Risking Your Neck: The Statistics Behind ‘Dangerous’ Sports in Northern California

I remember deciding to go skydiving for the first time. Several of my friends asked if they could have my stuff when I was dead.

“Hang on a second,” I thought. “Exactly what am I getting myself into?” 

Despite the fact that I was a lousy boy scout, I never forgot the motto “Be Prepared.” I very quickly discovered that statistically, driving to the airport was way more dangerous than jumping out of airplanes. That fact changed my world view and contributed to a fascination with some of the so-called extreme sports.

Just because a sport has a significant pucker factor does not mean it has to be seriously dangerous. Extreme athletes obsessively pursue the thrills, while doing everything possible to minimize the risk of actually getting hurt. We’re talking here about your real chances of dying from a given activity. Before going any further, I’ve often said and will say again; after I’ve gone room temperature I’d rather avoid my death certificate reading CAUSE OF DEATH: STUPIDITY. 

If, for example, you weigh around 300 pounds, your chances of safely summiting Mount Shasta are pretty (ahem) slim. You’ve got to have realistic expectations and possess the qualities and knowledge you will need to tackle each situation safely. If you want to raft Trinity River’s Hell Hole, you may first want to consider swimming lessons and purchasing a really good life jacket.

Once you decide to put safety and common sense first, suddenly a whole lot of “extreme” activities become thrillingly possible. Popular sports in NorCal include surfing, rock climbing, mountaineering (climbing Mount Shasta) and white water rafting. Of course, there are small elite groups who live for making videos of themselves diving off 100-foot waterfalls, free climbing Half Dome, etc., but the numbers of these types of adventurers are so small as to be statistically insignificant. For our purposes we will stick with activities that have a large following.

To put this whole risk/benefit thing in perspective, driving is the most “dangerous” activity most people get involved in. Over 100 people die every day in American car accidents, making almost every other “extreme” activity look pretty tame. That’s roughly 38,000 souls per year who don’t make it home, just because they climbed into a car.

Surfing

Photo by Nic Y-C

California ranks third in total coastline behind Alaska and Florida, but we are also the land of the Beach Boys and, for many, California surfing is their unofficial religion. The waves, the climate and the vibe are signature California, and people come from all over the world to surf here. 

So how does surfing stack up against other so-called extreme sports? According to the Wavelength Magazine website, the injury rate from surfing is about equal to long-distance running, or about ten per year out of 23 million worldwide surfers. For those unlucky few that get injured, many come from blows to the head (hitting the bottom or their surfboards) and drowning (getting caught and held under water or a caught leash). “The remaining fatalities,” claims the site, “are usually caused by pre-existing conditions including brain aneurysms or heart attacks. Shark attacks are very rare indeed, but when they happen tend to be well publicized. The remaining fatalities are usually caused by pre-existing conditions including brain aneurysms or heart attacks.

Rock Climbing

Photo by Billy Onjea

According to Outside Magazine, there were 210 climbing injuries and 22 deaths in the United States in 2018. Data indicates that accidents happen to beginner as well as experienced climbers at about the same rate. Routine roped falls are the most common cause of injury. Next on the list are lowering or rappelling injuries. Many climbers make mistakes because they get comfortable with routes that are familiar or close to home.

Scoutorama further breaks it down as follows: “On average, we see about 30 deaths per year, though it does fluctuate. Extrapolating 30 deaths per 5,000,000 North American Climbers to the estimated global total of 25,000,000 climbers, we could see around 150 climbing-related deaths per year. A 2017 report recorded 38 climbing-related deaths in North America in the previous year.”

Tripsavvy claims that roughly 3.2 people die rock climbing per 100,000 episodes. 

Mountaineering (Climbing Mount Shasta)

Photo by Todd Diemer

While there are plenty of mountains in NorCal, we might as well talk about climbing Mount Shasta, the crowned jewel of Northern California. While there is no specific data available on how statistically dangerous it can be, the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center website says “Many incidents occur on the mountain every season.” 

According to the Mount Shasta Fact Sheet (College of the Siskiyous) about 8,000 climbing permits are issued for the mountain every year. People have been climbing the mountain since at least the 1850s, and as of 2010 over 50 people have died while making the attempt. More have died since, but it demonstrates that climbing mountains can be. Non-fatal injuries from rockfall injuries, getting lost, slips and falls on steep terrain are much more common. 

Especially on the Avalanche Gulch Route, it’s common to hear someone yell “ROCK,” and everyone hits the dirt as some dislodged boulder goes pounding down the hill. Many of these are large enough to cause extreme injury. I personally slipped and fell on my ice axe, and needed eight stitches in my bicep when I got home.

The best ways to avoid injury on mountains include being fully prepared and doing proper research before attempting the summit. Always wear a helmet and know how to use crampons and an ice axe. Do not attempt a climb in severe weather. (Be VERY aware of the weather forecast.) Don’t ever glissade (sliding down the mountain on your butt) while wearing crampons and know how to self-arrest with an ice axe.

White Water Rafting

Photo: Trinity River Rafting

Finding comprehensive statistics on how many people die white water rafting is elusive. Many people go with some kind of professional rafting company where safety is kept front and center. Many more fatalities occur in the private sector, people who take it upon themselves to tackle white water without the proper skills or benefits of professional supervision.

Tripsavvy claims the mortality rate from white water rafting floats around .86 per 100,000 episodes. 

Not Dying of Stupidity

Knowing the stats on so-called extreme activities can put risk factors in perspective. But in the end it comes down to you, the person taking the risk. Have you done your homework? Are you physically fit enough to accomplish your goal? Do you really understand what it takes to keep yourself safe? 

If so, GO FOR IT! (But you might want to consider taking the bus.)

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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