- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

I was climbing the walls literally. I was 25 feet in the air. My fingers were clutching tiny holds in the wall in front of me with a force that would have made Latrell Sprewell wince. My body was doing a campaign-year Joseph Lieberman ideological contortion, and my arms were shaking enough to give, "Deja Uh Oh," to any resident of the West Coast.

I was in the middle of a course on indoor rock-climbing, which had cured my fear of heights by awakening a far deeper one a fear of falling from them.

Rock-climbing is an extreme sport like skydiving, spelunking and whitewater rafting, in which you pay a certain amount of money (read, "All you have" ) and accept a certain amount of risk (usually involving dismemberment and/or death) to enjoy a certain amount of thrill (namely, that of spending all the money you have to enjoy the near certainty of imminent dismemberment and/or death).

Perhaps because so many people actually survive them, extreme sports are continuing to grow in popularity. In some beer commercials, carabineers have actually replaced busty blonds as must-have accessories. Older members of the conservative movement may dismiss adrenaline as simply the mind-altering drug of choice for Gen Xers, but I'm inclined to believe just the opposite: that extreme sports are fundamentally conservative activities, and that the individuals engaged in them are fundamentally conservative.

Think about it. How many liberals would slap down $20 million to receive the personal thrill that comes from tying an exploding bomb to your back, throwing up inside a tiny, air-filled titanium tube, and possibly losing your luggage all over the face of the planet? Ted Turner would have given the money to the United Nations, and then made the U.N. feel guilty for not giving him a seat on the Security Council. Barbara Streisand could have used it to teach millions of good socialist children to sing perfectly off-key.

Yet, as P.J. O'Rourke pointed out, freedom is often absurd. And extreme sports teach more than just that a mind-boggling amount of money will allow you to survive actions that appear, well, insane.

Whitewater rafting can teach that, despite the best preparations, life takes alarming, and often highly amusing turns. Just ask someone who has watched his river guide get bounced out of his raft in the middle of a roaring rapid. Spelunking may teach that technology cannot always save one from one's own stupidity and bad luck, especially when shining an unbreakable flashlight on the remains of one's only usable map that a leaky water bottle has just ruined, while in the middle of a stygian subterranean cavern.

Anyone who has just hooked a large and rather unhappy shark will tell you that nature is not the idyllic place envisioned by Rousseau and Thoreau. Nature will often try to bite your arm off, even when you don't plan on cooking it for dinner and washing it down with a glass of naturally arsenic-flavored water.

Rock climbers must be inherent realists, since any other viewpoint can be deadly. Few survive falls from ropes that are theoretically anchored on even the best intentions. Equipment either works or it doesn't, and frayed anchors must be discarded or dire consequences can come crashing down.

Yet some risks are inherent in life, and when they can't be avoided, extreme sports savants learn how to apply controlled burns staying in control despite exhilarating and potentially debilitating circumstances. While liberals whine for freedom with no consequences, conservatives understand the dynamic tension between freedom and responsibility.

That responsibility includes learning to rely on the expertise of others. Not listening to the warnings of a friend of mine about the dangers of riding at high speed over razor-backs (sand dunes topped by a rather narrow ridge-lines) once cost me a scar on my leg when I rolled over one in an ATV, and then rolled and rolled and rolled.

Occasionally, extreme sports even manage to teach aerobic Horatio Algier lessons that hard work and dedication do pay off in pinnacles of achievement that last a lifetime, whether from running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or blasting off into space.

Perhaps most importantly, extreme sports teach the value of life, and the importance of having fun while in it. Only a matron of the Nanny State would demand that everything be as safe and as fun as an infant's car seat (oops, sorry, dropped the child). Conservatives know better that one of the most serious risks in life is that of not having enough self-controlled fun.

Besides, extreme sports are often the only alternative to climbing the walls.


Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and production editor at The Washington Times.

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