Live, for the moment

The pressure is on for extreme athletes to be constantly producing content, and it's getting some of them killed.

Live, for the moment

The pressure is on for extreme athletes to be constantly producing content, and it's getting some of them killed.

On Aug. 26, Armin Schmieder elected to take a solo wingsuit flight in the Swiss Alps and livestream it on Facebook.

Schmieder, a 28-year-old Italian, began streaming while he geared up. He'd done a Facebook Live flight once before, with friends, which got a couple thousand views. This time, though, he was alone on a cliff, save his virtual audience. He seemed jovial: laughing, joking around, taking in the perfect day. His helmet, which he secured before approaching the cliff, had two GoPros attached. He did not have a mount for his phone, so he tucked it somewhere inside his suit. The video went dark, but the audio continued streaming to Facebook.

He jumped, and for a moment viewers heard only the rush of air. Then there was a scream and an impact.

Schmieder's friends and family were watching. His mother and brother commented on the stream: "Where is he? And what happened?" Facebook's response, for a day and a half before at last deleting it, was just to add a warning, sometime after a viewer reported it: Warning — Graphic Video. Videos that contain graphic content can shock, offend, and upset. Are you sure you want to see this?

Facebook took down the video of Schmieder's death, but people still disseminate copies around the internet, on LiveLeak, YouTube, Reddit, and elsewhere. Various copies have well over 2 million collective views on YouTube alone.

The reaction is mixed. Half the commenters lament the tragedy that claimed this brave adventurer. The other half want to see the GoPro footage.

Jerry Isaak is an associate professor and chair of the department of expeditionary studies at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, and an accomplished outdoorsman and guide. A few years ago, he started noticing his nature-loving students spending more time on smartphones and social media. Some would spend hours setting up ski jumps in the snow and recording themselves.

"They spend their whole day doing it, and they get this like grainy, terrible stuff that they put up on YouTube," Isaak said. "I asked them, I was like, 'What are you doing?' Like, I would way rather go for a walk in the backcountry than spend all my time doing that." One student's answer was characteristic: "'Well, I'm not gonna post something lame. I'm gonna post the best thing I did all day, and then my friend's gonna try and top it.'"

Every adventurer is expected to produce videos and build a fanbase. Now that fanbase is always looking over their shoulder.

The program at Plattsburgh is relatively unique: Students, all aspiring adventurers of some stripe, spend more than three-quarters of their time outside and finish their degrees with independent, capstone expeditions. In other words, Isaak trains the adventurers of the future. Social media was new ground, though, and he began to wonder about its impact on his students' decision-making capabilities in dangerous situations. He wrote a paper, "Social Media and Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain," about "the rapid advance of social media into remote environments and the resulting ‘invisible pressure’ of everywhereness on many individuals.’"

"Everywhereness" is a term coined by the writer Laurence Scott. It refers to the fact that in a networked world, our bodies no longer represent the limit of where we are. Our phones can transport us elsewhere, just as other people can transport themselves to where we are. This is the kind of dynamic that nostalgics like Jonathan Franzen would say makes us "intolerably shallow," but it represents a more concrete concern for professors teaching their students how to avoid avalanches.

"Backcountry social media users should be challenged to consider the questions to whom and for what purpose they are constructing their online narratives," Isaak wrote. Decisions made in dangerous situations are no longer made only by the adventurer, he said; research shows they are influenced by the people nearby, and these days, that includes Facebook followers.

The impulse to do dangerous things isn’t new, he concluded. Extreme athletes are motivated by a sense of personal fulfillment and the yearning to compete with peers. "That impulse, to figure out who we are and our place in a community, that's a human impulse, regardless of whether you were born in 1950 or 1990," he said. The difference today is that every adventurer is expected to produce videos and build a fanbase, and now that fanbase is always looking over their shoulder. "Now, they're able to tell stories with YouTube and Instagram, or Snapchat, or any of the other social media tools. So it's just the publication cycle that is changing the desire to tell our story or to compete."

Isaak doesn't urge his students to unplug, but he does want them to be thoughtful. "We seem to be just stumbling into it and uncritically using all the tools that we have available, without really thinking about, 'Is this how I want to do this thing?' and 'What difference is this going to make?'"

The question is especially pertinent as live video becomes more popular. In 2012, Red Bull sponsored and promoted Felix Baumgartner's livestreamed skydive from the stratosphere on YouTube. More than 8 million simultaneous viewers tuned in, which shattered YouTube's previous Live record. Now, as of June 2015, anyone can livestream on YouTube. Facebook rolled out Facebook Live around the same time. This November, Instagram announced Live Video for Instagram Stories.

In early May this year, National Geographic streamed live on Mount Everest from 21,000 feet. Later that month, GoPro sponsored and promoted Jeb Corliss's wingsuit flight over the Great Wall of China, live on Facebook. In June, alpinists Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards Snapchatted their Everest ascent. In late July, Red Bull athlete Luke Aikins jumped out of a plane sans parachute, then landed in a big net; the feat was broadcast live on FOX. The World Surf League does it, pro skier Chris Davenport does it, all-around stuntsman Travis Pastrana does it. The list goes on and will only continue to grow. Facebook, which declined to comment for this story, encourages the behavior. Last year, the company hired a well-known wingsuit flier to shoot an advertisement for the product, although it’s unclear whether it was ever widely distributed. In November, it published livestreaming tips for sports publishers.

