Stay alive. And recognize that you have to do much more than just avoid death.

Anyone out there participated in an orienteering race? Either way stay with me on this tangent for a while and I’ll circle back around to BASE jumping or whatever wild activity you’re into. Essentially an orienteering race is finding hidden markers in the wilderness with a map, and the first team to finish the course with all the markers wins. My brother and I have been doing this kind of race since we were kids, but I hadn’t considered until recently that the mapmaker’s advice was something worth sharing.

The language may change from race to race, but usually when we’re handed the map to the race, it comes with the advice, “Stay found”. And inside those two words is a subtle and enormously important difference from the advice, “Don’t get lost.”  The difference is not only being proactive rather than reactive, but also in our overall mentality toward putting ourselves carefully and not just brazenly into a wild and dangerous environment.

What is it to be “found”? When that race director hands us the map, we know exactly where we are. Our starting point is marked very clearly and usually surrounded with several easily distinguishable features so that we can orient our map properly with the direction we’re facing. My brother and I are found. Take one step in any direction and we can trace our progress on the map and stay found. In this way our safety on the course becomes proactive. As we take more steps toward a marker, all that’s required is that we continue rotating and tracing a finger across the map, so that at no time are we “not found.” This becomes increasingly important if we decide to start diverting from our planned route, taking a short cut or just wandering for a bit.

 The best way to get lost is to assume that just because your feet are moving, you’re getting closer to your goal.

So what is it to be “lost”? Just like “found,” it describes a very definite point. While being found is the ability to pinpoint your location, lost is defined by not being able to distinguish any features that would help us know where we are. Between lost and found, however is a vast gap created by: incomplete knowledge, speedy movement, guesswork, approximations and large mountainous features so far away that it leaves those who navigate with them in a limbo that is neither lost nor found. Being anywhere in that limbo we could proudly say, “We’re not lost”, but we definitely couldn’t say we were found.  It’s in this limbo that many of us jumpers have existed—not “staying alive,” but simply “avoiding death.”

When I started in parachute sports, I was found. I knew exactly where I stood in my knowledge base and skill-set, quite simply because I knew nothing. The map I held was given to me by Karen Lewis, my skydiving first jump course instructor, and I followed it step by step until I reached the edge of that map.  Looking around, I sought out a new map, but as the roads to my goals diverged from the standard disciplines, and less and less information was available, it became much more difficult to stay alive. It’s hard to navigate a small step when only using a mountain in the distance to shoot a bearing. Just so, it would be difficult to know what the steps to wingsuit BASE jumping are if all you focused on was footage of Scotty Bob field-goaling trees.

From then until now I’ve passed through limbo, gotten lost, and wandered around, but for the most part, with the help of my jumping partner Ian, stayed pretty found. Now I find myself watching more and more jumpers avoid death rather than stay alive, and still a scary number of them do neither.

So keep this in mind the next time you gear up:
“There is a difference between staying alive and avoiding death.”

 If you find yourself questioning whether you’re going to pull off that first gainer, if you’re wondering whether the wingsuit pilot you’re following is going to lead you safely through the terrain, if you can’t pinpoint exactly how (and more importantly why) you’re going to stay alive through a jump and explain each step required by you to do so, then you’re pushing closer and closer to “avoiding death.” Eventually you won’t avoid it. No one is immune to this idea, especially not the extremely experienced that are navigating territory where maps have still yet to be written.

This is the sport of life. Stay alive out there.