The salvation of my camera gear usually comes before the safety of my own physical self. My children and friends can recount, in vivid detail, the numerous times I have slipped in a boulder field, holding my camera up into the air and out of harms way, only to sacrifice some bony prominence, leg meat, or facial skin, in order to keep my gear safe.
Bones and flesh will heal – camera gear is forever.
This acrobatic method of stumbling and falling is in direct conflict to the neurological reflexes that have been a natural preservative to our human race for eons. Since the dawn of man, life in the wilds has given our bodies the ability to save ourselves from injury by creating the “somatic reflex arc”, an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. These electrical reactions happen so fast that the signal does not even go to the brain, but just to the spinal cord – and back to the limb, or limbs, that need the response. Your brain only becomes aware of the reflex after it has occurred (so it doesn’t feel left out). The reflex arc is responsible for slapping at the wasp that is stinging the back of your thigh, to jerk your hand off the scorching backpacking stove you thought was cool, or to violently twist your head as a mosquito enters your ear canal.
Human reflexes were meant to save your body, not your camera gear, and all include some form of vestibular and visual input - balance and location in space - which is processed by the brain as a top priority. Examples of this “extrapyramidal system” (a reflex involving additional sensory input) would be: throwing your hands up in front of your face just as you see a bent willow branch snap back toward you, the embarrassing little backward hop when you see a stick that looks like a rattlesnake, putting your hands out in front of you as you fall into a enormous expanse of jagged boulders, or to close your eyes when someone yells, “Heads!” To unconsciously ignore such a complex system of chemistry and genetics is quite amazing – and, in the big picture, probably not all that clever.
As outdoor photographers, we pride ourselves with ability to override this system of evolutionary deliverance, to save our precious tools at any cost, and to suffer, without complaint, any violent insult to our feeble hairless frames. We have learned to shoulder roll away from our camera, letting our humerus take the full force of the impact; to land square on our ass after a rodeo slip on ice, holding the camera up high and letting our spines collapse with the vicious shock; and yes, in a forward fall, to throw our arms up over our head, holding the Nikon body and wide angle lens up like the grail, and letting our meatless elbows and chins pack into shallow gravel.
Tragedy is not the loss of tissue, but the loss of a prized piece of optical glass.
Only twice in my memory (there have been some head injuries, so this comment is only inclusive of known injuries) have I actually let the camera touch earth, and thankfully both times only resulted in a muddy Galen Rowell filter and a fractured lens hood. Some boiled water and careful cleaning (supplemented by a string of obscenities that warmed the hearts of all at camp) dutifully restored the filter to beneficial employment, and the lens hood was meticulously reincarnated to its original shape by the careful hands of a Sherpa guide - and a roll of duct tape. Other than one entire side of my orange Gore-Tex jacket being smeared by the abrasive combination of sugar snow and forest mud, and the brutal humbling of my delicate pride - I emerged unharmed.
With both the rising cost of camera equipment - and health care - I am unsure as to where the magic line resides; that ephemeral plane between sudden pain and possible death versus the salvation of our digitized, mechanized, wondrous instruments. Perhaps someday I will perceive a full arm cast and physical therapy as outweighing the cost to replace my camera – but I doubt it.