Psych 101 interlude: No one wants to die, unless they're mentally ill or will die soon anyway. So when we say "so and so died doing what they loved," we're comforting each other by a species of rote romanticization. IMO our tendency to recast deaths this way is very much tied up in cultural narratives about risk and heroism and reward. But that stock phrase in no way indicates what was going through the minds of those who died. (Apparently, based on recalls by those who nearly died on the battlefield, for instance, just reacting to survive, then a very brief stew of surprise, abject terror, onset of shock and loss of consciousness. It may go from injury to shock to death without much consciousness, or the consciousness may be prolonged and unpleasant.) Real death is not romantic or heroic, and it is not something that should be confused with political or cultural narratives about death.
Second, if we are doing something where there is a significant probability of death, we tend to deny or diminish that probability. We put off actually accepting non-existence as a likely outcome because we're not set up neurally to do otherwise. As Freud and everyone after him, including evolutionary theorists, have taught us, if we could actually buy the fact of our death right now, not someday, we'd be paralyzed. If I thought every time I get in the car that this was the day I eat someone's headlights, the day I can't honk and swerve, I'd just sit staring at the ignition. Instead, I compartmentalize the thought, push it away and live my day as if that big one's for another day, or better yet, another person. Bad stuff happens to the other guy. Other skiers die in avalanches or hitting trees or practicing flips. And if they do, it's justifiable because they chose so.
But it wasn't free will. These skiers didn't know what they were choosing, in the literal sense. It's very different to intellectually parse odds ratios and snow profiles and weather fronts than it is to emotionally engage with the likelihood of dying in the next 15 minutes. They were in as much denial about the real risk, the reality of dying right then, as you or I would be. Denial's not contingent on experience, it's just being human. Think about how hard it is to turn back from a descent you're spent all day getting to, maybe even paid for. After all that investment, so much more natural to deny the real risk: "It's a little sketchy, sure, but it'll be OK this one time."
The problem for me, then, is whether our large cultural institutions like the media and advertising play with this normal denial. I have kids, too, and they're hitting the age where immortality - and parental idiocy - are givens. They are very vulnerable, I think, to narratives about dying doing what they love, or being extreme and cool, because their heads literally cannot wrap around the possibility of personal non-existence. And the more risks they - or extreme skiers - take and get away with it, the more videos of impossible descents they see, the more likely they - and extreme skiers - fit themselves into that dominant narrative about liberty and heroism and risk. Saying Fransson would have done the ascent anyway, or that he wasn't making much money, is missing the larger point that he was self defined as a risk taker, an extreme skier. His identity was inexorably tied up in his exploits, and his exploits were being enabled by others, and packaged around themes of risk and heroism and cool.
Which IMO has taken on this very odd connection to individual leisure. The entire extreme sports media gig in the 21st century seems to be standing self-sacrifice on its head; let's admire people who choose to take high risks as leisure, who create quests and then achieve them. Let's cheer for a blind person who gets guided to the top of Everest. Let's grieve for folks who die trying to ski off a cliff with a parasail. Let's be impressed by the 80 year old who sets a national age class record. All about individuals having the privilege to attain some deeply personal goal via sports. Why is that so compelling to us? Could it be something about the commercial potentials of quests? Hmmm.
If my kids are going to consider heroism and risk, I'd rather they think about what it's like to be a doctor or nurse in an Ebola ward. Or a third world mom trudging home in the urban darkness with a small bag of food from the market so her kids can eat. Or a foot soldier on some far away dirt road who'd rather be at home. Or a son or daughter taking care, day in and day out, of an abusive parent with Alzheimer's. Anyone who is doing something they would rather not but has to anyway, and doing it as well as they can.
Not saying I don't value our liberty or our rights to take risks as sport. Am saying that it's not as simple as making a rational personal decision, unclouded by any outside influences. And that those outside influences are not all innocent and high thinking.