GoPro HEROs, the wearable cameras designed to turn every aspiring athlete and videographer professional, first hit the market in 2004. Athletes began to use them and share their footage on YouTube. GoPro saw an opportunity and began working with athletes as "brand ambassadors." Red Bull, which had been sponsoring action sports athletes since its founding in 1989, started scouting for talent on YouTube. The two brands dominated the market, but others, such as North Face and Mountain Dew, have also started sponsoring individuals along with competitions.

The pattern repeated itself with new video platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Athletes could build a reputation and a fanbase on social media as a way to attract sponsorships. They became entertainers.

"Sometimes I like it a lot; sometimes I just get tired of having to continually put myself out there," said Rush Sturges, a 31-year-old kayaker. "When I assess athletes that are getting the biggest followings, sometimes it's just the people who are the best at creating content. Some people are able to almost fool their audiences into seeing that they're doing gnarlier stuff than they actually, really do."

Unfortunately, some adventure sports have also gotten much deadlier. Between 1981 and 2004, the year before YouTube launched, there were 84 BASE jumping fatalities, according to the list maintained by the BASE jumping publication BLiNC magazine. In the 12 years since, there have been 226. That's an increase from about 3.7 fatalities a year to 18.3.

The trend has led at least two brands to pull back on their investment. In 2014, Clif Bar stopped sponsoring five rock climbers known for climbing without ropes or safety gear, saying, "We no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error." Salomon, a ski equipment company, recently eliminated video view-count incentives and set aside funds for extra, on-demand safety measures, as Matt Hansen reported in Powder magazine.

In the last four years, at least three fatalities were caused by camera entanglements, said Mick Knutson, 46, who helps maintain the fatality list, and many were "attributed to distraction based on trying to film."

Before Schmieder’s death was captured on Facebook Live, Knutson and some fellow jumpers had been considering livestreaming a jump. "Then all the sudden this happened, and then the reality sets in that no, that's not what it's about." Knutson sees it as not just an emerging fad but the newest way to die. "Everyone who's been in BASE jumping for a while realizes that the mistakes to be made are fairly consistent," he said. "When we come up with a new mistake, we are pretty flabbergasted, because we're like, 'Whoa, this is something new,' and we evolve."

On the internet, things look easy. Videos gloss over the intense preparation and expertise inside every successful jump. "You do not get that perspective from YouTube," he said. "You get the sensationalism."

The ability to film and share "has been a huge detriment," he said.

Rafa Ortiz is a professional kayaker best known for plunging over waterfalls. His Red Bull bio describes him as "the Mexican kayaker who seeks the gnarliest whitewater."

In 2012 and 2013, a team of pro kayakers spent a year helping Ortiz prepare for a descent over Niagara Falls that would be chronicled in the Red Bull-sponsored documentary Chasing Niagara, directed by Sturges.

Their training took them down to Mexico, where they set a record by completing a full descent of the Río Santo Domingo, the steepest runnable section of whitewater on Earth. On Red Bull's tab, Sturges hired a helicopter to film; on board the helicopter was a top-of-the-line Cineflex camera.

After completing the Santo Domingo, the team was exhausted. Sturges had a broken nose and a concussion. But the following day was the last they'd have with the helicopter, so, with virtually no sleep or recovery time, they drove overnight to another river, the Agua Azul, to attempt another record for a first-ever full descent.

"Had we not been stressed for time with the chopper, and the Cineflex, and everything, we probably would've waited," Sturges said. "It was a Red Bull-sponsored film, but they were basically just giving me money to do my own thing with. There was no real pressure from them or anything like that. It was really, more, I think, pressure that I put on myself, and the team, to make it happen. We'd invested a lot and wanted to have a good product in the end."

"You do not get that perspective from YouTube. You get the sensationalism."

Sturges, Ortiz, Evan Garcia, and Gerd Serrasolses began their paddle. Sturges and Garcia surmounted the first 60-footer with no issues, then awaited their two companions at the bottom, ready to assist if anything went wrong.

Serrasolses dropped next. He popped up at the bottom upside down, which is not uncommon; professional kayakers can right themselves, or "roll," in most conditions. But this time, due at least in part to his fatigue, Serrasolses flailed. Garcia tossed him a paddle to make the roll easier, but Serrasolses — still stuck in his boat and barely above water — couldn’t catch it. Then he disappeared.

The incident was captured by multiple GoPros, and the Cineflex, so there is little doubt about what happened next. More than three minutes later, Serrasolses' body surfaced downstream. Ortiz had dropped without incident. Garcia and Sturges, despite their panic, were quick to respond. They hustled over in their kayaks, and Garcia yanked his unconscious friend out of the water. He began to perform CPR as the chopper roared overhead. Sturges and Ortiz, not far behind, assisted. They screamed, pled, implored: "Come on, Gerd!"

After a few soul-wrenching minutes, Serrasolses sputtered back to life, coughing up blood and water. The helicopter landed to evacuate him. He survived, and his brain — despite minutes without oxygen — was undamaged.

Four months later, Ortiz decided not to run Niagara. He posted a regretful note on Facebook. His fans were very supportive. "Bravo!" they wrote. “Good for you!” “Great choice!” “Others look up to you, to what you do. I believe you made a wise call this time ... Showing when enough is enough is a good lesson,” one fan said. “Thank you.”

Joe Carmichael is a freelance writer.
Illustration: The Outline
Photo: Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty