Credit: Luis Perez

Thanks to the headcam craze, people are doing a lot of stupid things out there

One day this past winter while skiing at my local hill, I counted at least 30 headcams in the lift line, most of which were recording. What could possibly be interesting about standing in a lift line? According to the 11,500 search results for “lift line” videos on YouTube, apparently quite a lot.

These days, I can barely pull into an eddy on a river without coming face-to-face with that metastasizing contagion of helmet growth—the headcam—recording in “full HD!” I’m always tempted to smash the damn thing off the person’s helmet. “Sorry dude, I thought the blinking red light was a bomb.”

I spend a lot of my life around cameras. I talk about sports on camera, do sports on camera, and often shoot sports with cameras. I honestly like making outdoor TV shows and sharing the mountains with the public. But I am increasingly frustrated with the way the proliferation of headcams is affecting my outdoor experiences.

On trips I can see the change in a group’s behaviour when the cams go on; everyone becomes an actor and starts looking at the camera instead of each other or the environment. The focus shifts from the moment to the eventual video result, from listening to speaking, from experiencing to explaining. For me, no amount of shaky headcam video can replace what is lost when the red light goes on: situational awareness, group communication and even the memory of the day. It’s one thing to pull out a still camera and snap a quick shot, but continual random video shooting affects the day in a subtle but powerful way.

BASE jumpers are probably the most addicted to their videos. Not a jump goes by without at least one camera rolling. Every jump is “Sick!” But after a while, it’s like videotaping your own sexual encounters. Nobody is as sexy or cool on camera as he or she thinks. And the worst part is that this limp video is going to be around forever.

“Carnage” compilations are favourites in the extreme sports video world, and there’s no doubt that the headcam is at least partly to blame for the carnage in the first place. We all know something bad is about to happen when someone says, “Got a camera? I’m gonna slay this!” Years ago we called it Kodak courage; now it’s HD blindness. One headcam’s marketing slogan is, “Go on, be a hero!” From much of what I’ve seen, this should be rewritten as, “Go on, be a moron!” I tend to hang my head in shame when I do something incredibly stupid in the mountains, but now it seems that silent anonymity is a worse fate than being a confirmed public idiot. Fall down a rocky gully and live? Get the video up right away!

Sure, there are some headcam-captured gems out there. Like the footage I saw not long ago of an avalanched skier. Tumbling flashes of light and dark led to a grim silence broken only by the increasingly desperate audio of the panicked skier’s gasping. That wasn’t acting, it was real first-person terror. The footage of the rescuers reaching the skier from the skier’s perspective was powerful, and, perversely, will probably sell a lot of headcams. But the cam got turned on before the run, and that makes me wonder: Did the skier spend more time thinking about the cam than looking at the slope? I know of two mountain sports accidents where the headcam survived but the wearer did not. In both cases I have to wonder when the “hero’s” kids are going to watch dad’s last seconds on the Internet.

Which leads to the whole privacy issue. I used to choose when I was on camera, but not anymore. A number of years ago I won a major paragliding competition and drank a few too many beverages, and now many thousands of people have seen what happens when a skinny guy drinks too much and starts wrestling his friends. I had no idea a small cam was recording the proceedings. It took a few years for that footage to show up on YouTube (along with a dozen other videos I was unaware of), but these days videos can be uploaded in seconds.

And that’s a scary thing. The other night I received a text from a friend wondering why I was limping. It turns out someone had filmed me walking down the street, and had put video up and tweeted the URL before I even knew I was being recorded. Who needs Big Brother when we’re already doing such a good job of watching one another.
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