities?

I’m different now. I’m 44. A husband of 21 years and a father of two sons. We live in a cozy home and I’m blessed beyond belief to do what I do for a living. If “living the dream” is a thing….then I’m in it. It’s happening right now.

Along the way my sense of risk changed. Part of that is that science has proven the male brain does not actually have the wiring connections in place to properly assess risk below about age 25. It’s why so many motor sports racers start to get unexplainably slower as they get into their late 20’s. Something in the brain makes for hesitation because the brain begins to run risk through its calculations process. The older we get, the more the risk assessment function becomes prevalent.

Like a lot of us, I’m now a Gen-X SUP participant. It’s like the sport was custom created for our age demographic. And because we are all out on the water with aging and somewhat beat up bodies (from previous life risks…), we all have a little different perception on the risk-meter.

For sure, the topic of leashes and PFD’s is a hot one. Every summer we see a few more deaths from both new and experienced paddlers alike. The basics laws of math tell us that we’ll continue to see more losses as more and more people engage the sport.

But before we get too sideways with each other over the debate, let’s keep something in mind. This is something I tell my kids all the time when they approach one another, and it is this:

Consider the intent.

I’d like to believe that when we get ruffled over someone not using a PFD or a leash, that it comes from a place of good. It comes from a place of love. Even though we might let our thoughts and heart fly with a heated tongue…it might just be because we were afraid. Afraid of losing someone who is important to us.

Someone I consider a good friend paddled without a leash this weekend in an event that turned epically windy. Not only did he stop to help someone else who also did not wear a leash that got separated from their board, but he ended up needing help getting his board back too.

My first reaction included a warm rush of friction over my cheeks. If I’m honest about it, my first thought was “Dude? What the heck were you thinking?” All of us here in the PNW were in Hood River last year. We saw the worst happen. I really thought that if any group of paddlers was going to be leashed up, it would be this group. With that, I felt frustrated.

Why did I feel this way?

It’s simple. I share a strong connection with these friends of mine on the water. I love these guys (and girls). They are my friends. My family. And just like my family, I am prone to worry or be afraid for their safety if simple safety can be considered.

I don’t want to see a leash law. It does not need to be a rule or a law or need a cop or an enforcer. It just doesn’t. But for each of us who are accountable to another…be it our wives, our children, our friends or community – consider them. Consider the risk you are taking and how simple you could lower that risk substantially. Yeah, bad things can (and will) still happen. A leash is not some golden ticket to eternal life. But it’s a tool that is more than a tool. It’s a gesture. It’s a thought. It’s an awareness.

And maybe, just maybe it’s a voice that says, “I care about you too.”